Farm to Kettle: Understanding What’s Behind Your Cup of Big Heart Tea
Tea is simple. After water, it is the most widely consumed drink in the world, and the whole act of brewing a cup is meditative and calming. But how much do you know about what’s steeping in your mug?
St. Louis-based Big Heart Tea Co. is more than a tea company. Founder Lisa Govro and her team work determinedly to connect their herbs and spices with real people, from the beginning to the end of the supply chain. In doing so, they reject the clandestine, exploitative trade practices of the current market.
“We seek out farmers and importers who share our values,” says Govro, “and strive to validate the fair-trade practices behind our ingredients.”
Like those of us who still read paperback books, keep a journal or cook from Grandma’s recipe cards, the tea trade is old-fashioned. “I imagine herb and spice negotiations taking place in a dark, smoky room, with a single, dusty window and a bare bulb hanging over the table,” Govro jokes.
For her, it’s important to not only meet the farmers behind her teas, but to set foot on each farm itself. “Without pointing a finger at anyone in particular, the truth is there’s a long history of deceitful business practices in the tea trade,” she explains. “This is why one of our primary concerns is that everyone involved in the process of making our teas is paid fairly for his or her work.” The workers in the fields are often women, laboring to support their families, and they are routinely the most under-resourced members of the supply chain—lacking adequate footwear, gloves and hats to protect them from the noonday sun, for example.
Besides verifying safe working conditions on the farms, Govro is on the lookout for something unexpected: weeds. While on site, the team makes sure the fields have biodiversity, which is where the weeds come in. “If you don’t see weeds or any signs of life other than the crop that’s being grown, it’s a telltale sign that something strange and unnatural is going on.”
Govro admits that she initially conceptualized Big Heart Tea Co. because she was mad at the health and wellness industries. “I was tired of watching companies market their products to specific target audiences—yogis, runners, other athletes—when, in fact, they are healing for everyone. The general population, which has the most to gain from food medicine, wasn’t even in the equation.”
That’s why Big Heart Tea Co. is on a “covert” mission to make people feel good through herbs and teas. It forgoes industry jargon and talks candidly to consumers. “We make the power of tea accessible and allow people to embrace self-love and healing on their own terms,” Govro says.
Earlier this year, the company released the Origin Series—directly sourced herbs and teas from farms in Ferguson, Missouri; Darjeeling, India; and the Shire Highlands in Malawi. All of them pass its rigorous standards for quality, ethical labor practices and agricultural responsibility. “Our single-origin teas have been available to our hospitality partners for years now, but this is the first step in making them available to the public.”
The Origin Series includes three teas. Everyday Darjeeling is a second flush black tea grown and harvested by a co-op of 60 farmers and produced in small batches “with so much love,” Govro adds. On the company’s first sourcing trip, Govro met Yankhu Tamang—who founded the Darjeeling Small Growers Society to ensure local farmers receive better pay for their tea leaf—and their partnership blossomed from there.
Although Darjeeling is one of the most world-renowned teas, the farmers who grow it suffer greatly from trade inequity. “We’ve never carried Darjeeling tea for that reason,” Govro explains. “But now we have a direct source that we trust. Establishing that connection, seeing those farmers receive fair treatment and being able to share their story, that’s what makes my heart sing.”
The second in the series is a black tea blended with hibiscus to produce a deep-red liquid that is naturally sweet, citrusy and tart. “For me, this tea is particularly exciting because the leaves are grown on Satemwa Estate—established in 1923, it is the last family-owned tea estate in Malawi, Africa—but the hibiscus is grown by smallholders that neighbor it.” For nearly 100 years, Satemwa Estate has prioritized a high standard of living for its employees and their families—an important consideration when Big Heart Tea Co. chooses a new source.
Typically, the main ingredient in the brand’s teas is tulsi, otherwise known as Holy Basil. It’s a gentle, adaptogenic herb, which works with the central nervous system to reduce stress over time.
The third and final tea in the Origin Series was created by combining peppery, healing tulsi and crisp, sweet mints, in conjunction with EarthDance Farms in Ferguson. The female-run teaching farm—the oldest organic farm west of the Mississippi River—grew Rama Tulsi, chocolate mint and other mints for the certified-organic blend. Every bag of Tulsi & Mints has been harvested by hand and dried within two months, making it one of the freshest teas you can buy in the United States.
If these three piqued your interest, you’re in for a treat: There are more teas to come in the series. In 2019, Govro will make another trip to India, this time to the state of Assam, as well as Croatia, looking to source at least 10 more herbs. As an artisan and a businesswoman, she’ll stop at nothing to achieve full transparency in trade.
Local St. Louis folks can get a glimpse of the tea warehouse at Big Heart Tea’s twice-yearly warehouse sale and pick-up event on Saturday, Dec. 22, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The address is 2615 Winnebago St., and customers can enter via the side door on Texas Avenue.
Images courtesy of Virginia Harold Photography.
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