Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Is "herbal tea" tea?

Among tea connoisseurs, enthusiasts, and tea companies, I frequently encounter blog posts, webpages, and other writings (most of which come across as outright rants) in which people complain about the use of the term "tea" to refer to herbal teas that do not contain the Camellia sinensis plant. The claim is always the same: the only "correct" use of the word tea is to refer to Camellia sinensis; other uses of the word are inaccurate, wrong, misleading, ill-informed.

These people invariably advocate for the usage of terms like "herbal infusion" or "tisane" that do not contain the word "tea". Some people (whom I shall not name) have even made statements that they would never buy from a company that sold "herbal tea" because, according to them, the product would obviously be inferior because the company selling it obviously didn't know anything about tea.

What does the word "tea" mean?

What does the word tea mean? We all know that it is used to refer to the actual tea plant and the beverages made from it. But does it have other valid, accepted definitions? Let's look at the dictionary definitions of tea. The Random House dictionary gives a number of definitions, among them:

5. any of various infusions prepared from the leaves, flowers, etc., of other plants, and used as beverages or medicines.

Is this particular dictionary peculiar? Let's look at the American Heritage Dictionary's definition:

3. Any of various beverages, made as by steeping the leaves of certain plants or by extracting an infusion especially from beef.

Ahh, one could object, but these are American dictionaries. Let's go for the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of tea. The British know tea after all, right?

3. a drink made from the leaves, fruits, or flowers of other plants.

But do people actually use these terms?

Let's use google to settle the score. How many hits does the term "herbal tea" get? How about other terms?

  • herbal tea - 3 million

  • tisane - 1 million

  • herbal infusion - 179,000

Herbal tea is by far the dominant term in mainstream usage; tisane is also widely used, but "infusion" just hasn't caught on; perhaps it's just too scientific sounding. As one final note, however, I want to point out that peer-reviewed scientific journals widely use the term "tea" to refer to herbal teas; check out this google scholar search for chamomile tea or a similar search for mint tea.

So...give it up folks. Herbal tea is a perfectly valid use of the word "tea"; it doesn't refer to the Camellia sinensis plant, but the use of the word "tea" makes sense because the two beverages are infused in the same way and share more similarities with each other than with other beverages. People aren't being ignorant just because they use a term like "herbal tea", "chamomile tea" or "mint tea". But people are being pedantic when they go around insisting people use words like infusion and dismissing people or companies just because they're using a perfectly valid term that is well-accepted by the mainstream.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Four Herbal Teas You May Not Know About

From my garden in Delaware:

It's late march here in Delaware, and we've had lots of wet, warm weather, interspersed by a frost here and there, but that's not enough to discourage the numerous plants in the mint family adapted to humid temperate climates: these plants have been growing vigorously and will soon have enough leaves to make the first batches of herbal tea of the year. I took a few pictures of the new foliage of perennial herbs that I use for herbal tea.

These are only a few of the many herbs in my garden; I thought to highlight these as they're all a little outside of the mainstream things that you typically find for sale as herbal teas. They're all easy to grow and, in my opinion they're all outstanding--people who haven't tried them are missing out!

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a plant in the mint family that makes a delicious tea. Its aroma is lemony, similar in many respects to lemongrass but gentler. Not only is this a very pleasing herb, but there is also some evidence it has antibacterial, antiviral, and stress-reducing properties.

Monarda sp. (wild bergamot, Oswego tea, bee-balm) are aptly named. These plants, native to North America, have colorful flowers that attract bees, and the leaves make an outstanding herbal tea that closely resembles the aroma of the unrelated bergamot orange used in Earl Grey tea. They are useful for infusion on their own, mixing with other herbs, or blending with black tea to make something that resembles Earl Grey tea.

Orange mint (Mentha citrata or Mentha x piperita L. var. citrata) is a cultivar of peppermint, which is a hybrid mint of spearmint and water mint. It has been bred for a citrus-like aroma, and while it looks a lot like peppermint, the similarity ends there.

I find this mint to make an outstanding herbal tea with a rich aroma; it also makes a very welcome addition to mint tea blends, adding considerable depth and complexity. Its strength makes it hold its own in blends with black teas. It is also more basil-like in aroma and I find makes a useful substitute for basil in the early spring and late fall when temperatures are too cold to have basil outdoors.

I also tried planting something new:

Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is a plant native to high-elevation scrub forests in the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala. Its bright red, tubular flowers attract hummingbirds. The leaves make a sweet, aromatic tea strongly suggesting of pineapple; there is evidence from studies on mice that the herb may have antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties.

This herb is an annual in cold temperate climates, but it can take some cold. I'm hoping it's not too early to plant here in Delaware; I bought it from a local nursery that has been growing it outdoors in an unheated greenhouse, and those high altitudes in Mexico can get pretty cold. I planted it in a warm, dry part of the garden, close to the building in order to simulate its natural habitat more closely...we'll see how it does!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Private Label Teas

The idea of a private label tea sounds reasonable: a company sells tea that can be packaged and given a brand name of its own. It makes a lot of sense for restaurants, hotels, spa's, and any other businesses that wish to sell their own brand of tea, but either aren't knowledgeable enough in the tea market to source directly, or simply don't want to take on this added responsibility.

However, there is an ugly side to the phenomenon of private label teas.

The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal has an excellent article on this subject, by Randy Altman, titled "The Secret and Lucrative Private Label Tea Market" (from 2007, the article is now not viewable on the original journal's site but can be read on The Free Library). The private label business is a secretive one, especially when the source company also sells directly to individuals: any company selling such private label tea needs to hide the source of their tea, for if the customer found out, they could purchase the tea directly from the source. The customer might also feel cheated, especially if the markup were too high, and this could harm the company's loyalty--including in areas beyond their sales of tea (which might not be a main source of revenue).

Many providers of private label tea solve this problem by only selling wholesale. However, the markup is still high--it's just now even more effectively hidden from the customer. Nothing has changed; it's only harder for the prices and markup to be spotted.

Economic justice?

In addition to the question of a fair price for tea drinkers, there is a very ugly economic justice aspect to private label tea: the extra profit generated by the markup in this extra step is pocketed solely by the companies buying and selling the private label tea--it typically does not "trickle down" to the original producers. SOMO's 2008 report, Sustainability Issues in the Tea Sector, identifies as one of the major sustainability issues facing the tea industry the fact that producers earn such a tiny share of the profits from tea, whereas the company engaging in the last step, selling to the customer (in this case the company selling their own private label) earns the lion's share of the profits. In a sense, it's the opposite of the goal/principles of fair trade, which boils down to the idea of cutting out middlemen and ensuring that the price paid by the end customer reflects a fair living wage paid to the original producer.

By buying private label tea, you're effectively making the rich richer and keeping the poor poor.

What can be done about this?

Fortunately, there are easy solutions to these problems! Buying from companies that source directly (like Yunnan Sourcing or ) not only gets you a better price--you're getting the full value of what you pay for instead of just lining someone's pocket's--but, especially when you buy fair trade tea and/or tea sourced directly from small farmers (especially from farmer-owned companies like Obubu Tea), you're empowering the producers. Many companies, like Rishi Tea, take a multifaceted approach, working with fair trade and organic certification, and engaging in other sustainability-promoting initiatives. Equal Exchange also goes above and beyond the standard fair trade certification to work for economic justice. And Shanti Tea not only works with fair trade and organic producers, but is committed to biodynamic agriculture as well.

These are only a few of the many companies out there and many more are doing similar things; apologies to any I have omitted! Ultimately, these approaches result in a better quality product. Empowered producers have the resources for both preserving and developing new local tea cultivars, varieties, and traditions.

So what to do?

I would hardly suggest boycotting companies that sell private label tea...their ranks include Harney & Sons, SpecialTeas, and a number of other companies that sell directly to the consumer. But a good solution is to buy directly from these companies, rather than buying from companies reselling their teas for a higher price. Also, knowing the market can help you make wise purchasing decisions. As Marlena of Tea for Today pointed out in the comments, in some circumstances private label tea can actually be priced below the prices offered by a supplier, and this can represent a great opportunity. It's always important to be price conscious when shopping for tea--but it's also important to know how the company you are buying from sources their teas. If you're going to pay a premium, make sure you're paying for quality, and make sure that money is going to be put towards ensuring future generations will be able to enjoy diversity and quality of tea, rather than just allowing your money to go towards lining someone's pockets.