Tea Me Up, Calm Me Down

Forget the wassail. What you really need to get through the holidays are these potent Northwest brews.

When I had a market-research job in college, I was assigned to go door-to-door giving away tins of Tetley Tea. I found that it was almost impossible to give it away. Most people felt the same way I did: Traditional tea seemed staid, Brit, and altogether unhip. What was hip was a new Portland product called Stash Tea. "Stash" was slang for a drug cache. "We targeted colleges," says Stash co-founder Steve Smith, chuckling. "That's why we called it 'Stash.'" At Reed College, kids would get Stoned Wheat Thins in the mail with one package of crackers removed and replaced with hashish. Some stored the hash in Stoned Wheat Thins tins; others preferred Stash Tea boxes. Even if you just used it to store legal tea, Stash made you feel your whole world could be a Grateful Dead concert.

Flash forward 30 years. Most folks have probably stopped storing hash in Stash Tea boxes. The pot connotation is history. The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, who used to ply highways at supersonic speed dodging giant hallucinated dinosaurs with Neal Cassady at the wheel, has slowed down. What does he imbibe before every concert? Kombucha Wonder Drink, an oolong tea concoction brewed by Smith's old Stash co-founder, Steve Lee. "It used to be Wild Turkey . . . and other things," says Smith, delighted that Weir has come to the tea party. And Bob is not alone! Specialty tea sales are growing at around 20 percent or so, while the more generic teas—Lipton and things of that nature—have been pretty flat and declining." Smith's own new tea company, Tazo, got snapped up by Starbucks, and sales last year, not only in 5,000 Starbucks outlets but in department stores and elsewhere, were up twice as much as the specialty-tea average.

It's not that people have quit drinking for effect. It's just that the desired effect of a potation is no longer to see Shiva with a thousand undulating arms and the grinning head of Howdy Doody. Now, a generation once lost in space wants to feel more firmly rooted in a healthy place. When Smith invited a Gypsy to his then-deserted 6,000-square-foot Portland warehouse at the dawn of Tazo to read his tea leaves, she told him, "You know, in my language, 'Tazo' means 'river of life.'" Whoa! Soon after, Smith and former partner Lee took a walk and experienced a simultaneous revelation of the only possible slogan for Smith's company: "The reincarnation of tea."

In a sense, they're also reincarnating the old Stash spirit, only what consumers are after now is to calm down, not freak out. "Our approach is to honor the inherently healthy attributes of tea with names that were more mood states than flavor descriptors," says Smith. "Calm. Zen. Om. Awake. Refresh." Tazo isn't the only tea out for enlightenment (and 40 percent growth). My kitchen cabinet overflows with infusable pharmaceuticals: Easy Now Tea and St. John's Good Mood Tea from Traditional Medicinals; Good Earth Tea for Sleep, Mood, and Tension; Kava Stress Relief from Yogi Tea Healing Formula.

"I wish we could say more about the [health] benefits of tea," says Smith. "At a meeting recently of the Tea Association, we were talking about how we can ratchet up the message and, y'know, challenge—I don't want to say challenge the FDA, but ratchet the message up a little bit, be a little more overt." It's a tricky position: Psychoactive teas usually bear warnings that the FDA doesn't endorse their salubrious effects—and then go ahead and make great claims.

Many experts cautiously endorse the claims, with caveats. "Kava is by far nature's most effective tranquility-producing herb," says Chris Kilham, explorer in residence at Amherst's Medicinal Plant Program and author of the book Hot Plants. "Valerian is a calming agent and will help people to sleep. Passion flower is also effective, though it will not make you feel sleepy, just relaxed. Hops is quite mild but possesses some significant anti-inflammatory properties." Smith singles out valerian and kava: "Valerian is more of a sedative, and kava is more of a mood herb—something that really mellows you out, less of a sleep aid and more of a mood aid."

Survivors of the '70s should note that mild drugs are still drugs, and doctors are good to keep in one's self-help health loop. Everybody's favorite THC-friendly physician, Dr. Andrew Weil, endorses valerian as his No. 1 choice for natural sleep aids but warns not to overdepend on any substance—and don't overlook the causes of tension and sleeplessness, nor neglect a holistic approach to health. Also, he notes that one guy heeded urgings to take aspirin and ginko regularly, and the combined anticoagulant effect made his eyes bleed spontaneously. Bummer! This is no urban legend but is cited in a 1997 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Another risk is sipping and driving: Police in Salt Lake City and San Mateo County recently started arresting people for driving under the influence of kava tea. Prosecutors just teamed up with San Francisco's medical examiner to develop a kava test to bust your ass.

As long as you don't overdo it, your stash of head-trippin' teas is probably safer than whatever you hid in a hollowed-out copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in your dorm room. The reason could be the underlying change in your whole stash philosophy. "Unlike with alcohol," the Associated Press reports of the great South San Francisco Kava Bust, "people drunk on kava are often able to think straight, experts said." That was never a problem in the '70s! But these days, even Bob Weir is thinking straight—as long as he's had his daily Wonder Drink.

Head-Tea Web sites

www.tazo.com

Besides giving you the hard facts about its filterbag, loose-leaf, bottled, iced, and latte-ified teas and multiple ways to buy them on the Web and in stores, Tazo's site concocts a fanciful history of the product, involving the Great Tazo Purge of 100 B.C., from which we're only just recovering, and the all-important Stonehenge connection. Tazo aspires to be more than a brew—it's the Zelig of teas, popping up throughout history at opportune moments. If you want more info pronto, e-mail jen@tazo.com for the outlet nearest your house, or dial 800-299-9445.

www.traditionalmedicinals.com

This truly wonderful Web site is no mere marketing tool, but a ramifying shrub of links and mind-expanding knowledge. Also, they'll send you free samples. Check out their new products—like breadnut-and-senna-powered Chocolate Smooth Move—the tips on brewing (two minutes for caffeinated, 10 for most herbals), and links to botanical gardens and herbariums and World Health Organization data. Helpfully, they quantify the salubriousness of their products: "For example, in the six years between 1994–1999, approximately 68,400,000 individual doses of Throat Coat® were sold, with only 4 non-serious AERs [adverse event reports] reported (or 1 in 17 million). In the same period, approximately 45,000,000 doses of Breathe Easy® were sold with only 13 non-serious AERs reported (or 1 in 3.5 million)." The company's so cool, its electrical needs are wind-generated. Call 800-543-4372.

www.goodearth.com

A darn good tea selection, but only a pretty good Web site, because this user could never get the links to the detailed product inserts to work, and the sketchy product descriptions that are posted have asterisk footnotes that lead nowhere. At least the clickable "where to buy" map works. Call them at 941-412-3799 for more information.

www.yogitea.com

A nice site and fine tea, along with a fun interactive clickable quiz—quick, which of the following neutralizes free radicals? Rooibos, pecans, or red kidney beans. I must confess that I tried Yogi Healing Formula Ginko IQ Tea and still wasn't smart enough to know what the heck Rooibos is. Call 800-YOGI TEA for information.

Tim Appelo

tappelo@seattleweekly.com

 
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