For some people a cup of tea is not their cup of tea. Coffee is too strong and drinking soda pop seems so junior high.
Say hello to tisanes, otherwise known as herbal teas. We’re talking herbs, fruit, flowers, roots, grains and just about any other plant material you can get your hands on. Steep it in hot water and you’ll have a low-calorie, flavorful and healthful beverage.
Tisane drinkers fall into two categories: those who drink them for flavor and those who drink them for health benefits.
“Half my customers don’t care what it does for you as long as it tastes good. The other half don’t care what it tastes like as long it’s beneficial,” says LaDonna Olmstead, owner of Tea Madame in Sumner. Her small store is neatly stocked with metal containers of green, black and herbal teas.
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While many herbal infusions can be enjoyed with impunity, others have been used for centuries as medicine by cultures around the world.
In Olympia, hundreds of glass containers filled with herbs, roots and spices line a wall of Radiance Herbs and Massage. Customers come to the longtime downtown store looking for alternatives to mainstream beverages, co-owner Karin Olsen said.
While Radiance does not dispense medical advice, many customers are seeking specific herbs that have health-benefiting qualities, Olsen said. Radiance herbal educator Carol Trasatto advises customers to use the same discretion with herbs as they would with products in a drugstore.
“There truly is a world of plants to be explored in terms of flavor and benefits,” Trasatto said.
Remedies are a big part of business for Maureen McHugh, co-owner of Tacoma’s Mad Hat Tea Co. and a certified nutritionist. “We run this place like an apothecary,” McHugh said.
Her “Pounding Headache” herbal infusion is made from white willow, lavender, rosehips, blue violet, lemon peel and chrysanthemum. “I have had people come in, sit down, have a cup of tea and walk away without a headache,” McHugh said.
Blends are popular in the herbal tea market. Gig Harbor-based Rebecca Zollinger, otherwise known as the Harbor Herbalist, makes nothing but herbal blends which she sells at local outlets and at farmers markets. Her “Dream” blend, intended to promote sleep, is a mix of chamomile, skullcap, catnip, spearmint, hops, peppermint and licorice root.
Blends are created to combine herbs that have medicinal qualities as well as others that have practical purposes. An ingredient can add color (pink hibiscus), add sweetness (licorice root) or mask flavor (peppermint). One of the most popular herbal blends at Radiance is a peppermint and rosebud blend.
Because different herbs demand different brewing times Zollinger has different steeping times for her blends ranging from three to 15 minutes depending on the herbs used. But unlike regular tea, most herbs don’t become bitter if steeped too long (though some are bitter from the start).
Different palates demand different strengths so when trying a new herb, sample it after just a few minutes of steeping. It can always be diluted if it gets too strong. The standard formula is one teaspoon for each eight ounces of water.
While most tea and herbal purveyors will not microwave their water, herbs do not require the precise steeping temperatures that green and black teas do. Mostly, tea and herbal aficionados enjoy the ritual, the calming moment, the ceremony of making tea.
The following is a varied list of herbs that are safe to drink on a daily basis (the only exception being the caffeine in yerba mate which should be treated similar to coffee and tea). Pregnant women should consult their doctors before starting any new herb.
This is the herbal drink for people who don’t like tea. It’s not bitter, grassy or even green. In fact, its nickname is red tea. The bushy shrub grows only in South Africa where it has long been a staple.
Some describe the flavor as citrus, others liken the taste to a grain like wild rice. Whatever people taste, the slightly sweet flavor is unique. It brews in to a deep honey-colored liquid.
There are many health claims surrounding rooibos, but one thing is certain: it has high levels of antioxidants. Olmstead sells 100 pounds of rooibos a month and often has a pot brewing for samples in her store.
McHugh calls the herb versatile. She even puts it in pancake batter. “When people come in and they don’t like tea that’s the one I go to,” she said.
One might not think of holly when reaching for an herbal tea but that’s what yerba mate is. A South American holly to be exact. A popular drink in Argentina and other countries south of the equator the herbal infusion is traditionally drunk through a metal straw from a gourd.
The herb is sold dried in a green and roasted forms. The green version has a grassy flavor, reminiscent of bamboo. The roasted replaces that grassy flavor with smoky and grain notes.
Because yerba mate has caffeine and other xanthines, “It’s called the feel good tea,” Olmstead says. However, the profile of those stimulants is different from that of coffee and tea and some studies have suggested it affects the body in a different way.
McHugh drinks yerba mate for its high antioxidants and the morning lift. “It energizes me and keeps me aware. I haven’t been sick since I started drinking it (five years ago).”
McHugh believes in the curative properties of yerba mate – and rooibos – so strongly she created “Remedy for death,” a blend of the two herbs.
PEPPERMINT AND SPEARMINT
Take a whiff of Olmstead’s Washington-grown peppermint and your air passages will feel like they’ve doubled in size. The herb aids in digestion and respiration Olmstead says.
At Radiance peppermint is used as a morning wake-up call. If peppermint is too strong Trasatto suggests the more gentle spearmint. Children prefer it over peppermint, she says. Like other plants with strong aromatics, cover the mint family herbs while steeping to contain their oils.
Mothers know that a little one’s upset stomach can be alleviated with ginger. Even the Mayo Clinic is bullish on its anti-nausea properties. So it’s easy to forget it tastes great.
The strongly flavored root can be purchased fresh or in its dried form at local herb shops. Trasatto says the root also has anti-inflammatory properties.
Ginger should be simmered and then sampled after 5 minutes. Keep simmering until the desired strength is reached.
Other locally recommended herbal tisanes to try:
Chamomile: Slightly sweet with a floral aroma (Tea Madame).
Rosemary: Revivifying with aromatics and a round flavor (Radiance).
Dandelion: Cleansing and a popular ingredient in blends (Mad Hat).
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org