The Fine Art of Making Herbal Tea
By Rosemary Gladstar
Judging by the number of herbal beverage teas on the market, tea drinking has become a national passion. Perhaps because of the continuing awareness of health and fitness, or perhaps just become herb teas offer a refreshing break from the usual drinking options, people are once again discovering the pleasure of drinking herbal teas. Though there are many good herbal teas on the market, the best are those one blends and brews themself. Many of the commercial herbal teas are generic in flavor or, worse, have been sweetened with fruit concentrates and flavoring oils. This may give the beverage a fruit like flavor, but it masks the subtle and often complex flavor of the herbs.
Making a good herbal blend is a profoundly simple art; it involves a few guidelines and a generous dash of creativity. Your personal blended herb teas make wonderful gifts packaged in lovely canisters, glass containers or in waxed lined coffee bags. Since dried herbs lose their properties quickly when exposed to light, heat, or air, they should be stored in airtight containers and out of direct light to ensure maximum freshness. You can personalize your tea blends further by creating unique names for them and making your own labels. Its easy and fun to do. Labels can easily be made by hand. Many computers also have programs for designing labels. (Dover Publications has a series of art books that contain lovely labels and copy free art work. Write to: Dover, 31 East 2nd, Mineola, NY 11501)
Unlike medicinal herbal teas, beverage blends are formulated primarily for taste and to bring pleasure to the senses. Though most are wonderfully nutritious and can serve as “preventive medicine”, they are blended more for fragrance, mood, taste and enjoyment rather than medicinal actions. Most people are primarily concerned with taste when creating an herbal tea, but a truly fine blend is composed of many notes. Consider the following when blending your teas:
Aroma – the aroma of a tea excites the senses and adds much to the quality of the tea blend. Add fragrant herbs to the blend.
Texture & color – the visual effect of an herbal tea is very important and how it looks both in the container and the cup will have an affect on the consumer. Add colorful flowers, whole herb leaves, and interesting textured plants to enhance the visual pleasure of your tea blend.
Effect – Take into consideration the over all effect of your tea. Does it accomplish what you want it to? Is it relaxing? Stimulating? Nostalgic, reminding you of a place or event, capturing a mood?
Taste – Of course, the most important aspect of a tea blend is the over all flavor. Strive to capture the essence or mood that you wish to create in the perfect harmonizing of flavors.
Steps to creating the perfect herb tea blend:
* Start with an idea of what flavor and/or feeling your wish to create
* Know the flavor and properties of each of the individual herbs you are using in the blend.
* Blend for beauty, aroma, and harmonized flavors. Mix the herbs according to taste, color, and texture. Use primary flavors as the foundation of the blend, then add and harmonize with the secondary flavors, aromas and textures.
* When your blend looks just right and smells delicious, give it the all important taste test. Have a pot of water boiling. Make a sample cup of tea and test for flavor, color, texture, and aroma. Adjust flavors.
All that’s needed to make a good pot of herbal tea is water, the proper proportions of herb to water, the proper length of brewing time, a tea pot or quart jar, and, of course, the perfect herb blend. Lets look over some of the specifics:
* Fresh or Dried Herbs?
There is nothing quite as good as the taste of fresh picked herbs. However many herbs are not available fresh year round and some of our favorite beverage herbs are not grown in this country, but are dried and imported. The rule of thumb is, when possible, use fresh herbs, but when not available, high quality dried herbs will suffice. Fresh herb blends must be drank immediately, of course, while dried mixtures can be stored for several months or longer. I strongly recommend purchasing organically grown herbs whenever possible. After all, you are drinking your herbal teas for health; its best not to have them laced with pesticides and herbicides.
Fresh and dried herbs can be used together when making tea, but the blend must be used immediately. For instance, if you have fresh peppermint in the garden you can mix it with dried ginger root and cinnamon bark for a stimulating refreshing tea.
