What’s Your Cup of Tea?
By Erica Krug | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
When the dark comes early and cold settles in, you can curse the winter and bide your time until spring, or you can choose to boil some water and pour yourself a cup of tea, embracing the quiet season that brings us an opportunity to slow down. It’s winter in Wisconsin, take it or leave it. If you are reading this, it’s likely you are sticking it out, so here we’ve collected some restorative herbal teas found right here in Southern Wisconsin to keep you warm all winter long.
Before we begin, a disclaimer: The term “herbal tea” is a bit of a misnomer. Also referred to as “tisanes,” herbal teas are not true teas because they don’t contain the tea leaf, but are still prepared like a tea. If you want to sound really knowledgeable at the tea house, go ahead and throw around the word tisane, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll call it herbal tea.
Four Elements Organic Herbals
If you were to visit Jane Hawley Stevens’s organic herb farm in the summertime, “you would smell it before you saw it,” Stevens says. Her farm, Four Elements Organic Herbals, consists of 130 acres tucked up on a hilltop in the Baraboo bluffs, about 45 miles northwest of Madison.
Stevens began farming in this spot in the early 1990s when she moved to Wisconsin from Texas, where she originally started Four Elements in 1987 after quitting her job to raise her son. While home with her family, Stevens started making home remedies and soon realized she wanted to share her knowledge with other people. “When I saw how effective herbs were for healing, it became my passion and path for my life,” Stevens says.
Stevens, who has a degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin, says she approaches herbs like folklore and thinks about what Native Americans and pioneers used when they were sick. “Herbs are the original medicine,” Stevens says. “Plants are like a symphony ... They orchestrate the body back into balance.”
At her farm she grows acres of lemon balm, echinacea and fennel for herbal teas and other home remedies, including creams and tinctures. Her production of teas got a boost five years ago when she received a USDA grant to expand her line of teas; Four Elements products can now be found in many states across the country and, of course, in many natural foods retailers throughout our region. Some of her most popular teas include After Dinner Fennel-Mint made with fennel, lemon balm and spearmint, and Tulsi Telepa Tea with holy basil, sage and roses. Another one of Stevens’s favorites is Triple Lemon made with hand-harvested lemongrass, lemon balm and lemon verbena. “It’s great for relaxation,” she says.
Macha Tea Company
On a winter afternoon, throw your coat and scarf over a stool and belly up to the wide wooden bar at Macha Tea Company, 823 East Johnson St., in Madison. You won’t find shots of whiskey here, but you can get one of chai or green tea. Order a warming, spicy pot of Firecracker, Macha’s herbal blend of smoked chili flakes, hibiscus and cinnamon, or a cup of Turmeric Tonic, with turmeric, ginger and galangal. You can even get a carbonated tea drink on tap, if you like.
Macha co-owner Anthony Verbrick started working in kitchens at age 14 and creates innovative, seasonal, herbal blends inspired by the southeast Asian cuisine that he loves to prepare. In the winter months, Verbrick uses a variety of herbs and spices to make warming blends that are good for digestion, sore throats and relaxation. Verbrick says that people often think of tea as something they only drink when they are sick; instead, teas should more often be thought of as preventative medicine that can be enjoyed year-round.
You can find Verbrick harvesting elderflowers from Johnson Street during the summer—“hyperlocal!” He says with a laugh—but most of the herbs in his blends come from Mountain Rose Herbs, an organic herb and spice company based out of Eugene, Oregon. Verbrick likes to experiment with making carbonated herbal sodas on tap, like “the Eastsider,” a dark pink drink made with hibiscus, schisandra berries and galangal, and he is also playing around with nitro-charged tea blends. Usually reserved for serving beer or coffee, the nitrogen and carbon dioxide make drinks smooth and creamy. Don’t be surprised to see bright green Rice Krispies treats made with matcha tea, purple-hued layer cakes and cardamom tea cookies on the counter, and be on the lookout for pop-up lunches and brunches.
Before opening in their current location in January 2016, Verbrick along with co-owner and spouse Rachel Fox ran a tea house on Monroe Street, which is where they met long-time customer, Madison acupuncturist and herbalist Katie Fritz. Fritz recently collaborated with Verbrick and Fox to create three teas for her clients, including one based on a Chinese formula for digestive energy, which contains nettles, elderberry and mochi rice. Fritz says that fall and winter are a great time to enjoy warm drinks because as energy moves inward, “it’s a time for restoration.”
Cha Cha Tea
Maleah Moskoff, owner of Madison-based Cha Cha Tea, has matched several couples, but she also matches people to tea, especially when they think they don’t like it. “There is the right tea out there for everybody,” Moskoff says.
She started her tea business in 2009 when she realized that the loose, organic and fair trade tea scene in Madison wasn’t growing as quickly as the coffee scene. Moskoff now sells teas online and wholesale to Madison restaurants and cafés, including Green Owl Café, Crescendo Espresso Bar, Brasserie V and Salted Root Coffee House. Cha Cha Tea’s organic herbal blends, sourced domestically and packaged in Madison, include Ginseng Spice, Chamomile Comfort, and Harmony, which uses ginger, licorice and lemongrass.
Moskoff, who also does a lot of tea education, loves the act of preparing tea because she believes that it can help you be more mindful—waiting for the water to boil, letting the tea steep, and then sitting down to enjoy a cup. “Tea is a practice of slowing down,” she says.
Do It Yourself
Grow: If you are interested in growing herbs for making your own teas, Stevens recommends starting with easy-to-grow lemon balm and mint. Both herbs can handle frost so they can be planted in Southern Wisconsin in mid-May (they can also be planted in containers, if space is limited.) Stevens says you can cut the herbs throughout the season and dry the leaves in a paper bag. Once dry, cut the leaves and store them in a glass jar in a dark place before steeping in water to make tea. Stevens also offers workshops year-round.
Find: If foraging is your thing, be on the lookout for elderflowers, pine needles, nettles and raspberry leaves. For those in Madison, Stevens recommends checking out the bike path to look for wild things that can be steeped and turned into urban, herbal teas. As with all foraging, make sure you know what you are collecting before consuming—purchase a good book with color photos, or even better, learn from an expert. Classes and workshops are frequently offered year-round from Driftless Folk School near Viroqua, the Wildwood Institute in Madison, and Moonwise Herbs in Waterloo.
Buy: Another option is to buy herbs and spices and create your own tea blends. You can purchase herbs at Macha Tea Company and at Plant Based Goods, 2717 Atwood Ave., in Madison. At Plant Based Goods, there is a section of the store dedicated to creating your own tea blends, with recipe cards and jars of organic herbs and plants including chamomile flowers, burdock root, peppermint and honey bush.