By the time Sara Steiner’s custom-made, herbal tea blends reach various farmers markets in the Bay Area, they will have gone through the most rigorous testing standards—Steiner’s palate.
“I’m more critical than the people drinking it,” says Steiner, who is the owner of San Benito Tea Company. “For me, making tea involves a lot of trial and error. You’re mixing herbs together, and out of the blend you ask yourself, ‘Does the taste sing or is it dull?’ You keep playing with it until you get what you feel best expresses the herbs. The first person that has to be happy with the product is me.”
It’s a formula that has worked ever since Steiner started selling custom tea blends four years ago out of her self-made processing plant on her five-acre estate property and farm in the Cienega Valley. Steiner, who has over 30 years of experience in the winemaking business and is currently a consultant for the Gabilan Wine Company, grows 50 to 60 herbs for her custom-blended herbal teas, properly known as tisanes.
“Fifty to 60 herbs is a tiny fraction of what is out there, but I learn everything about those herbs and pair them up really well,” Steiner says. “I am very conscientious about what I do—every herb I have is booked for reference, and that makes me confident with what I’m doing.”
Steiner focuses on growing one or two new herbs every year, finding ones that thrive best on her property. Steiner came to realize that she could approach tea like she approached wine. Steiner uses the term terroir, or the environmental conditions in which grapes are grown and that give wine its unique flavor and aroma, to describe the process of making quality tea blends.
“Everything I’ve learned from making wine can be translated to making tea,” she says. “When you drink wine, you gain a sense of place of where it was grown. In the same way, you want to pair up herbs so they have a certain synergy and the potential to identify where the herbs were grown. That sense of place means everything.”
Steiner sells a variety of tea blend packages at three Farmer’s Markets every week—Fridays at Monterey Peninsula College, Saturdays at Cabrillo College in Aptos and Sundays in Palo Alto—but customers can also buy her products online, at sanbenitotea.com.
Some of Steiner’s best sellers include the Herbal Sun Tea, a robust infusion that contains Manzanita bark, lemon verbena, peppermint, lemongrass and marigold petals; Good Good Night Tea, a brew taken to promote a deep night’s sleep and contains California poppy, wild lettuce, Tulsi basil and lavender flowers; and Limon Lemon Citron, a lemon lover’s delight that contains lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon grass, lemon zest, raspberry leaf, monarda and lemon thyme.
Steiner grew up loving nature and always had a fascination with herbs, since everyone used them in cooking. As Steiner did more research, she learned certain herbs had purported medicinal properties.
“My sister had terrible bronchitis, and I grew a couple of herbs so I could make tea for her,” Steiner says.
Although Steiner creates herb blends knowing some of the health benefits, she puts a premium on how they taste.
“In the end, you want to finish that cup of tea and have another,” she says.
Steiner loves the interaction she has with customers at the Farmer’s Markets.
“You’re pouring tea for them and having them hear what they say on the spot,” she says. “And that’s invaluable because you have some really dedicated tea drinkers out there, and you’re always learning something new.”
Last year, Steiner started growing Chrysanthemum, which is native to Japan and also the country’s national flower.
“That was a fun project because there was an older Asian woman who came and was coaching me making sure I do the best job possible on it,” Steiner says. “She would give me pointers every week to perfect it in a more traditional style. I realized I had to cut the flowers off and dry them whole. (Once I started selling the Chrysanthemum tea blend) she tasted it and said the flavor was better than what she could get in the store. I’ve been fortunate to say that I’ve had that experience more than once.”