As the snow piles up and icicles grow from the eaves, tea becomes a central part of my life. Drinking a steaming, fragrant cup of last summer’s bounty in front of the woodstove on these long winter nights is a cold weather ritual that resonates to my bones. I love the seasons; I love how the most basic ways I spend my time change throughout the year in perfect rhythm with the world around me, and how just when it starts to feel a little stale—say, April snowstorms—the earth is changing to its next phase, as the earliest plants push their way towards the sun. But now it is only the beginning of the season, when the smell of woodsmoke and the silence of a snowstorm feel like coming home after too long away. In honor of this season of joyful homebodiness, of planning next years’ crops and spinning wool by the fire late into the night, here is an explanation of how to make a truly beautiful cup of tea.
A Good Start Tea is the backbone of herbal medicine and it is often the easiest way to get herbs into your daily life. If you have wanted to fiddle with herbs but are having trouble finding the rhythm to actually do it, try drinking a cup of herbal tea every night after supper, when the day’s tasks are complete and you can relax with a book or guitar and just be. This practice helps put the days’ worries to rest, soothes us after overeating at supper, makes up for that last beer, and settles our minds for sleep. It’s surprisingly effective at giving us a good start tomorrow, and it’s an easy stepping-stone to inviting herbs into your life.
Many folks who drink medicinal tea as part of their daily routine like to make a large amount at once to drink throughout the day. To do this, make a quart jar or 2 of tea, let it cool, and refrigerate. It’s good for 24 hours.
Healing Ritual The ritual of drinking tea plays a powerful role in healing and maintaining health. Tea as a medicinal form is a full sensory experience that can be extremely soothing. That deep breath of fragrant steam when you first lift the cup contributes to relaxation, promoting health and healing. As all the yoga folks will tell you, deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our bodies time to ruminate and heal from the hectic go-go-go of our cortisol-fueled lives. Taking the time to make and drink a cup of tea can be very grounding, a short break from our obligations and to-do lists. The ritual of tea drinking is a powerful one that can’t be discounted in any conversation about tea.
Unique Medicine Some health conditions can be best served by tea, as hot water has its own medicinal attributes in addition to whatever herbs you add. People who use herbs to help with anxiety find the ritual of tea drinking very soothing, and it is a safe, reliable ritual to engage in (as opposed to the ritual of smoking cigarettes, for example). The same can be said of herbs to enhance sleep: the tea itself is relaxing. For cold and flu, tea soothes sore throats and rehydrates us, in addition to whatever medicinal stuff you threw in there. The heat of tea is wonderfully soothing to belly aches. For folks concerned about chronic kidney stones (did you drink Beast Ice for 10 years?) or urinary tract infections, the more you pee the better, so take your herbs in tea. The list goes on, but the point is to consider how hot, fragrant, medicinal water can benefit your health when you are deciding how to take an herb.
Drying and Storing Herbs
It’s obviously the wrong time of year to be drying herbs for tea, but it’s the right time of year to be planning next year’s garden. As you consider companion plants, culinary herbs, and general bounty, think about what herbs you might add for tea.
Drying herbs is easy. For most herbs, hang them in bunches or dry them flat on screens or stretched pieces of lace or muslin. Some herbs—the very dense, resinous, or gooey herbs like mullein, calendula, and comfrey—are harder to dry without molding, but there are tricks like using a fan, leaving them in the sun for a few hours before bringing them in, etc. that can be found online.
Store dried herbs in resealable bags, containers, or jars, in a dark, cool place. I have a ton of dried herbs, so I store mine in bags inside of those giant light-tight plastic containers (there are 6, and they’re alphabetized…) but if you don’t have too many, jars in a cabinet works great. Just don’t store them over the stove or fridge, where they’re exposed to heat and humidity, or they’ll get stale or moldy.
If you’re a gardener, storing your own herbs is effortless and rewarding. Blending your own tea is a natural extension of consuming your garden’s bounty that will continue throughout the year. If you’re not gardening, you can buy dried herbs online or from a local herbalist and still blend your own tea.
Choosing Good Tea Herbs
Taste There are some herbs that taste truly terrible. Don’t torture yourself. You get 0 points for suffering through a cup of valerian, kava kava, and spilanthes. If it tastes gross, make a tincture (see Country Grind #1 or my blog for instructions if you don’t know how).
Solubility Tea is appropriate for herbs with water-soluble medicine (constituents). That means the medicine comes out in water, as opposed to alcohol. All plants contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents; it’s just a matter of the best way to extract the medicine you’re trying to use.
