Conjure an image of a tea plantation and it’s likely some exotic locale springs to mind: A misty mountaintop in Tibet. The sweaty tropical shores of Sri Lanka. A sweet-smelling hillside in Kenya.
Oregon’s cool, rainy valleys may be the last place you’d add to the list – but you should. The state has two companies producing Oregon tea and tisanes from locally-grown tea leaves, herbs and fruits. As the coldest part of the winter sets in, here’s the skinny on two warm beverage manufacturers locavores can love.
Minto Island Growers in Salem has a fairly typical business model for an Oregon farm. They run a CSA program, farm stand and u-pick lots on their Willamette Valley property. But they have a fascinating side business: growing a half-acre of black, green, oolong and white tea.
Farmer Rob Miller and his friend John Vendeland first planted tea in 1988 to see what would happen. They weren’t sure the plants would survive, let alone produce a viable crop, but they ended up doing quite well. The pair learned to cultivate and care for the plants, and to dry, bruise, ferment and otherwise prepare the leaves for drinking. (Learn more about their operations by watching a video on their home page.)
Miller’s daughter Elizabeth, who now manages the farm with husband Chris Jenkins, is in the process of expanding the tea-growing tradition. “They’ve planted out 12 more acres with tea plants in the past three years,” says Cassie Woolhiser, head of marketing. “They expect to begin harvesting from these plots in two to three years.”
The available products vary slightly from year to year. “For the past few years Chris and Elizabeth have produced green teas and oolong tea,” says Woolhiser. “In 2016 they processed a good amount of a beautiful black tea. They also produced a small amount of white tea, which they hope to do more of in the future.”
The couple does much of the work of preparing their Oregon tea leaves themselves, although the oolong is done with help from a Washington-based chef named Balazs Henger. The goal is to treat the leaves simply and let their fresh flavor shine through. In 2016 they made wok-fired and steamed green teas, along with a nutty and sweet oolong and basic black.
Minto Island Tea Company’s Oregon Tea Crafters products are currently sold out, but they’ll become available again in summer 2017. Purchase them online, at the Minto Island Grower’s farm stand in Salem, and at the Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University.
In 2009, Amy Seidenverg got interested in using the high desert plants near her Deschutes County home to made traditional medicines. Her interest in plants and herbs evolved into Metolius Artisan Tea, a Bend company that produces high-quality teas and tisanes with many Oregon-grown ingredients.
“We are very proud to work with Sakari Botanicals out of central Oregon,” Seidenverg says. “2017’s production plan includes lavender, dandelion, red clover, skullcap, peppermint and amaranth blossoms, as well as wildcrafted elderberries and elderflowers.” She buys blueberries from the Willamette Valley and dehydrated fruit from a company in The Dalles.
These ingredients are blended in creative ways to make over five dozen different teas. Earl Grey fans can get their favorite beverage made with standard black tea, gold Yunnan buds, red rooibos or white leaves. The chai comes in a standard flavor or mixed with chocolate or rooibos. There are teas studded with magenta rose petals and accented by warming cardamom or dream-enhancing mugwort; matcha powder and leafy mate; and an intriguing white tea called Carrot Cake, which includes dehydrated carrot, coconut and licorice. There are teas to boost the immune system, lower stress and help kick a cold.
While Seidenverg likes sourcing locally, she also appreciates Metolius Artisan Tea’s global impact. “As our company grows and thrives, so do small family tea farmers in China,” she says. “So do Kenyan mothers who are a part of a women’s farming co-op producing lemongrass, hibiscus and chamomile for us. So does the village in southern Italy where we buy our bergamot. As we grow, we become more and more a meaningful part of this wonderful world.”