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The Complexities of Herbal Tisanes

By Serena Norr

Herbal blends have been used for centuries. Whether for medicinal intents or pure enjoyment, herbal tisanes are now a major component in some of the world’s most popular beverages. Yet they are one of the most complex when it comes to understanding their intricate composition, quality, market trends and numerous blends. As a major leader in the herbal segment, Germany offers an ideal model to understanding the complexities involved in herbal tisanes.

Though they differ in composition, herbal teas are often categorized with commercial teas, such as green or black tea. They are packaged like tea, infused like tea, and enjoyed like tea, but they actually aren’t tea at all since they do not come from the camellia sinensis bush that tea is derived from. Herbal teas are actually herbal infusions or tisanes that derives from the herbs, leaves, flowers, berries and seeds, from the entire plant or tree.

In particularly, the tea segment in Germany has focused on consumers demand for a rich and welcoming taste, as well as promoting the numerous health benefits. According to a report published from the Euromonitor, an international market study on herbal teas, “Imports of herbal tea in Germany totaled nearly 43,000 MTs or ECU 90 million ($97 million) in 2002 for plants and plant extracts for use in herbal teas, medicines and perfumes, which reflected an increase of 41% in volume and 72% since 1993.” With such a significant boom, it is no wonder so many industry leaders are observing the successful German herbal tea market.

Herbal Market Trends
The German market has experienced numerous transformations that reflect the increased appeal for herbal teas - partly for its bountiful health benefits and distinctive flavor profiles. The plethora of flavors available is also appealing to German consumers. According to Jochen Spethmann, c.e.o. of Ostfriesische Teegesellschaft (OTG), a German-based tea manufacturer, “In recent years, leading manufacturers have introduced an extensive variety of new flavors through the combination of various herbs.” Most of the innovative blends available are an amalgamation of various fruits, herbal flavors or exotic single flavors. Dethlefsen & Balk, Inc., a wholesale company based in Germany and Illinois, has developed 230 custom recipes that are specifically targeted to special orders. Their three signature blends, according to the company, include: Sweet & Fresh, a blend composed of freeze dried citrus granules from natural fruit essences, sweet blackberry leaves, lemon myrtle, pieces of tangerine, marigold and safflower, which give the tisane a bold and fresh flavor without the need of any additional flavors; Olive, a blend with air-dried olive plates, rosemary and sage leaves, red beet pieces, lemon myrtle as well as safflower; and Fennel, a blend with chamomile blossoms, orange, cinnamon and ginger pieces, lime blossoms, stinging nettle leaves, wild strawberry leaves, orange blossom and cloves. Once a customer understands the various blends and its usages, they have free-range to enhance various blends through a unique and personal combination, and such a component repeatedly brings in customers. Despite this, the company has also had to limit their selections due to numerous regulations on the market. “Dethlefsen & Balk blends close to 50 varieties of herbals, but still some herbs are also considered pharmaceutical drugs in Germany/Europe,” stated tea buyer and flavor expert Thomas Dienemann and Grace Chimombe, tea designer. Regulations on the market restrict certain blends from being sold in Germany. “The market trends in Germany also reflect a demand for a high quantity of herbal varietals that can result in an endless possibility of producing new blends,” stated Spethmann.

Manufacturers have also responded to the wellness component of herbal tisanes by emphasizing the health benefits that many consumers are now seeking. According to Dethlefsen & Balk Inc. there is a significant trend in ayurvedic blends, chai and herbals, such as chamomile and peppermint that play a role as ingredients to wellness teas.

Another trend on the market in Germany is a shift towards a demand for red teas such as rooibos and honeybush. Rooibos and honeybush are grown on farms in South Africa and have recently become internationally known as a substitute for commercial black tea. Hugh Lamond from Herbal Teas International, the distributor for Rooibos Ltd. in North America, discussed the specific nature of the herbal tea rooibos. “Naturally caffeine-free and rich in a variety of minerals that is low in tannin, the international demand for rooibos has been increasing since trade sanctions against South Africa were lifted following the demise of apartheid in the ‘90s. Germany is now the biggest exporter of rooibos with an exchange of 400-500 lbs. per year,” stated Lamond.

Quality of Herbal Tea
The quality of herbal teas is directly related to the specialized nature in which herbs are harvested. According to Spethmann, “The plant’s natural juices and oils are at their best and most concentrated as their flowers begin to bud. Segments of the plant that are picked -- depending on the type of plant and the usage intended for leaves, flowers, roots, bark and seeds -- are all potential tea ingredients. The steps in assuring a quality herbal is considerably simple. After harvest, herbs are either spread on large screens or tied in bundles and hung upside down to dry. Herbs can be dried indoors or outdoors- but must be done quickly to retain the plants’ natural oils and color that is so vital to quality and flavor,” stated Spethmann.