Picking water-soluble herbs is easy—just think of what you’ve drank before. Any of the herbs that are generally sold in commercial tea blends are high in water-soluble constituents, for example mint, hibiscus, chamomile, dandelion, rosehips, oatstraw, raspberry leaf, and holy basil. Any herbs that are gooey (demulcent) when you taste them are high in water-soluble constituents, too, like violet, mullein, and borage. Likewise, very aromatic herbs do great in tea, like ginger, elecampane, lemon balm, hyssop, prickly ash, and licorice. Also, food herbs such as nettles, burdock, and chickweed are high in water-soluble constituents. Right there is a reasonable list to get you started and I bet you can name half a dozen more off the top of your head.
Composition of the Perfect Cup
Blending your own tea seems a little daunting, but it’s really pretty straightforward—and then you have fresher, higher quality tea tailored to your needs, and at a fraction of the store price. What Celestial Seasonings knows and most of us don’t is essentially just balancing flavors in an intentional way. A knowledge of herbal energetics really helps with this, but that’s a little complicated for now—suffice it to say there is more to this that you can learn if you want.
It’s totally okay to throw one herb in your cup and call it good; mint tea is a standard for a reason. But if you want to do some blending, choose a few herbs using these general guidelines, or make up your own. What it really comes down to is activating all your senses and taste buds at once.
Purpose What is your tea for? Emotional balance, digestive problems, immunity, overall health? Start there and think of a couple herbs you could use. Try to identify if they are warming or cooling, drying or moistening in your body, and use that to narrow down your choices based on what you want.
Use All Your Senses The fragrance and appearance of the tea have a huge impact on how much you enjoy drinking it. Bright colors glow among clumps of green leaves, so think of fruits like rosehip, schisandra, prickly ash berries, and tiny dried flowers like lavender. Large dried flowers will open in the cup to be little bright surprises, like calendula, rose, and red clover. This is in addition to the medicinal qualities, taste, and fragrance they add.
Balance Your Blend Now pick an herb that is very fragrant, an herb that is tangy or sour, an herb that tastes great, an herb that looks beautiful, and an herb that is sweetly mild tasting. That last one is essential: it will give your tea depth of flavor and provide a backbone for everything else; it’s the central element that holds everything else together.
Like So…Okay so maybe my beautiful herb is red clover, fragrant herb is hyssop, tangy herb is rosehip, incredibly delicious herb is holy basil, and mild herb is oatstraw. I’ve made a blend that will increase overall health, tonify my endocrine system, lessen depletion or adrenal exhaustion, balance my cycle, protect me from toxins, nurture my nervous system, mood, and sleep cycle, protect against sickness and infection, and is high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. I can make a month’s worth of this tea for the cost of a few days supply of good loose tea at the store, if I buy dried herbs; considering I have these herbs dried from my garden, it will be free. It will also look, smell, and taste wonderful—which is really the point, anyway.
Actually Making Tea
There is more to life than teabags. If you separate your tea ingredients into infusions and decoctions, you will have much stronger medicine and fuller flavors, as tough plant parts need more oomph in their boil than delicate parts (this is true of people too).
An infusion is usual tea: hot water, herbs, done. We make infusions of delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers—think chamomile, mint, lemon balm, etc. They’ll fall apart to mush and shreds if you boil them.
To make an infusion, boil water in the kettle. Crush dried plants between your hands or chop fresh plants to release the fragrance and increase surface area for the water to do its thing. Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength. Or use a pinch of this and a dab of that, which is how I do it.
Pour boiling water over herbs. Cover and infuse until it cools to a non-tongue destroying temperature; the longer it infuses, the stronger the medicine will be. Strain and consume in massive quantities.
A decoction is when herbs are simmered, as opposed to having water poured over them. Decoctions are used for denser, tougher plant parts, which need more time and bubbling power to extract the deep goodness. These include roots, barks, fruits, and seeds, like ginger, burdock, fennel, elderberry, and black birch.
To make a decoction, simmer water in a small saucepan. You want to add a little extra for evaporation. Chop or grate fresh herbs. Crush dried herbs between your hands. Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength (or a pinch and a dab).
Add herbs to the simmering water, reduce heat, and cover. Allow herbs to toil and trouble until the room is fragrant and your tea is a rich, dark color, 10-20 minutes, then strain and feel really good about your herbal prowess. Be careful not to burn decoctions or you’ll have to start over due to unavoidable grossness.
Have a beautiful winter and happy kitchen witching.
This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly.