A little while ago, I posted a picture on Instagram of a pot of tea that was a seemingly-random mix of things I tossed into a teapot and steeped in hot water and that tasted good. I got a comment asking if I’d consider making a video about blending herbal teas and sourcing herbs, but on thinking about it, I decided that it really fit a written post format better. I have gone into herbal tea blends a bit in the herbal tea section of my Tea Primer, but I thought I’d expand a bit on how I blend teas, since it really applies to so many things I make in my life. So this post is an attempt to expand on how I source and blend herbs.
Sourcing Botanical Ingredients:
Now, I’m going to refer to “botanical ingredients” or “botanicals” instead of “herbs” because there is some ambiguity about what makes a plant an “herb” versus a “spice,” and other categories of botanicals. And I use all kind of plants to create my botanical blends. It’s important to remember that herbal tea doesn’t just need to be botanicals from the herb store, and that everything we ingest has some effect on our body. So distinguishing between medicinal and culinary herbs or herbs and spices is largely arbitrary and meaningless.
So my first recommendation is to see what you can get from your local grocery store. I’m fortunate that my grocery store has a large selection of bulk botanicals, so I can buy small amounts of things I need for my herbal studies, as well as botanical ingredients for my kitchen (although all my herbs live in the kitchen). But I recognize that that’s not the norm, at least in the States, so I wanted to remind people with more traditional grocery stores to search the spice aisle of their grocery stores, too. And the produce section! I get fresh ginger root every week from the produce section, and lately I’ve always been grabbing a couple citrus fruits for their peels. Your store may even have fresh sage or mint in the produce section, and these make lovely teas.
In the spice aisle, I get cardamom, cinnamon sticks, star anise pods, fennel seeds, allspice berries, and other spices I might use once in a while. If you’re interested in flavoring your own rooibos, a whole vanilla bean split and buried in a jar of rooibos leaves is supposed to be amazing (I am not a fan of vanilla-scented teas). I’ve also used dried, rubbed sage from the spice section for sage tea when I can’t find fresh. I don’t recommend using powdered spices for teas, as they’re usually of dubious freshness, and can make an unpleasantly gritty cup of tea, but if you don’t mind a bit of sugar, some chopped crystallized ginger makes a nice substitute. Some stores even sell dried orange peel. And I’ve been known to use black peppercorns in some of my blends (even better if they have that fancy multi-colored peppercorn blend because each color has a subtly different flavor).
Once you’ve exhausted the offerings at your grocery store, I highly recommend you look around and see if there is a local herb shop near you. Before we moved house, I lived near the fabulous Smile Herb Shop (I’m still not far from them, but it’s not walking-distance anymore, which makes me sad), so I could go there and get things in person. Going to a shop in person not only gives you the opportunity to see and smell the botanicals before you pay for them, but also gives you a community of herbal experts and enthusiasts with whom to connect and discuss favorite blends. Plus, they may even offer classes. So go to Google and see if there’s an herb shop near you (be aware that you may end up getting results that sell CBD, kratom, or cannabis, if that’s legal in your area!). The Herbal Academy also has a list of farms and suppliers by region, that might help, as does Living Awareness. And if you’re in the DC area, stop by Smile, and then go next door and say hi to my acupuncturist, Jared!
Now, at a certain point, you’re going to need to source something online. I mentioned in my Tea Primer that my two favorite stores for online sourcing were Mortar and Petal* on Etsy and Mountain Rose Herbs, and these recommendations still stand, but I wanted to go into a bit more detail about how I use each of them.
Mountain Rose is my favorite place to get excellent-quality botanical ingredients, as well as other things like oils, butters, and some seasonings. The botanicals are always incredibly high-quality and they are transparent about their sourcing practices. Plus they have amazing customer service. But for most of their botanicals, the smallest quantity they sell is 4 oz. and the shipping costs make it more cost-effective to only buy rather large quantities at a time anyway. So I don’t prefer buying from them when I’m creating a new blend of exploring new botanicals because I’ll have to buy too much at once. But most of my standbys and favorites come from Mountain Rose. I have big bags of chamomile, oatstraw, red raspberry leaf, and lavender from them, as well as some things I can’t really find anywhere else of as good quality, like linden (one of my recent favorites!). Back when I still forced myself to drink nettle infusion regularly, I bought nettles from them, and I’ve waxed rhapsodic about their fabulous dried peppermint in the past.
