The farm-to-teapot tisanes of San Benito Tea Co.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICE WARD
Sara Steiner, owner of San Benito Tea Co., believes in the terroir of tea.
When she started her business in 2012, Steiner, a winemaker at Gabilan Wine Co. with more than 30 years of experience, chose to approach tea like she approached wine. “My first focus is on the plants— the growing—on where I am,” she says.
At Three Horse Farms, her property in the beautiful wine-centric Cienega Valley of Hollister, Steiner grows more than 50 herbs for her custom-blended herbal teas, properly known as tisanes. Her cultivars range from the familiar, like chamomile, to the more exotic, like jiaogulan, which is similar to ginseng.
Each year there is a-trial-and-error process to find what herbs, both native and imported, thrive best with her growing conditions. “Terroir— that’s what this is about. That’s the focus and that’s the discovery.”
The results are extremely fresh, vibrant, unadulterated teas. Steiner says each offers a taste, smell and sensation that is “a pure and honest expression” of the plants they come from.
Steiner creates her herbal infusions with an acute awareness of the health benefits of each herb, but flavor is a major factor.
“Once I’ve matched up the medicinal properties, I try to make blends that are balanced yet complex,” Steiner says over a smooth and energizing pot of her adaptogenic brew, Morning Cup. “Like wine, that relationship of balance and complexity is what makes something really interesting.”
Steiner’s Limón Lemon Citron is a satisfying and surprisingly balanced brew in which the herbaceous lemongrass and lemon thyme are complemented by the sweetness of lemon verbena and the bitterness of lemon balm and lemon zest. Raspberry leaf and monarda, a member of the mint family, round out the palette.
With so much feedback about people’s sleep troubles, Steiner created her best seller, a salubrious brew called Good Good Night. This blend promotes a restful sleep with tulsi, lavender flowers, wild lettuce and, acting as a calming sedative, California poppy.
Steiner also loves staying in one herbal family, as with her Mostly Mint blend, which includes four different kinds of mint and shows consumers the range of a common ingredient.
No matter the blend, customers can know that unlike the products of some big commercial tea companies, Steiner’s contain no additives. The ingredients are not only pure and local, but they have been estate grown according to organic methods and hand-harvested and hand-packed in the form of whole leaves as much as possible, thereby limiting oxidation. And they’re never older than the last harvest season.
This attention to freshness means that before the annual harvest season ramps up in May, visitors at Steiner’s farmers’ market booths in Monterey, Oakland and Palo Alto (and customers who order online) may find some of her popular teas are sold out. But come summer, her inventory rises again.
“The farmers’ market is the perfect place for this,” Steiner says. “Once people approach you as a farmer, there’s less expectation that you’re going to have everything all of the time. They understand that you’re tied to the climate, the season, your land. And they understand that, as a result, they’re getting a product that is much more vibrant and fresh.” Steiner works mostly on her own with the invaluable help of
WWOOFers whom she hosts for much of the year. Given the laborintensive nature of her product, she’s happy for her company to maintain its intimate scale.
“This is a luxury for me,” Steiner says thoughtfully, reflecting on the journey from seeding to steeping. “I can walk from my garden to the market. I can pour someone tea and say that it was just harvested that week. I can say this is mine.”
San Benito Tea Co.
Rosie Parker, a native New Englander, likes to complain of missing home while living the Santa Cruz highlife—surfing, hiking, writing and working for a delicious craft brewery.