* Proportions of Herb to Water
Most herb books readily agree on proportions: 1 teaspoon of dried herb or 2 tablespoons of fresh herb to one cup of water. These proportions are totally arbitrary, however, because so much depends on the particular flavor and quality of the herb(s) being used. Use the above proportions as a guidelines only, but the final test is in the taste. When a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio doesn’t work, discard the rules and adjust the flavors as your taste buds see fit. In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever used those exact proportions. Each herb lends itself to slightly different proportions and different brewing times. Be willing to experiment and adjust proportions until you find just the right amount. Your reward will be the perfect pot of tea!
* Distilled versus tap water
The basis of every good pot of tea begins with water. If you’re fortunate enough to live in an area where drinking water is still pure and luscious, then, of course, use your tap water. But as is often the case, drinking water is heavily laced with chemicals; you might want to consider using distilled or bottled water in brewing your tea. The taste difference is significant.
* Teapots, strainers and other accessories
Basically, the brewing of tea is a simple art and requires few gadgets or extra paraphilia. But if you are at all like me, you’ll take great pleasure in selecting the perfect tea pot for the occasion and special cups for your friends that have come to share in the pleasure of “taking tea”. An ideal tea pot is big enough to serve a cup for each person present plus several refills. If the tea is good, everyone will always want seconds. I collect tea pots. There are such marvelous ones available and each seems to have a unique personality that lends a certain flavor to the tea. I justify my extravagance by noting how utilitarian teapots are; it can brew the most exquisite beverages, bring cheer to the drinker, warm a winter night, and infuse the health properties of herbs right out of the herbs into the water. The expense of a few extra tea pots seems well worth it!
You can also brew your herbal blends in quart canning jars. In fact, they are technically better than teapots for infusing herbs because there is no opening for the aromatic oils and other volatile properties of the plants to escape. A jar with a tight fitting lid keeps the full properties of the herbs in the water rendering a more whole or essential blend. Place the herb blend in the jar, pour boiling water over it, and let steep the proper length of time. Strain and rebottle for use.
There is an amazing array of strainers available and they come in all sizes and shapes. They can be found in specialties stores, in tea and coffee shops, and through many of the mail order catalogues that feature herbs (see list below). My favorites are the bamboo strainers from China (they are deep enough to hold plenty of herb and fit deeply enough into the cup to allow for proper steepage). Stainless steel mesh strainers are also excellent. Choose strainers that hold sufficient amounts of herbs and that fit into the teacup or teapot. Those little cute teapot shaped strainers and strainers in the shape of teaspoons are adorable, but they hardly hold the amount of herb needed to make a full flavored cup of tea. As a matter of personal preference, I avoid plastic stainers.
* How long to brew the perfect cup of tea:
Along with the quality and flavor of herbs, the length of time you brew the herbs will have a definite effect on the resulting flavor. You can ruin a perfectly good blend, by preparing it to long. What are the basic rules: Flowers and leaves of plants are generally steeped in water (water is poured over the herbs) and allow to infuse for 10 – 30 minutes. (This method is technically called an infusion). Roots and barks and more woody plant parts are usually simmered (a low boil) for 15 – 30 minutes (a decoction). The longer you let the herb steep or simmer in the water, the stronger the resulting taste will be. If a light mild blend is desired steep quickly, strain, and serve the tea. If you wish a stronger flavor, let the herbs infuse or decoct for a longer period of time. For instance, rosehips, though delicious, render a rather mild flavor. To get the full rich flavor and the vitamin C and bioflavonoid content of rosehips, I usually pour boiling water over them and infuse for several hours or overnight.
* How long does an herb tea last:
If using good quality dried herbs and if storing your herbal blends in airtight dark containers (light, heat, and air extract the properties from herbs, so avoid these for long shelf life), herb teas will last for several months or longer. My general rule, is when they lose their flavor, color, and pizazz, then its time to offer them to the `compost goddess’.
Once brewed, an herbal tea should be stored in the refrigerator. Left at room temperature for several hours, it will go `flat’, get tiny bubbles in it, and begin to sour. Stored in the refrigerator, an herbal tea is good for 3 to 4 days.
* What herbs to use:
Now the fun begins! There are so many wonderful unusual flavors of herbs to experiment with as well as the familiar herbs so often found in our favorite teas. Blended and mixed, you can make an infinite number of delicious and unusual herb tea blends. The following are some of my favorite herbs to use in beverage blends:
Lemon peel – very tangy. Can get bitter if left to brew to long.
lemon balm – a fragrant refreshing lemony mint flavor. Exceptional when fresh, rather bland when dried.
Lemon grass – the classic lemon flavored tea. Very fragrant and delicious. High in Vitamin A. Retains its flavor well when dried.
Lemon verbena – One of my favorite lemon flavored herbs. Absolutely divine when fresh; loses much of its flavor when dried. Very fragrant.
Orange peel – Very tangy and fragrant. Like lemon peel, can get bitter if brewed too long or too strong.
Nutmeg – a rich spicy flavor. Do not use too much of it or will over power the tea.
Cloves – hot, spicy, aromatic. Add just a few to your blend or it will over power it and also give your mouth a numbing sensation. Very warming.
Cinnamon – One of the favorite spices for teas. Warming, fragrant, pleasant, adds the finishing flavor to many blends.
Ginger – Very refreshing, energizing, and warming. Delicious flavor; adds zest to many blends. Adding too much makes your tea blends “hot”!
Mace – the outer coating of the nutmeg, mace adds its own unusual and exotic spicy flavor. do not use to much or will over power the flavor of other herbs.
Spearmint – the classic mint flavor, spearmint is milder than peppermint. It often blends the flavors better because it is not so overpowering. Has that familiar “Wrigglies” flavor.
Peppermint – The most well known of the mint flavors, peppermint has a strong dominating flavor and is often used in medicinal herb blends to mask or cover other less pleasant tasting herbs. Very refreshing; delicious iced!
Wintergreen – a mild woodsy mint, that is faintly suggestive of toothpaste, “Wriggly’s” gum, and mouthwash. It does taste delicious, however, and makes a lovely tea.
Please note: there are a host of other mints with such inviting names as chocolate mint, strawberry mint, pineapple mint, licorice mint, etc. I’ve found that most do not measure up to their names in flavor, but many are interesting and unusual and blended properly can add unusual charm to a beverage blend.
Rosehips – Refreshingly tart, rosehips contain vitamin C and bio-flavonoid.
Hibiscus – Very tart, rich in vitamin C, hibiscus flowers add that famous `Zinger Red’ to teas. The pigment in the flowers turn water to a deep shade of hibiscus red and is quite lovely.
Stevia – 500 times sweeter than sugar with virtually 0 calories, Stevia is a `sugar freaks’ fantasy. It adds a delicious sweet flavor and a soothing texture to herbal teas and is often used to blend the flavors of less pleasant herbs. You must be very careful how much you add, however. A pinch per tea pot is all it takes otherwise your tea will become nauseatingly sweet. I generally suggest adding about 1/2 teaspoon of stevia per quart of dried mixture.
Licorice – Sweet and licorice flavored, it is frequently added to root teas to blend the flavors.
Anise seed – Licorice flavored seeds that make a delicious addition to many blends.
Anise hyssop – A member of the mint family, anise hyssop has a delicious sweet licorice taste. Exceptional flavor when fresh; rather poor when dried.
Fennel – sweet licorice flavored seeds that add a delicious scent and flavor to many tea blends.
Vanilla Beans – Chop whole dry vanilla beans and add to tea for a rich vanilla like flavor.
Chamomile – a fragrant bittersweet flavor that is mildly relaxing. Lovely in tea. Will turn bitter if brewed too long or too strong.
