Back in my early teens, I discovered the incredible pleasure of “afternoon tea.” Those adorable little sandwiches, the elegance of pouring perfectly steeped tea from a delicate, decorated pot, and the experience of sipping slowly from a small cup made my soul soar.
There is just something so enticing about elevating the ordinary act of having an afternoon snack to the status of a grand affair. Now, as a full-time homesteader, heading out to the Ritz Carlton for the 4:00 pm tea, isn't quite in my purview. However, I still like to turn my tea times into special events.
I've traded frilly, fussy ceramic pots for pottery mugs that fit perfectly in the palms of my hands. In lieu of tiny tea sandwiches, I snack on squares of fresh-baked sourdough topped with homestead chevre and pickled cucumbers. And my teas are made mostly with herbs I grew, dried, and blended myself.
Even if you can't make it to fancy afternoon tea services, enjoying your own hand-crafted herbal homestead teas is an easy way to add some elegance to your everyday experiences. With just a little bit of effort, you can turn those sweet and savory herbs you've got growing in your garden right now into tasty teas and tisanes to savor all winter long.
Teas, Herbal Teas, or Tisanes?
Some sticklers say that “tea” must contain some of the leaves of the plant called Camellia sinensis – an evergreen shrub used to make white, green, and black teas.
Camellia sinensis produces the finest, richest tasting leaves when it is slow-grown at higher elevations. It is only hardy down to 20º F. Though it can grow 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, it is generally pruned to about 3 to 4 feet tall and wide to use for tea leaves.
You can grow Camellia sinensis at home if you live in USDA hardiness zones 8-11 or have a heated greenhouse or other warm, sunny location to keep your plants over winter. However, you don't need to grow your own Camellia sinensis to make your own flavorful blends at home.
Infused beverages made of dried leaves, spices, and other flavoring agents that do not contain Camellia sinensis are technically called “herbal teas” or “tisanes.” These can be just as delicious and comforting without the caffeine.
Or, you can even add other herbs to your plain old white, black, and green teas to make them even tastier!
Make Delicious Tea Blends At Home
There are several different ways to go about making tea. You can start by growing your own herbs. You can steal them from fellow gardeners who grow them or buy them fresh at the farmers market or grocery store. Or, you can order them pre-dried from suppliers who make herbs for medicinal and edible uses, as well as teas and infusions.
Sometimes I use all three methods. However, for the most part, tea blending starts in the garden for me.
6 Tips For Harvesting Herbs
Harvesting herbs at their peak flavor, processing swiftly, and storing safely are critical steps for making good blends for your teas and infusions.
Tip 1: Avoid Harvesting in Hot Weather
In hot weather, plants tend to lose some of their essential oils to evaporation or transpiration. They'll be less aromatic and won't stay fresh as long when drying.
Harvesting in cooler weather such as spring or fall, when herbs are thriving and have the most color and aroma can bring out the best flavors in your homemade tea blends.
Tip 2: Avoid Harvesting in Extended Wet or Dry Periods
Heavy rain can dilute the flavor of your herbs. Extended dry periods can also cause your flavorful favorites to become more bitter.
Harvesting when your herbs have been well-watered, but not drenched, for several days can dramatically intensify the flavors and aromas of your dried herbs.
Tip 3: Harvest Relative to Flowering
When plants flower, they put most of their energy into bloom production. The leaf and stem maintenance become secondary to flower growth.
Generally, harvesting before plants begin to flower is optimal. Alternatively, you can harvest after blooms have been dead-headed and plants have recovered from flowering.
If you want to make pretty tea blends, then I also recommend harvesting the edible flowers of your favorite tea herbs to add to the mix.
Tip 4: Dry Herbs Quickly
The key to capturing the full flavors and aromas of fresh herbs and spices is to dry immediately and quickly after harvest without exposing plants to direct sunlight. There are lots of ways to achieve this result.