But when I’m developing a new blend or I want to try a small amount of a botanical ingredient I can’t find at my local store, I turn to Mortar and Petal. They sell small quantities, maybe just a half an ounce to two ounces, so I can try a bit and not waste things if I don’t like it, and they ship things simply in a padded mailer to keep shipping costs down, rather than sending a whole box. When I was developing my pregnancy tea recipe, I knew I wanted it to be mostly red raspberry leaf, with other botanicals primarily for flavor, so I ordered small amounts of the flavoring ingredients from Mortar and Petal and got a pound of red raspberry leaf from Mountain Rose to make it. They’ve also been wonderful as I’ve been going through my herbalism course to try small amounts of botanicals that I might not normally use for my Materia Medica.
Finally, don’t forget about your tea sellers! I got a package of gorgeous large chrysanthemum flowers from Yunnan Sourcing, and some delicious chrysanthemum buds from Seven Cups. Mountain Stream Teas has a roselle hibiscus that is amazing (it really does taste like biting into a fresh strawberry). Often tea sellers come across other botanicals in their sourcing missions and decide to buy some of those as well, so don’t discount a seller just because they primarily sell C. sinensis. And tea sellers can be an excellent place to find ingredients that are not common in western herbalism, like chrysanthemum or other botanicals common in traditional Chinese medicine.
Storing Your Botanical Ingredients Properly
Now that you have your botanical ingredients, you want to keep them in tip-top shape so they last for you. Most botanicals I buy come in a zip-top bag. I like the bags from Mountain Rose because they’re nice and thick and they close reliably, but if I get botanicals in a less sturdy bag, I will usually move them to a glass jar. Mason jars are wonderful, as are just any jar you’ve saved from pantry goods or jams or such. I’ve written in the past about my love of jars and botanical storage is an excellent reason to start your own collection.
Keeping botanicals air-tight is not the only concern, however. You also want to keep them away from heat and light. Now, my kitchen is reasonably well-set-up so that I can keep my botanicals in a kitchen cabinet away from my stove so they stay fresh (I do keep culinary spices near the stove, but those don’t generally last too long before I use them up!). Because my pantry is open, I prefer to keep things in a cabinet to keep them in the dark. Storing your botanicals in jars also makes for a more organized presentation when you’re storing them, although I do still have to dig around in the back of the cabinet to pull things out when I’m making a complicated blend.
Other than that, the other important storage thing to keep in mind is to label the date that you either purchased or opened the botanical ingredients. I use the purchase date for botanicals I buy locally from a bulk store, and the opened date for botanicals from Mountain Rose that were in sealed bags, once I break the seal. Having the date on your botanicals is important because they do lose potency over time, no matter how good quality they are and how carefully you store them. That said, there’s no general rule for how long you can keep botanical ingredients. I have some red raspberry leaf that I got almost two years ago that’s still fragrant and delicious. So use your nose, eyes, and tongue to tell if your ingredients are still good.
Blending Delicious Herbal Teas
Alright, now you have your botanical ingredients and you’ve given them a lovely place to live. But how do you make them taste good together? Well, the short answer is that they taste good or they don’t; the only way to find out what tastes good to you is to experiment. But there are some culinary ideas that might help you reduce the error portion of “trial and error.”
First of all, understanding balanced flavors can be important. When I make a salad dressing or a marinade, I know that it’s important to balance flavors like salty, sweet, spicy, and tart. So if I add too much soy sauce to my marinade, I know I need to balance it with something like vinegar, and then if the vinegar is too sharp, I might add some honey or sugar. So I can translate that to tea, and if I’m making a tea blend with roselle, I know that can be quite tart, so I might want to tone it down with something sweeter or more fragrant. Perhaps I want to punch it up with some ginger, or tone it down with a sweet floral like chamomile.
On the flip side of that, you’ll also want to think about things that go well together. Contrasts are nice, but so is coordination. It’s why carrots and dill are often paired together — they’re both from the same botanical family, so their flavors meld particularly well. Now, I happen to despise dill, so I will use something like fennel in dishes that call for dill for a similar effect (fennel is also from the family Apiaceae). In herbal teas, the two main families to know about are Apiaceae and Lamiaceae. The first has your carrot relatives, including fennel, dill, cumin, parsley, anise, and many other herbs. The second is the minty family, with mints, as well as things like sage, lavender, thyme, and other fragrant botanicals. A very large portion of our catalog of botanical ingredients come from these two families, and knowing the plants in each can help you create harmonious blends. It’s why lavender and peppermint go so well together. Using botanicals in a similar family is a good starting point for a blend.