Blue malva – a deep blue flower, this particular malva adds a rich color and soothing texture
Roses – mildly relaxing, roses add a fragrant scent, a delectable flavor, and a lovely color and texture to herbal tea blends. Be sure roses are unsprayed.
Lavender – The delicate violet color of lavender and its pungent flavor add charm to herbal teas. The flavor can be quite overpowering, so go lightly when adding it in your formula.
Chinese Chrysanthemums – These large flowers are bought in Chinese herb stores. The color and texture is exceptional in tea. The flowers open up in the water (like paper flowers) to become large daisy like flowers
Hibiscus flowers – See above
Chinese Star Anise – Adds a wonderful flavor and texture to many herb tea blends. The seed pods are star shaped and contain small anise or licorice flavored seeds.
Sassafras – One of the most popular flavors, sassafras adds is delicious flavor to most “root beer” teas. It also is used to effectively mask the flavor of less pleasant tasting herbs in medicinal preparations. (Please note: there is some controversy over the safety of sassafras)
Birch Bark – The other important flavor in “root beer” teas, birch bark adds a woodsy refreshing taste to teas. Black birch is the most aromatic and flavorful of the birches.
Sarsaparilla – A richly aromatic root, sarsaparilla has a delicious odor and vanilla like flavor to many tea blends.
TRADITIONAL METHODS USED TO BREW AN EXCELLENT POT OF TEA
Infusions or tisanes as they are frequently called, are made by pouring boiling water over the herbs and allowing the mixture to steep for 10 – 30 minutes depending on the strength you prefer. Infusions are used for extracting the properties of flowers and the herb or leafy part of the plant. Always keep the container tightly closed when infusing herbs. If using a teapot, a tea caddy is helpful in keeping all the properties in the water.
A Decoction is used to extract the more tenacious plant material and is the preferred method for brewing most roots, barks, and hard nuts/seeds. A decoction is made by simmering the herbs in boiling water for 15 to 30 minutes depending on the strength of tea desired. Always keep the pot tightly covered.
Sun charge your tea! Place the herbs in a large glass jar and cover tightly. Put in the direct sunlight and leave for several hours or until the desired flavor is attained. There’s nothing quite like the taste of sunshine brewed in a perfect blend of herbs to lift the spirits.
Just as solar infusions capture the essence of sunlight, Lunar Infusions utilize the great luminary energy of the moon. Though much subtler than other methods of brewing herbs, Lunar infusions capture a certain magic and essence. To make, place herbs (fresh flowers are especially nice in Lunar Infusions) in a crystal bowl and set the bowl in a place where it will get direct moonlight. Let sit overnight and first thing in the morning, drink your lunar infusion. Try it on the next full moon. You’ll be enchanted.
Herbal teas can be drunk hot, room temperature, or iced. They can be frozen solid into ice cubes with fresh fruit and flowers and used to flavor festive holiday punches. They’re delicious blended with fruit juice and frozen as pops for children. But my favorite way to drink herb tea is to chose the proper teapot, the perfect blend of herbs and to spend a few minutes contemplating the exquisite nature of life with friends over a pot of richly brewing herbs.
The aroma, the headiness, the fine, often subtle flavors,
brings out the best in life.
THE FOLLOWING ARE SOME OF MY FAVORITE TEA BLENDS
You can make wonderful original blends that capture an afternoon in your garden, an evening sunset, the pungent beauty of the seacoast. Herb teas can also evoke moods; a romantic blend, a relaxing one, a morning stimulant. When blending herbs, think about what it is you want the herbs to evoke.
Everyone's Favorite Old Fashion `Root Beer' Tea
- 3 part Sassafras bark
- 3 part Sarsasparila root
- 2 part Birch bark
- 1 part dandelion root
- 1 part burdock root
- 3 part licorice root
- 1/2 part ginger root
- 1/2 part chinese star anise
- 1/8 part Orange Peel
- 3 parts Fennel seed and/or a pinch of Stevia
- Infuse: see instructions above.