by Bridget McGinn, for The Bulletin Special Projects Photos by Kevin Prieto

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

~ Thich Nat Hahn

Tea is universal. Second only to water, more tea is consumed worldwide than all other beverages combined — including coffee, soda, alcohol and chocolate. The origin of tea rests in Southwest China, where it was considered medicinal. It wasn’t until the Chinese Tang dynasty that tea transformed into a fashionable drink. During the 16th century the beverage was introduced to Europe, and it was the British who began to produce tea on a large-scale in India during the 17th century.

Today, the People’s Republic of China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka produce the largest amounts of tea to meet the world’s thirst for the beverage. Outside of East Asia, most of the tea that is consumed comes from India and Sri Lanka, and is produced on a large-scale industrial basis. On the other end of the spectrum, there are many small “gardens” found around the world producing gourmet teas that are highly prized.

“Some people will tell you there is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Amy Lee Stahl, owner of Bend-based Metolius Artisan Tea, did not set out to become a tea maker, although even as a teenager she loved plants. Several years ago she immersed herself in the study of plant medicine, evolving from an herbalist to a tea maker. Her business has evolved right along with her, and her teas can now be found for sale online, throughout Central Oregon and nationwide.

“We import organic teas, herbs, spices, and essential oils from all over the world, create our tea blends, and package and ship to our customers,” said Stahl.

Metolius Artisan Tea has four employees, with growth on the horizon. The tea industry itself is booming, said Stahl, and she is committed to moving the industry toward greater alignment with social consciousness.

“Go down the tea aisle in any given grocery store and what are the options? Mostly low quality, over-priced and using mass-produced tea from low-paid workers who have limited economic mobility,” said Stahl. “Further, it is smothered in synthetic flavor labeled as ‘natural’ which could very well include such unsavory bits as beaver anal glands, insect parts, MSG-containing ingredients and taste-bud deceptors.”

Stahl sources her teas from small production, high integrity farmers locally and around the world. While many of Metolius Artisan Tea ingredients are certified organic, the best ingredients are not, said Stahl.

“The reason is that small operations like Sakari Botanicals out of Bend, or Meru Herbs in Kenya, cannot afford the cost of certification,” said Stahl. “However, our third party lab studies show that these ingredients are the cleanest and most vibrant of our entire palate of ingredients.”

“Drinking a daily cup of tea will surely starve the apothecary.”

~Chinese Proverb

While tea today is primarily enjoyed as a beverage, the original medicinal purpose of tea still exists. Tea contains L-theanine, theophylline and bound caffeine, ingredients that enhance calm alertness, and there is an abundance of research demonstrating how tea improves health beyond ensuring an adequate amount of water intake.

While all non-herbal teas are made from the leaves of the same plant — Camellia sinensis — different processing time for the leaves results in green, black or oolong tea. Studies on the health benefits of tea tend to focus on green teas, as they are the least processed and generally contain the highest amounts of polyphenols, which are believed to reduce the risk for cancer and heart disease.

A recent study examining data from multiple reports found that drinking one to three cups of green tea per day reduced the risk of heart attack by 20 percent, and the risk of stroke by 35 percent and resulted in lower levels of LDL cholesterol.

Tea also contains antioxidants and approximately 50 percent less caffeine than coffee, is calorie-free, boosts the immune system and may prevent bone loss. The pH levels in the mouth are altered when drinking tea, and may prevent cavities while not eroding tooth enamel as some other beverages do. Herbal teas can help alleviate digestive issues and address other health concerns as well.

One thing to be aware of, particularly with teas from China and India, is the possibility of these teas containing the residue of banned toxic pesticides. Tea production in some African nations has been associated with the use of child labor, and tea plantation workers often have difficult working conditions and very low wages. There are several certification labels to look for on tea packaging that can help indicate fair practices, including Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, UTZ Certified and Organic.

“Tea: A few minutes’ peace amongst the constant battles of life.”

~Terri Guillemets

“While there are many large online tea sellers, we think the industry is tending toward something similar to coffee’s micro-roasting industry, where farm-direct tea growers sell to local tea blenders, who then supply local retail tea cafes,” said Kit Tosello, who co-owns Suttle Tea in Sisters, with her husband Garth. “At street-level, brewed tea will never appeal to the grab-and-go, hurry-hurry crowd. That’s still coffee’s domain.”

Suttle Tea recently celebrated its first anniversary in business, although the Tosellos are no strangers to the beverage industry. The couple opened a coffeehouse in Santa Cruz County, California, in 1991, operating it for 11 years along with a natural food store.

“At the time, Starbucks was just beginning to make a splash but hadn’t arrived in our region, and the coffee industry was poised for growth as we were all discovering a need for a place where we could intersect regularly with our communities,” said Tosello. “People said to us, ‘You’re JUST going to sell coffee? That will never work.’”

The Tosellos loved the atmosphere and watching the building of relationships among community members, and their business thrived.

“We think the tea industry has similar potential, and tea cafés that offer casual, open seating, like coffeehouses, but with healthier, tea-based products meet a growing need,” said Tosello. “We want to provide that comfortable place, a family room for our community to relax, to connect, or study.”

Suttle Tea carries nearly 40 different teas, which are all available by the cup or for purchase by the ounce as loose teas. Their primary supplier is Metolius Artisan Teas, and Suttle Tea has partnered with Stahl to develop several blends exclusive to the tea shop.

“Amy’s a brilliant tea blender and herbologist. She understands the challenging nuances of tea blending along with her deep background in medicinal herbs, roots, and spices,” said Tosello. “And we love that Amy works with small co-op family farms, building relationships in tea-growing countries.”

Tea can bring communities together and provide a connecting point with other cultures.

“I love being able to taste the world — and not the world we think of with so much fear and anxiety when we read the news,” said Stahl. “This world is full of bright people, rich soil, beautiful stories and an abundance of the best ingredients the people and planet have to offer.”

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