My introduction to herbal teas came when I was in college majoring in art and industrial design. I was carrying a heavy class load and before and after classes each day I drove a school bus. On the weekends I worked for a farmer. I was a few years older than most of the students and I didn’t live on campus, so I wasn’t really a part of the usual college life.
In the midst of my busy schedule, I began walking downtown during lunchtime for a little relaxation. On one of my walks, I discovered a little café that wasn’t crowded. The Eigerwand café became my daily lunch place. Quiet, with local artwork on the walls, it offered food I liked.
But the main attractions for me were the owner, Peggy Means, and the shelves she had lined with gallon jars full of teas. Peggy was about my mother’s age and she spoke with a delightful rolling Welsh brogue. She had sparkling dark-brown eyes and a quick wit. Peggy had assembled 103 varieties of tea—more tea than I ever knew existed.
For the first few days, I was content to drink a familiar tea. Then, after Peggy had begun to see me as a regular customer, she asked, “Do you know about gunpowder tea? Would you like to try a pot? It’s a bit more expensive than some of the others, but it’s well worth the price.” I had no idea what gunpowder tea was. It sounded decadent, dangerous, and enticing. Once I tasted it, I liked it immediately. It is robust and rich-tasting, with a wonderful green-mahogony color and delightful aroma. The processing of the tea also piqued my interest. The leaves are harvested while still small and delicate. The rolling process, between thumb and forefinger, seals the aromatic oils inside during the drying process so that each leaf looks like a grain of gunpowder.
Gunpowder tea would have become my “usual,” but Peggy gently nudged me to try young hyson tea. While we waited for the tea to steep, I got a lesson. “Hyson tea,” Peggy explained, “is simply the older leaves. Young hyson is the first picking, the smallest leaves and the most flavorful.” Next, she had me explore English Breakfast tea and then the aromatic Earl Grey with its mellow bergamot flavor. “It’s not the bergamot that grows along the roadsides, either,” she said. “This bergamot is a citrus plant, although the aroma is similar to the plant you know.”
I’d sit and draw or read, sipping my tea of the day and listening to Peggy dispense information about teas to her customers. I learned about passion vine for calming nerves and about the disgusting-tasting valerian for mild sedation and sleep. She recommended lavender tea for lifting the spirits, sometimes mixing it with lemon balm and a bit of honey and placing it in front of me when the day was particularly dreary and gray outside. I learned that ginger tea was good for digestion and that feverfew alleviates some kinds of headaches.
I began to take tea notes on the sides of my art projects. I scribbled information about the day’s tea along the tolerance level charts for steel-reinforced I-beams. I wrote notes about teas across the bottom of my class notes for the statistical studies of commercial carpets. My attention turned from why airport floor coverings break down to why gunpowder tea is more expensive than plain old Lipton.
One day recently, I traveled through my old college town of Warrensburg, MO. “Surely,” I thought, “after thirty years the Eigerwand is long gone.” To my surprise, the Eigerwand was there and through the window I could see the jars of tea on the walls and the heavy wooden tables. I went in and ordered a salad and a pot of gunpowder tea. I asked my waitress about Peggy.
“Oh, Grandma only comes to the store in late afternoons,” she replied.
“Grandma?” I inquired, explaining that I’d been a customer years before.
“Oh, then you probably remember me in diapers,” she laughed. And indeed I did.
“Do you know about gunpowder tea?” the dark-eyed young woman asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “I learned from the same teacher you did. It costs a bit more, but it’s well worth the price, isn’t it?”
Jim Long welcomes readers’ questions or
comments; you may e-mail him directly at
email@example.com, or tour his gardens at