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The Art of Herbal Tea

 

Autumn came in fast and bold this year, the warm, blue-sky days of September swiftly replaced by northern winds, gold-yellow forests, and wood smoke. 

This change in the weather has many of us inside more, drawn to the hearth and kitchen. As the world slows down outside, so do we; it's the season of dreaming, of looking inward, and of sipping tea by the fire. 

It may seem a little funny to write an entire post on how to make tea - most people just chuck a teabag in some water - but making a really nice cup of herbal tea requires a little extra care, attention, and ritual.

Herbal infusions are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, forms of herbal preparation. They take two elemental things, plants and water, and transform them into a comforting, effective medicine. How does this magic happen? Hot water breaks down the cell walls of the plants, opening them up and drawing out the medicinal constituents within. 

When I say tea, what I really mean is an infusion or a tisane. That is, the leaves and/or flowers of an herb steeped in hot water. Technically, "tea" specifically means an infusion of the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia. But, most people (me included) just call any infusion a tea, and so that's how I'll refer to it throughout this post.

Infusion vs. Decoction

So, what's the difference between an infusion and a decoction? As I said above, an infusion is the leaf and flower of the plant infused in water. Amounts and times may vary based on the herbs used, but typically making an infusion involves steeping about 1 heaping tsp to 1 tbsp of plant material in 8-10 oz of just-boiled water for 10-15 minutes. 

When working with roots and woody plants that are harder to break down, we need to boil the herbs in water for a bit longer to extract their medicine; this is called a decoction. The amount of herb used will vary, of course, but a good rule of thumb is around 1 tbsp to 3 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, add in your roots, lower the heat, and let simmer for about 20 minutes, usually until the liquid is reduced by about half.

Now that we've got these basics down, let's talk about some of the other elements that go into making a really good cup of herbal tea.

Good Water

Water itself is medicine. It flows through the heart of the land and runs over the rock-bones of the earth, picking up life-giving minerals on its way. It may seem obvious, but using pure, clean water will have a big impact on the taste and quality of your tea. Try to avoid using bottled or chlorinated water (if you live in a place with treated municipal water, you can leave a pitcher of water out, uncovered, overnight to let the chlorine evaporate). Filtered well or spring water is ideal, though I know that's a privilege not all of us have.

Quality Herbs

When many people think of tea, they picture the little tea bags you can find in the supermarket. I understand the appeal of them (I have a box or two in my kitchen) but its important to realize that these teas are just a flavored beverage and aren't really a good source of medicine. The more surface area of a plant is exposed, the quicker it will degrade and lose its medicine and taste - the herbs in those little bags have been chopped or ground almost to dust. They can also sit on the shelf for months before you purchase them. Sometimes, tea companies will add artificial flavorings to make up for this the lack of freshness/taste.

The amount of herb those little baggies contain is another issue; it's such a small amount, I can't see it having much of a medicinal effect.

If you want to make really delicious tea blends that support your health, it's worth investing in quality herbs. The plants should be vibrant, with a distinctive scent, texture and color. Brown and dusty is not what you want.

If you've been around here before, you know I forage most of the herbs I use for medicine and for my skincare products - and that's something I encourage you to do too! If you have a nice area to forage from, handpicking your own beautiful ingredients is such a nice way to connect with the land and enjoy the gifts the earth offers to us freely.

When I can't forage enough of my own stuff, or when I want something I can't find growing locally, I really like Mountain Rose Herbs and Frontier Co-op for sourcing herbs (no affiliation - I just genuinely like them). Even better is if you have a local herb shop, farm, or healthfood store that sells quality organic herbs.

(When you do get your lovely plants, it's important to store them correctly - check out this article I wrote about harvesting and storing herbs.)

Who and What is the Tea For?

Before brewing your cup, stop and think about who and what you're making it for. Is it a daily nourishing blend? Do you want something to support hormonal health? Is it meant for someone who's ill with a cold? Do you need something warming, or something that will have a cooling effect? Or maybe you just want something tasty and comforting to enjoy at the end of the day.

