His Cup of Tea: Mark Presley of Taylor Maid farms enjoys an herbal brew.
Taylor Maid's organic teas perk up the cup with wild flowers, leaves, and savory herbs
By Paula Harris
T HIS COULD USE more lavender," remarks one woman as, like a professional "nose" creating the latest designer perfume, she deeply inhales a fragrant liquid and swirls the concoction around in a pure white bowl.
"I can taste the licorice notes, but the finish is a little astringent," adds a man, reverently sipping the heady fluid and rolling it around his palette before deftly spitting it out like an expert winemaker.
It's late afternoon and the pale winter sun hangs low as three men and three women stand around a wooden table under the shade of an old oak tree at the edge of a huge Occidental garden leading into a deep forest.
The group is wearing gardening attire and heavy boots, and everyone is grubby and tired after a day of working on the land. They could use a break, but their attention is now focused on the white bowls as they swish the liquid around and watch the steam rise into the chilly afternoon air.
But it's not perfumes or pinots inspiring this particular group of connoisseurs--they're blending organic loose-leaf tea.
"We analyze the qualities, the different notations, whether the finish is bitter, sweet, or spicy," explains Michael Presley, a tall, lanky, athletic man, who is the chief cultivator for Taylor Maid Farms, which currently produces 15 blends of tea. "We're looking for a real harmony--it's very sensual."
Taylor Maid, which also roasts organic coffees, opted to begin farming ingredients for teas five years ago, deeming that the necessary crops (many of them native to the area) would be a good environmental fit with west Sonoma County. "We felt that growing wine grapes would be bad for the land and that herbs were the way to go," says Taylor Maid co-owner Mark Inman. "This is the easiest method to work with to keep the farm in sustainable fashion."
Now some 50 acres overlooking the coast on the hilly west side of Occidental are devoted to tea farming. The picturesque scene includes flower fields, bicycle paths, and frog ponds, where the amphibians are used to naturally control pests.
Taylor Maid cultivates traditional culinary and medicinal herbs and flowers, including peppermint, lemongrass, sage, hops, nettles, ginger root, rose hips, hibiscus, sunflowers, and English, French, and Spanish lavenders to blend with imported organic green and black teas.
Presley says eventually the company would like to grow its own tea plantation under the extensive canopy of the conifers and redwood trees shading the property. "We live in the Banana Belt here and it's favorable to all kinds of horticulture," he explains. "But growing tea is a future plan for down the road."
The company's final product is caffeine-free, 100 percent organic, and void of the man-made chemicals frequently used in tea production. The blends contain only leaves, flowers, seeds, roots, essential oils, and fruits.
The specialty teas are available at many local stores and at the Santa Rosa Farmers Market. Bestsellers include Herbal Gardens, Black Lavender, and Vital Green (a tasty blend of nettles, lemon balm, and green tea).
"People really like these teas because what they taste is the real herb; there's nothing boosting the herb and no artificial flavors sprayed into it," says Inman. "The natural flavors are subtle but deeper--it makes tea-drinking a more poignant experience."
While some of the blends border on being medicinal, the company makes no specific health claims. However, Inman is quick to point out that nettle is a reputed blood tonic with antiviral properties; spearmint, raspberry leaf, and chamomile have proven calming effects; and lemon balm and rosehips are said to fight colds.
"Our whole thing with tea is that it's a natural food with healing properties--not just a beverage," says Inman. "Remember, the natural healing properties in herbs have been used in tea form for centuries."
Presley agrees, claiming that our "oldest interaction with plants" has been to brew up a batch of hot, soothing tea. "It's our common heritage, all of humanity shares it: Europeans, Asians, Native Americans," he explains. "Now we're realizing that it's a global art."
"Art" is an apt description. From the planting to the harvesting, drying, milling, and blending, a common thread of creativeness runs through the operations at Taylor Maid, elevating the beverage way beyond the common cuppa.
Indeed, when you pry open a vacuum-sealed tin of, say, the company's Flower Power blend (an intoxicating mix of hibiscus, rose hips, orange peel, cinnamon, calendula petals, cornflower petals, lavender, rose geranium flowers, and essential orange and cinnamon oils) the sensation is almost overwhelming. The dried blend is alive with color, like a burgundy and orange-hued potpourri--and it smells like Christmas cookies. Tempting enough to bury one's face in the reusable container.
"It's almost like aromatherapy," says Ananda Johnson, part of the Tea Tasting Team, assistants to blending expert Julie Morbitz. "When we stand there and taste--sometimes from silver goblets, sometimes from white china bowls so that we can see the color--Julie tries to pull responses from each of us about what we see, smell, taste, what it makes us think of, and how it makes us feel," Johnson says. " We're really committed to this. It takes a lot of work and study. I guess you could say that tea is our destiny."
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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.