Another place to go for inspiration is, again, your grocery store and local shops. Perhaps you see a bagged tea that sounds interesting, or even that you already like, but you want a loose-leaf version. Or maybe there’s a tea that seems pretty good, but you think it would be better slightly different (I feel this way about pretty much every blend that uses licorice or stevia). Look at the back of the box and see what’s in it, and then play around with your own blend. Or look at a caffeinated blend and see if the flavors in it might be a good caffeine-free blend, such as the Jade Citrus Mint at Starbucks. The combination of peppermint, lemongrass, and other citrus is pretty classic. Personally, my go-to bedtime tea grew out of loving the Lavender Chamomile tea from Traditional Medicinals and wanting to make it with less trash from packets and teabags.
Ultimately, the best way to tell what blends taste good is to taste them. It’s important to taste pure botanicals to know what they taste like so you can see if you can guess what they might taste like in a blend. It’s similar to how I might taste plain honey or vinegar to remind myself how sweet or sharp it is to decide how much to add to a marinade or dressing. The other inspiration for my lavender chamomile blend was the fact that I wasn’t originally a fan of chamomile, but I thought the sweet floral flavor would pair nicely with the sharper, more camphorous floral of the lavender. And they do. Plus, I recently tasted some valerian root infusion (which smells like feet) and was surprised at how sweet it was, so that will inform any future blends in which I use it.
So feel free to start with single-note teas, I like to use at least a heaped teaspoon per 8 fl. oz. of water, with boiling water, steeped covered for 10-15 minutes, and then strained (some herbs get unpleasant if steeped too long). My favorite single-ingredient teas are fresh sliced ginger, fresh peppermint (I use a handful for a 16-oz. pot), chrysanthemum, and roselle. I use all of these ingredients in blends, but I originally started out with the simple infusion.
Many of my most complicated blends started out as single-note teas that I played with, kind of like writing a melody and then adding flourishes and harmonies to create a full choral piece. I couldn’t decide between chrysanthemum or ginger the other day, so I mixed them, and then added things as they sounded good. The result was the very complicated blend that I posted on Instagram the other week. Play around. Don’t be afraid to make something strange. Tastes are subjective and I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yum.
So by way of an example, I wanted to go into detail about a blend I made recently. As I said, it started with indecision about whether I wanted ginger tea or chrysanthemum tea. Then, I wanted something to pump up the florality. Inspired by the classic Chinese “Eight Treasures” tea, I decided to add roses for a different floral note and some goji berries for their earthy sweetness. Finally, I added cardamom because 1.) I love cardamom, and 2.) it has a slight citrus note and I didn’t feel like peeling citrus. I could have added some orange peel if I felt like getting out the peeler. As far as sources, the roses, ginger, goji berries, and cardamom all came from my grocery store, while the chrysanthemum came from Yunnan Sourcing. I weighed out each ingredient as I added it and made a note so I could adjust it later. I think I could use a little more ginger and a little less rose next time.
Probably the most important part of tea blending is to take notes. Whether it’s a notes file on your phone or a dedicated tea blending journal, write down what you’re doing, or else you’ll never be able to replicate it. I like to use weight when I’m designing a new blend in a focused way, but I’ll also use a volume measurement, like the lovely wooden spoons my mother gave me. I’m terrible about writing things down, and there is a certain meditative sense of ephemera in creating a blend that you’ll never have again, but usually we want to be able to reproduce our delicious efforts. AND you’ll especially want to write down the fails so you don’t repeat them!
Finally, I want to encourage you to include C. sinensis in your blending experiments, if you drink it normally. Tea is just another botanical ingredient, and was originally considered an herbal medicine. In fact, when it first came to the western world, it was viewed as a remedy for gout, rather than a pleasure drink. So go ahead and blend some Tieguanyin with roses or some chrysanthemum with puerh. Botanicals love to play together.
A Note about Herbal Safety
Now, I am not an herbalist or a medical professional. But it is not an exaggeration to say that plants have effects on our bodies, and you would do well to keep that in mind as you blend botanicals. Especially if you take medications or have a condition that might make your health a little precarious, it’s important to know what the constituents of different plants might do in the body. So even if you’re not going to take an herbalism course, it would be a good idea to keep a reference collection of books on botanicals. I primarily use three books in my studies right now: The Way of Herbs, by Michael Tierra; A Modern Botanical, by Mrs. M. Grieves (also available online for free); and The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, by Easley and Horne. They are a good mix of science and folklore information, and have a pretty good variety of information. I always look up an ingredient, at least in Grieves, before using it in a blend to double-check that it’s not going to interact in an unexpected way.
So I hope that was an interesting introduction to my thoughts about blending botanicals. Let me know if you find any favorite blends!
NB: I am not a medical professional and none of this should be taken as medical advice or intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease. Additionally, everything mentioned in the post was purchased by me and all thoughts are my own. Some links may be affiliate links (marked with an asterisk), which will support the running of this blog if you make a sale through them. Please read my contact and collaboration information if you are interested in working with me.