This is where it's important to know your plants! Before trying a new herb, it's a good idea to look it up in a reliable herbal and see the basics of what it does (you can also check out this thing I wrote about how to get herbs to work). If you want to get started in setting up a home apothecary, see this post I wrote about how to select a base roster of herbs.

Flavor

Unless you're making a medicinal tea and care more about the effects than the taste (which is legitimate...I've had some intense cups of tea in my day but they worked), you'll want to be sure the blend you make for yourself is something you'll enjoy and want to make for yourself and others.

The best way to see what you like is to try brewing a cup of tea from one herb at a time. Notice the flavor, the scent, and how it makes you feel. Did it help with your cough? Calm your nerves? Did it taste nice? What would it pair well with?

Once you have a base knowledge of how things taste and work, you'll be able to add in other herbs and create delicious blends. 

Even after you have a hunch about what herbs you'd like to put together, I recommend making just a small batch of tea to start with so that you can be sure you like it.

Measure by Parts

One of the simplest ways to build blends of multiple herbs is to measure them out by parts when mixing everything up so you can keep track of what ratios you liked. All this means is that you select a unit of measure, usually a teaspoon, and dole them out accordingly.

For example, let's say I decide to make a tea that's two parts nettle leaf, one part raspberry leaf, and one part oatstraw: I would measure out 2 tsp of nettle leaf, and 1 tsp each of the raspberry leaf and oatstraw. Maybe after trying this blend, I'll decide it should actually be two parts raspberry leaf instead of one - I'll just add another teaspoon next time. This also makes it easy replicate a blend you like, or to scale up if you decide to whip up a bigger batch. 

Herbs to Start With

If you're starting from square one, it can be hard to decide which herbs to stock your apothecary with. As I mentioned before, I wrote a post on how to begin building a home apothecary, and I highly suggest checking it out before you get started!

That said, here are a few of the herbs in my apothecary that I use very frequently and that, in my experience, blend very well with each other and with other herbs.

Peppermint - Refreshing, gently stimulating. Nice for tension headaches, mild nausea. Cooling.

Raspberry leaf - Mineral rich, nourishing, with a tart, earthy flavor. Gentle astringent and helpful for cramps.

Nettle - Mineral rich, nourishing, with a green, earthy taste. A wonderful plant to support all systems of the body.

Chamomile - Calming, helpful for reducing inflammation and calming an upset stomach/encouraging healthy digestion. Gentle floral taste, but bitter when steeped for more ten minutes.

Hibiscus - Full of vitamin C. Tart, cranberry-like taste. Cooling.

Calendula - A wonderful antiseptic, vulnerary herb. Help to reduce inflammation, heal the gut, and move the lymphatic system. Floral, mild, earthy taste.

Cinnamon - Warming, moistening. Spicy, earthy taste. Blends well with many other herbs.

Rose - Uplifting, calming to the heart. Beautiful scent and gentle floral taste. A wonderful element to add to your blends.

Lavender - Aromatic, soothing, relaxing. Aids the digestion and helps to relax mental tension. Can be overwhelming on its own, but lovely added in small amounts to other blends

Oatstraw - Deeply nourishing and calming. Very mild, neutral flavor - wonderful in almost any blend.

Create a Ritual

I've gotten in the habit lately of brewing myself a cup of tea in the late afternoon, pouring it into a thermos, and bringing it with me on my daily walk with my husband and dog. It may seem trivial, but this is something I really look forward to; a warming mug of tea at the end of day helps me to feel relaxed and grounded, and there's something immensely comforting about a warm drink when you're out walking in the cold.

I have a firm belief that little daily rituals like these can add greatly to our happiness and well-being. And, if they involve a little extra medicine and nourishment, all the better.

I encourage you to begin your own daily tea ritual, if you can. Set aside a few minutes to put the kettle on, to select and spoon out your gorgeous herbs. Use a mug you really love. Breathe in the comforting steam. Sit down and enjoy the present moment.

 

Be well,


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