Nothing tells the Smith Teamaker story quite like the story of our mint. The year is 1975, Dan Mills has just moved back from college to a small farming town in Eastern Oregon. Steve Smith, hot on the trail to bring mint to the tea market in America has driven a rickety truck (for the very first time, mind you) along the famously windy I-84 route from Portland to Stanfield. His mission: to convince a young farmer to take a chance on growing mint for tea. Steve had an inkling it would work out alright.
For many years, Steve and Dan spent one week each spring perfecting the cultivation and production of both spearmint and peppermint. The mint they grew together—and trucked back to Portland in that same rickety old truck— would become the bedrock for Steve’s first tea company, Stash Tea, and one of our favorite farms we continue to serve today.
To this day, Dan continues Steve’s legacy and prides himself on being the largest spearmint producer in the Pacific Northwest. All because a bell bottom wearing, tea-loving hippie knocked on his door with a hairbrained idea back in 1975. Thanks, Steve.
Dan was the first of three peppermint and spearmint farmers that our Tea Department spent time with on our recent trip to visit our exclusive mint supplier in the Pacific Northwest this August. We had the opportunity to spend one day in the fields during harvest and one day in the processing plant, which our head teamaker Ravi says was one of the most pristine he’s ever seen. And, he’s visited a lot of tea manufacturing plants all over the world.
Mint is harvested either once or twice per year, known to farmers as a single cut or double cut crop. Our mint leaves mostly come from single cut fields since they produce more menthol and complex flavor notes when cut only once per year. Double cut will dramatically increase production and is mostly used for mint oil production, which is less insistent upon complexity of flavor. Still today, the majority of mint production is for oil – used for cosmetics, cleaning supplies, and food applications. Less than 5% of PNW mint production will be used for tea.
Spearmint and peppermint are grown in very similar ways – they follow a set process of plant, feed, weed, swath, air dry in the fields, combine, then mill. But that’s where their similarities end. Spearmint is light, sweet, and very forgiving to grow. Peppermint is rich, dark, and pungent and can be more difficult to cultivate. A spearmint field can stay in rotation for up to 10 years, while peppermint will need to be removed and crop rotated after only 3-4 years.
In the fields at harvest, it may look like the farmer set out to do their job, got tired, and went back to the house for a beer and forgot to come back. The fields are swathed (or cut) and the cut mint is allowed to air-dry for 3-6 days in the sun. Because of the need to air-dry in the fields, farmers need to take extra care to look at the weather forecast. It’s a very tricky dance. Once the mint is sufficiently dry (about 10%-12% moisture remaining), it’s ready to be combined and brought to the mill for processing.
Like all agricultural crops, mint is highly subject to weather fluctuations and will vary in flavor dramatically from field to field and farm to farm. Vintage, if you will, plays a huge role in the process as well. Rain is unwelcomed until harvest is complete and can wreak havoc on production if unexpected rains come after the fields have been swathed.
Ask any mint farmer what their least favorite thing about mint farming is and they will all tell you the same thing: the weeds! We had the opportunity to taste the makeup of a cup of peppermint with 10% weeds milled with it and the result was undesirable. Bitter, dull, lifeless. The farmers and millers do an exceptional job, taking tremendous care at each step of the process to ensure that no foreign material gets into the final product.