Tea Company Infuses Local Flavor

It’s a bright, sunny day at the Pick and Preserve Food Hub in Barnardsville, North Carolina. Jessie Dean, the owner of Asheville Tea Company, is waiting by the door for farmer Michael Rayburn.

“We’ve got lemon balm, pineapple sage, roselle, sumac, lemon grass, ginger, garlic, and pie pumpkin,” he declares as the door creaks open. The ingredients were grown at Rayburn Farm, about two miles away. Michael Rayburn dries the herbs right after they’re harvested, and makes frequent deliveries of dried and fresh produce in the Asheville area, forming relationships with brewers, chefs, and tea blenders like Dean.

Dean and Rayburn first met through ASAP when the Asheville Tea Company was founded last year. Since then, the business has grown tremendously, and the tea is now available in more than a dozen local restaurants and farmers markets. It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits both the farmer and tea blender.

“It’s worked out very well,” Rayburn says. “We’re actually in the process of building a drying room so that way we can dry more in bulk instead of in small batches, and we’re even going to be plowing up areas of the farm that previously have never been used to grow some of the perennial things that Jessie wants, like wild bergamot.”

Working with local businesses helps Rayburn decide what to grow and how much. “I think the best thing is that I get direct feedback from the buyers and we get to do experimentations and see what works,” he says. “And then they get to tell me exactly how fast did it move, how did customers like it. That gives me the feedback to know, ok, I should plant more of this or maybe this thing really sounded like a good thing, maybe all the books tell me it’s a good thing, but maybe it’s just not working. So drop that. I know I don’t have to spin my wheels debating, or thinking, or philosophizing what’s going to be best. I know directly.”

One herb that has been especially successful is roselle, a relative of hibiscus. It’s deep magenta calyces give the tea a tart flavor and lush color. It’s a beautiful addition to elderberry yaupon tea, which Jessie Dean is blending by hand right now. In a large metal bowl, she pours blackberry leaves, dried elderberries, and yaupon leaves, a caffeinated plant native to the Southeast. She can tell you a story about each ingredient, where it came from and the farmers who grew it.

“Now we’ll add some of this roselle from Rayburn Farm,” Dean says as she blends the tea. “I like to break it up a bit, but it’s nice to leave a couple of larger pieces, too, just because they’re so beautiful.”

Dean could source herbs from almost anywhere in the world, and many tea companies order ingredients online from far off places, but she keeps it local.

“The quality is so much better when it’s local because you’re getting this super fresh product. It’s not sitting on a shelf for nine months or a year. It’s not being shipped from far away. It’s grown right here, processed right here, and then blended and packaged immediately, so it’s really fresh, really high quality, and really flavorful. And it looks different, too. If you put the two side-by-side, something ordered online or something grown right here, and take a picture, the difference is incredible,” she says.

Creating a community that supports local food and farms is part of Dean’s mission. “For me, this is an investment in something that’s bigger than just the business because it’s something that supports our area’s economy, supports sustainable farming and wildcrafting, so I really want our business to be something that is meaningful and powerful and affects our world.”

Learn about more local partnerships in ASAP’s Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org

Aired: October 16, 2017

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