“The process of growing and producing herbal blends should adhere natural conditions from start to finish, which accounts for a major composition of the tea’s inherent richness and flavor,” stated Spethmann. Many companies have found that the drying of herbs is crucial to assure consistent quality. After the drying process, herbs are bundled into large sacks and wooden chests for shipment. The process then involves in-house cleaning, milling, sifting and blending so that the herbs can be formatted to the desired flavor combinations.

“After the sifting of tea, its inherent quality, price and flawless analysis (test for pesticides) are some of the key elements that buyers are looking for when purchasing herbs,” stated Dethlefsen & Balk Inc. The difficulty for many buyers in assuring quality resides through farming problems, when herbs interact with numerous bugs and foreign matter from pesticides. According to John Davidson of Davidson Tea in Nevada, “Herbs are notoriously unclean due to the method of their growth, as well as their natural attractiveness to pests. There have been many improvements in the industry regarding quality, as certain companies are committed to only organic methods and pesticide controls.” Though some controls have been taken “herbs also have the unique character of being attractive to pests long after they’ve been dried and readied for market,” said Davidson. According to Dethlefsen & Balk Inc., herbs are required by law to undergo testing for pesticides in Europe. “Mostly these tests are even more extensive with teas. In addition to the pesticide tests, herbs are inspected for mildew and salmonella.”

“The message for buyers is to use suppliers that pay attention to quality controls and adhere to the American Seed Trade Association’s (ASTA) guidelines for cleanliness. We are extremely careful about our herb suppliers, both foreign and domestic, to use only those who have equipment capable of removing as much debris and foreign matter as technologically possible. We then blend in small enough batches for visual inspection, use ferrous metal detectors and finally perform a second visual inspection prior to packaging. There are no shortcuts in herb processing and blending. As an organic supplier, we also lot code everything so the consumer is always protected if something does come up, since organic products can be traced back to the original lot code of the raw materials used in the blend,” stated Davidson.

In terms of specific quality controls, Lamond stated, “About 70% of the bulk tea that is exported goes through Clanwilliam-based Ltd., a partnership of private growers/processors and a cooperative of large and small farmers in the area.” He also added, “All Rooibos Teas that go through Herbal Teas International are placed through state-of-the-art laboratories that adhere to strict fermentation processes and pest controls to help farmers assist in quality assurance.”

According to Dethlefsen & Balk Inc., the quality of herbal tisanes can differ between origins. For example, “Peppermint is mainly produced in Europe, but also in Northern Africa and Eastern European. The herb has an earthy and ‘herbaceous’ taste with dark leaves on the green side with a fine cut. Peppermint grown in Germany tends to be fresher than those grown in Eastern European. The leaf is light green with dark lines and is produced in a bigger cut. The Hibiscus herb is mainly produced in Thailand, Sudan, and China. The quality from Sudan has a very intense and ‘acid-tongued’ taste, whereas Thailand’s - when compared to Sudan’s quality - is much less acidity. The Chamomile herb from Rome is strictly used for decoration. The quality from Eastern Europe is used for taste with a bigger appearance.” It is crucial to understand the point of origin to assure the proper quality and flavor of your herbs. “Tea may look very similar, but the flavors can be worlds apart,” stated Davidson.

Purchasing Herbal Tea
“Many companies purchase herbs from all over the world, depending on flavor and supplier integrity. European countries have done more in the development of organic products (whether tea or herbs) than anywhere else, which has established them as the leading producers of herbal teas,” stated Davidson. Dethlefsen & Balk Inc., only purchases selected premium qualities that encompass about 20 herbal blends in their regular catalog assortment. The most popular from their perspective are peppermint, chamomile, fennel, rose hip, hibiscus, stinging nettel leaves, licorice, lemongrass, and sage, raspberry and strawberry leaves. Spethmann also noted that peppermint and chamomile blends have been so popular in the industry for years that it is now established as a selective blend.

“There are also more organic herbs around the globe. That said, volatile oils, strength of flavor, color considerations and consistency of cut all play a part in herb selections. In loose-leaf teas, visual impact is very important and often the look of the herb reveals what to expect in the flavor. A hand-picked whole clove with bud intact, and a clove stem are usually labeled on packaging as simply “cloves,” but in the finished beverage, they are decidedly not the same,” stated Davidson.

Beyond the vital health advantages of drinking herbal blends, it is crucial to understand the delicate intricacies of origin choices, flavors, and quality that can not only unearth a new appreciation for these rich blends but also open up new opportunities for your business.

Tea & Coffee - November/December, 2006


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