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Updated: Thursday, 27 Sep 2012, 2:34 PM EDT
Published : Thursday, 27 Sep 2012, 2:34 PM EDT
GREENWOOD, Ind. (AP) - The aromas of lemon grass, cinnamon and coconut wafted out of the glass jars as each was opened.
Bins filled with whole-leaf tea were marked with names such as Cherry Almond Diva and Mountain Dragon Green and filled with dark green, yellow, red and brown natural ingredients. The earthy odor of tea leaves gave off an exotic feel.
Dan Minear paused over each concoction, wafting each one to get a full whiff. The Greenwood resident is a master blender, and he has studied throughout the world to learn the art of mixing tea. Now, his mission is to expose central Indiana to the possibilities a cup of tea can hold.
"I look for inspiration everywhere I go, from fine restaurants and how they put flavors together in food, to bakers to florists. There's no end to where you can get inspiration for great tasting tea," he told the Daily Journal.
For Minear and other tea lovers, blending has become a specialty niche in the beverage market. Local artisans work with whole-leaf teas, carefully mixing spices, herbs and fresh fruit to find the smoothest drink possible.
Masters such as Minear can create drinks that taste like a chocolate mint cookie or a spicy mango. Their goal is to try and expand the potential of tea beyond a stuffy drink sipped in sitting rooms.
For centuries, teas have been crafted and brewed to combine health aspects with optimal flavor. Tea contains antioxidants, which have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. Other benefits include lowering cholesterol levels and protecting against strokes.
Herbs such as mint, lavender and rose hip also can improve blood pressure and skin health and bolster the immune system.
"Whatever ails us, what we wrestle with every day in life, teas work to alleviate those," said Wayne Ashford, owner of Tea's Me Cafe in Indianapolis. "Tea helps you stack the odds of good health in your favor."
Wayne and Stacey Ashford started Tea's Me Cafe eight years ago as a way to present unique tea concoctions to the general public. Combining modern decor with Eastern art, the small shop serves more than 80 blends, many that the Ashfords have put together themselves.
The Ginger Peach uses a full-leaf China black tea with bits of peach, citrus peels, ginger and apricot. Vanilla bits and cloves balance the fruit taste with some sweet and smoky flavor.
Another of his inventions, Evening in Missoula, is an herbal blend that takes on a strong orange-chamomile flavor. His mix contains rose-hip peels, orange blossoms and fennel seeds.
"We try to pair things that go well together. But we try to be adventurous as well," Stacey Ashford said. "As long as it's good on your palette, we'll try anything."
As such, specialty tea blending has become one of the fastest-growing segments of the beverage industry, according to the Tea Association of the USA. Industry forecasts show that tea has the capability of doubling its volume over the next five years and may grow at an even faster pace with the right support.
Already, that growth is showing in central Indiana. Specialty and loose tea shops have opened throughout the Indianapolis area.
Julie Fernatt and Keither Palmertree have been drinking and blending teas for decades now. They first experimented with tea for their own use. But after realizing the physical and mental health benefits of the drink, the couple decided to start selling their creations to the public.
"We had over 60-some flavors, but where we got it down that these are the flavors people seemed to like, we stuck with them," Palmertree said.
That interest led to the founding of their own blending company, Kei Tea. Based in Carmel, they have their own studio and shop where customers can sample different styles and flavors. The couple also frequent farmers markets around central Indiana on the weekends.
Sometimes, shoppers will come to the shop and ask for particular flavors. After a few different people asked about the spicy Middle Eastern herb fenugreek, Fernatt and Palmertree created a blend using green tea and fennel.
"Fenugreek is known for blood sugar regulation and for nursing moms. So we developed a tea around that," Fernatt said.
Others are just fun flavors that they've thought would be tasty. Their lavender lemon berry tea combines white tea, lavender, lemon grass and bits of dried raspberry.
Though the tea is imported from around the world, Fernatt and Palmertree grow many of the herbs and spices used in the blends in their own gardens.
"It takes a little time, it's messy, but it's something that if you put the care into it, you can realize the benefits of herbs," Palmertree said.
Minear, a Greenwood resident, speaks with pride about his varying creations for his business, Humboldt County Tea Co.
Yorkshire Harrogate is a mix of four varieties of black tea to make a deep-tasting drink. By adding a little milk, it turns a brilliant golden color.
Chocolate mint cookie, a black-tea concoction, has the sharp, crisp taste of Thin Mints.
Probably the signature blend is called
Naptown Snoozer. Using 12 herbal botanical ingredients, the mixture is known to foster relaxation and even induce sleep.
"Dreams are more vivid, and there are no side effects in the morning," Minear said.
One of his mixes, Lover's Breakfast Tea, blends two black teas with wild mountain lavender from Tibet. Minear has found that the tea gets the blood and mind working, while the lavender balances any caffeine rush on the other side.
"What this does for me is it gets me started in the morning, invigorating the body but mellowing the mind," he said. "When I cup the lavender by itself, it makes my lips and tongue go numb. That's how you know it's working."
Minear has been fascinated by tea for 14 years. In 1998, Minear founded a business in Lafayette called Murky Waters Coffee Co. He had just retired from his job as a purchasing agent at Purdue University, so he and his oldest son started a coffee house.
While his emphasis was on coffee, Minear found a growing market for whole-leaf teas. He encountered a tea master while at a food show in California and started learning the art of blending tea. He learned the principles of blending, flavors that would always work together and others that clash.
He sold his coffee shop after seven years, moved to Indianapolis and has focused on unusual tea blends tastes and educating people about drinking tea.
His tagline is "Travel the world in a cup," and the flavors try to reflect the diversity of the beverage. Most people have only had iced tea or more common varieties such as English grey, never realizing how much potential for creativity the plant has, Minear said.
To mix up his blends, Minear starts with basic tea leaves. Some are made with black tea, with its stronger flavor and rich color. Others include the white varieties with subtle and refreshing tastes.
Minear focused on whole-leaf teas, which tend to keep their flavor and nutrient profiles better than chopped varieties in tea bags. Each cup has a more concentrated dose of antioxidants such as polyphenols and flavonoids when prepared that way, he said.
"Everything is blended for health first. My job is to make it taste good," he said.
All of Humboldt County's tea is imported from small, sustainable growing gardens throughout the world, from China to Thailand to Indonesia. Many are certified organic and fair-trade, as part of the company's mission is to encourage responsible consumption of tea, he said.
With the tea leaves as his base, Minear can dabble in flavor combinations and ingredients.
Coastal Mist blend features hints of mint and pieces of dried peach. The Elephant Moon Chai tea includes the smoky base of Chai with profiles of curry and coriander.
Finding the right balance takes experimentation, Minear said. Sometimes he has to sip more than a dozen cups of the same mix before he has it correct.
Seasons also influence Minear's blends. A black mango version, with real chunks of mango in it, has been his best seller this summer.
So far, Minear has been spreading his faith in tea at local farmers markets. He served samples throughout the winter at the Indy Winter Farmers Market, then spread his time between the Broad Ripple and Carmel markets.
He'd like to gain enough traction to open a shop. The more people who try his teas, the more of a base he builds up.
"I create through a lot of trial and error, understanding all of the different taste curves," he said. "But as I get more that work, I can pass on those principles of blending to more people."
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