– Use Your Oven
One of my favorite no-stress ways of doing this is to spread my herbs, flowers, and seeds out on a baking sheet and set them inside my gas oven (without turning it on). Because I have a lit pilot light, the oven runs at around 90º F and has almost no humidity.
– Use a Shady Laundry Line
– Use a Dehydrator or Oast Box
Using an electric dehydrator works well for pungent herbs and seeds that will only be used in small quantities like rosemary or lavender. However, for your main tea herbs, you may be drying quantities that are too large for your standard electric dehydrator.
In that case, using something like the oast boxes designed for drying hops, works well for drying large quantities of herbs in a hurry.
Tip 5: Store Herbs in Air Tight Containers
Check your herbs often as you are drying them. As soon as they are thoroughly dry, crumble them up, and store them in airtight containers. Glass mason jars with tight-fitting lids or recycled tea tins work great for this purpose.
Never store dried herbs in direct sunlight.
Tip 6: Skimp on Stem Picking
I hate picking all the dried stems out of my tea herbs. So, I don't.
I pick out the big obvious stems that are hard to fit in my containers. Otherwise, I am not so picky about just having leaves in my mixes.
If you plan to put your mixes into tea bags instead of just putting them directly in your teapot or using a loose leaf tea strainer, then you may need to get a bit pickier. Otherwise, skimping on the stem picking will save you tons of processing time and make you more likely to dry your herbs for use in teas and infusions.
3 Steps to Make Your Blends
Regardless of whether you grow, free source, or buy your blending herbs, once you have dried herbs, the process for making your own mixes is the same for all these methods.
Step 1: Choose Your Base
Tea blends are made by mixing complimentary flavors. For example, a full-bodied black tea seasoned with cinnamon makes for a fabulous wintery pick me up. A peppy peppermint with just a hint of licorice and black pepper can do the same without the caffeine.
Generally, your base herb will make up 50-75% of your blend. Picking the base herb that will contribute the primary flavor and body style to your tea is like preparing your canvas for paint.
We all have different tastes, so your base herb should be tailored to your personal preferences. But, here are some of my favorite base herbs to get you started.
1. Tulsi or Holy Basil
This incredibly easy to grow member of the basil family is one of the absolute best bases to use if you want a caffeine-free tisane that pairs well with milk and honey. It's also the perfect base for making a spicy chai-style tea.
2. Peppermint or Spearmint
Peppermint or Spearmint are two of the strongest, most prolific growing mints. They both make excellent choices as a base for your tea. Sometimes they are even used without any additional flavoring components.
Many people don't think of oregano as a tea herb. But it makes a delicious base when paired with other stronger flavors such as licorice or anise or spices like cinnamon or cloves. This prolific producer also adds a lot of dark color and body to an herbal tea mix.
4. White, Green, or Black Tea
Even if you don't grow your own Camellia sinensis at home, there's no reason you can't use purchased plain loose leaf white, green, or black as the flavor base for your homegrown herbs.
In fact, one of the most popular teas on the planet, Earl Grey is made with a black tea base with a hint of bergamot. Caffeinated chai teas, too, are made by starting with Camellia sinensis leaves as the base.
Chamomile is a very aromatic but delicately flavored flower that provides more calming benefits and flavor punch when used as the primary portion of a blend recipe. I use both perennial Roman and annual German chamomile for my teas to get a more extended harvest period and increase my production.
6. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is another prolific member of the mint family that makes a great canvas for other flavors. Despite its strong lemony aroma, when dried and used in tea, the lemony fragrance is more subdued. What comes through flavor-wise is a hint of bitter and a mild minty quality that makes this a good vehicle for a wide variety of other aromas.
Almost any edible herb or plant that you enjoy can be used as a base. Using herbs that are easy to grow and prolifically produce is a great way to cut costs and do less work!
Step 2: Choose Your Flavor Agents
If your base ingredient is your canvas, the flavor agents are the brush strokes that bring your vision into focus. Just as with painting, you can use whatever colors and flavors you want to make a blend that suits your tastes.
