Beverage Blends For Natural Refreshment And Pleasure

Capture the perfect mood with a cup of freshly picked herbs.

As the years go by, I find myself attracted less to herbs as “medicine” and in their medicinal form such as tinctures and pills, and more attracted to that aspect that focuses on life, health, vitality: herbs in the garden, as skin care, as every day tea and food, as teachers and friends, and a part of life to simply enjoy. Perhaps this refocusing is my own renegade reaction to the popular trend of viewing herbs solely as medicine, something one takes when one is sick. This is an extremely limited view of all that herbs are and do and will curtail your understanding of the natural healing power of plants.

Herbology is not a replacement for modern allopathic medicine; it offers an entirely different modality of healing. When one tries to superimpose herbology over the western allopathic system of healing, herbalism loses its potency. In truth, there is no separation between health, sickness and vitality or between medicine and food. That is where herbs are strongest, their potency most revealed, their natural healing most profound — in the everyday using of them as food, as beverage tea, and as “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” type of holistic medicine.

And such powerful medicine lies in these sweet brews — these teas we drink everyday because they taste good and smell wonderful and uplift the spirits. Have you ever had a cup of fresh brewed lemon verbena, rosehips plucked from the vine, fresh roses or hibiscus flowers? Have you ever dug the sassafras root, barked the spring sap flowing birch or the bitter, fragrant wild cherry? Have you ever sipped on the pungent artemesias picked from the wild sea coast, or experienced the lemon-like flavor of the noble pine or flowery fir gathered from the mountains? Beverage blends are teas we brew to satisfy a thirst, a longing of the soul. Now, that’s my kind of medicine.

Have you thought deeply about that beverage tea you’re drinking? Those herbs are grown from the heart of the Mother; they are gifts that capture memories, create moods, evoke the exotic or carry to the heart what’s familiar and homey. Those herbs are nourished by a season of many moons, sunrises, light and storms. Who knows what divine mystery is implanted in the memory code of that plant? Into the tea pot it goes, stirred with a touch of magic, brewed with divine water. Now that’s a special kind of medicine.

Beverage teas can have a specific purpose. Most are extremely nutritious and do serve as preventive medicine, but they are created more for fragrance, mood, taste and enjoyment rather than with a particular medicinal intention. It is important that your beverage blends taste delicious, fresh, and unique. Do not settle for packaged blends for your every day consumption of tea.

Though teas bags may be excellent for convenience, when traveling and eating out, they are never as good as fresh herb blends. The quality of herbs used in tea bags is generally very poor. The herb must be completely shredded to fit into the bag. Air destroys the vital properties of the plants. To mask the stale taste of the herbs, a current popular practice is to mix the herbs with natural and unnatural flavoring oils. Some of these flavoring oils (such as most of the cinnamon oils used to flavor teas) are downright synthetic and toxic. Most tea bags sold commercially are sealed with polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This potent toxin is released by heat; a little extra additive in your herbal tea. When buying tea bags, purchase those that are sealed the old fashioned way — with a staple.

Most pre-packaged tea blends are made with similar ingredients. I, for one, am bored with Red Zinger-type teas. Be creative! Try new flavors. Experiment with flowers, culinary herbs, with aroma and color. Your tea blends should excite you into drinking them.

Whenever possible use fresh herbs. Even the best quality dry herb will taste different than its fresh cousin. It will lose some of its zestiness. My father used to put the corn pot on the stove and when the water was vigorously boiling, he’d hurry out to the garden to pick the corn. That was freshness! Try to capture that same wonderful, eccentric concern for freshness with your herb teas.

I always get a chuckle out of folks who tell me they’ve got a great patch of mint growing, then ask me how to dry it so they can make tea. We’ve grown so far from the living world of herbs that people associate herbs with dried plant material. Herbs are dried primarily for convenience, not because of flavor or quality. Always use your herbs fresh whenever possible. The exceptions to this rule are few and far between and do not concern any of the herbs you would be using in beverage teas.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with unusual and unfamiliar herbs for your beverage teas. Some of the best flavors are combinations of unusual groupings of herbs. Have you tried basil, calendula, roses, sage? When black and green Oriental teas were gaining much popularity throughout England and Europe, sage was imported in vast amounts into China as their most poplar tea. If you’re a mint lover, there are infinite varieties of flavors available. Try pineapple mint, licorice mint, apple mint and chocolate mint.

How To Create Beverage Teas

Unlike the blending of medicinal formulas where accuracy is required, beverage teas can be created on a whim. Ingredients can be added or substituted depending upon what you have on hand. Following is a list of guidelines to help you:

  • Know the flavor and properties of each of the herbs you are using.
  • Start with an idea of what flavor or feeling you wish to evoke
  • Blend for beauty, the harmony of the flavors used, and pay attention to aroma.
  • When your blend looks good and smells good, give it the all important taste test. You will probably have to adjust the flavors as least once.
  • You may wish to add some flowers just for color, some herbs for their scents, and some herbs, such as Chinese star anise, for texture.
  • Keep a recipe book of your favorite blends. Believe me, you will not remember all of the ingredients that made that one tea so exceptional!
  • Your special herb tea blends make great gifts and are always welcome when you’re visiting friends and family.

Proportions Of Herb To Water

Most herb books readily agree on proportions: 1teaspoon of dried herb or 2 tablespoons of fresh herb to one cup of water. These proportions are totally arbitrary, however, because so much depends on the particular flavor and quality of the herb(s) being used. Use these proportions as a guideline only, but the final test is in the taste. When 1:1 or 2:1 ratio doesn’t work, discard the rules and adjust the flavors as your taste buds see fit. In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever used those exact proportions. Each herb lends itself to slightly different proportions and different brewing times. Be willing to experiment and adjust proportions until you find just the right amount. Your reward will be the perfect pot of tea.

How Long To Brew

Along with the quality and flavor of herbs, the length of time you brew the herbs will have a definite effect on the resulting flavor. You can ruin a perfectly good blend by preparing it to long. Flowers and leaves of plants are generally steeped in water (water is poured over the herbs) and allowed to infuse for 10-30 minutes. Roots and barks and more woody plant parts are usually simmered at a low boil for 15-30 minutes as a decoction. The longer you let the herb steep or simmer in the water, the stronger the resulting taste will be. If a light and mild blend is desired steep quickly, strain, and serve tea. If you wish a stronger flavor, let the herbs infuse or decoct for a longer period of time. For instance, rosehips, though delicious, render a rather mild flavor. To get the full rich flavor and the vitamin C and bioflavonoid content of rosehips, I usually pour boiling water over them and infuse for several hours or overnight. Here’s two of my favorite recipes:

Everyone’s Favorite Old Fashioned “Root Beer” Tea

  • 3 parts sassafras bark
  • 3 parts sarsaparilla root
  • 2 part birch bark
  • 1 part dandelion root
  • 1 part burdock root
  • 3 part licorice root
  • ½ part ginger root
  • ½ part Chinese star anise
  • 1/8 part orange peel
  • 3 parts fennel seed and/or pinch of stevia

Herbal Enlighten-Mint

  • 4 parts rosehips
  • 2 parts chamomile
  • 1 part spearmint
  • 1 part wintergreen
  • pinch of stevia if desired

Rosemary Gladstar is one of the leading herbal authors and teachers in North America. Founder and president of United Plant Savers, cofounder of Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center and Native Plant Preserve in E. Barre, Vermont and creator of the Science and Art of Herbology home study course from which this excerpt is reprinted.

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