These ingredients will make up roughly 25-50% of your blend, depending on what you chose as a base. In the case of really strongly flavored herbs like lavender, they may only make up 5% of the mix.
Here are some taste groups and herb ideas to consider using in your blends:
Hints of anise and black licorice are very common in herbal tea blends. There are many different herbs you can use to create this flavor complex.
Licorice root is an obvious choice. But, you can also use true hyssop, anise hyssop, perilla, French tarragon, wormwood, and horehound to bring in that bitter, almost medicinal and candy-like taste we associate with cough drops (and love in our tea).
Dried orange and lemon zests make great flavoring agents. However, there are many other ways to bring in a bit of citrus even when you can't grow lemons in your planting zone.
Lemon verbena, bergamot (the herb, not the orange oil), rose hips, hibiscus, lemon thyme, and (my personal favorite) lemongrass all make great citrus substitutes when dried and used in tea blends.
Particularly for people who don't plan to add sweetener to their teas, bringing in herbs that convey a fresh taste profile can make for a real treat. Dried stevia, pineapple sage flowers, catmint, and sweet mace all give the illusion of sweetness without the glycemic index (or calories).
Floral flavors used to be incredibly popular. They fell out of favor for a while but are making a come back. Some of my personal favorites are violet flowers, rose petals, calendula, and lavender seeds. Dandelion tea is becoming a popular favorite.
Some flowers like nasturtiums, hollyhocks, and pansies don't contribute much by way of flavor. However, they can be dried and added to the mix to add color.
Earthy flavors are also sometimes referred to as herby. They tend toward the savory spectrum and come through loud and clear in things like rosemary, Italian basil, chives, and cilantro. When used in really small doses and paired with other flavors like floral or licorice, these add complexity and balance to tea blends.
Milder herbs like stinging nettle, raspberry or blackberry leaves, or catnip are less pungent and can be used in larger quantities to add earthiness.
You can use actual spices in your tea blends too. Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, star anise, coriander, peppercorns, and juniper berries are some of my go-to tea spices.
When using spices, they tend to be heavier than dried herb leaves and settle to the bottom of blends. So, I mostly like to use spices when I am making tea bags. That way I can put small amounts of these flavors in with my blends to ensure the right ratios.
I use round coffee filters as tea bags since they are cheap and easy to find. The fibers are less porous than official tea bags. So I add a bit more of my tea blend to the coffee filters to ensure the flavors steep well in a cup.
7. “Out There” Flavors
“Out there” flavors isn't precisely a taste category. It's more of an invitation to be creative. You can use all sorts of different dried substances in your tea mixes.
For example, I like to use dried mushrooms like shiitake combined with an oregano base and bit of dried cilantro to make a savory winter tea that almost drinks like a broth.
Dried, minced fruits like apples, persimmons, and mangos add an enormous amount of intense flavor. Coconut, cayenne, cacao nibs, and more can all be added to your tea blends to transform them into adventure or dessert teas.
Step 3: Stir, Sample, and Store
Once you've picked your base and your flavors, the last step is to mix them. I tend to work in big batches, so I use a large wooden bowl to toss my herbs. Then I use my canning collar and my hands or a ladle to transfer my blends to mason jars.
Before I do that though, I like to sample a small cup to make sure I got my blend right. The combinations get better after the herbs have been allowed to meld together in a container for a week or two. However, you can still tell in minutes if it's going to be good!
Time for Tea
You don't have to spend a fortune to make beautiful teas and infusions. Just take your time and make mixes that smell, taste, and appeal to you visually. Blending your own teas is almost as much fun as drinking them!
When you have a nice collection of teas to share, invite your best friends over for a pot-luck afternoon tea. Encourage them to bring the finger sandwiches and tiny cookies. Then, you can all enjoy the luxury of a 5-star afternoon tea without the price tag!