Tucked away in the beautiful Cieniga Valley near Hollister is the home of Sara Steiner and the San Benito Tea Company, grower and purveyor of organically grown herbal tea blends. The idyllic five-acre farm produces an impressive array of herbs that are dried, blended and hand packaged, then sold at various venues around the central coast, including the Monterey Farmers Market at Monterey Peninsula College (MPC) every Friday.
“I’ve been growing herbs here for over 20 years,” said Steiner recently. “There are somewhere between 75 and 100 different types of here, and I’m always trying new ones,” she explained. “These are herbs that are best suited for this climate and this type of soil. That’s the key to sustainability. None of these plants have been engineered in any way. They’ve been growing in this world since forever.”
Steiner got started growing herbs as a child, first in San Francisco and later in Sonoma County before relocating to the Cieniga Valley. What started as a small garden gradually grew and she soon began making herbal teas for herself and friends.
With no formal training as an herbalist, Steiner simply experimented by combining herbs that tasted good together. “All of the herbs I was growing had purported health benefits,” said Steiner with a laugh. “That’s not why I was blending them. I just enjoyed the way they tasted.”
Friends and family began requesting custom blends, and soon she began getting referrals from people she’d never met. Sensing there might be something to this herbal tea business, Steiner decided to start the San Benito Tea Company.
“I started this business five years ago, and every year it’s doubled.” When asked if her primary reason for growing and blending herbs was for the health benefits or for the taste, Steiner was quick to answer. “It’s all about taste. If the tea doesn’t taste good, you’re not going to have a second cup or ever a second sip. My teas are blended for taste. They also are believed to have certain health-related benefits.”
Steiner says she gets a lot of ideas from her customers at the farmers market. “I’m constantly getting “wow, I didn’t know it could taste like this” from people.”
While Steiner’s tisanes are blended for flavor, they are often purchased as a way to treat common everyday health issues such as coughs, stress and insomnia. Steiner cited one of her products as a good example. “Good Good Night is a blend that has valerian in it, which is what the popular drug Valium is based on. It certainly doesn’t act like Valium when you drink it, but it does have a little bit of something that seems to help people sleep.”
“I’m not inventing anything. These herbs have been around for years and can be found individually in stores everywhere. I’m just blending them in a way that I think tastes good and I share them with people.”
The various blends can be purchased either in loose-leaf bulk form or in tea bags that Steiner fills by hand. “I don’t use a machine to fill the bags because they have a tendency to crush the leaf, and the smaller pieces oxidize quickly and lose all their flavor. Our tea bags have big pieces of herbs in them, just like our loose-leaf blends.”
Steiner offers her blends in a sampler pack, giving the customer the ability to create either a 4 or 10 pack to see which ones they like best. Brewing them can take some time though. “Tisanes can be a lot like wine: they require a lot of patience, but in the end you’re rewarded with a drink that is very special. After all, you’re enjoying a part of nature in your cup.” She offers samples of different herbal teas to taste at the farmers market each week.
For more information about San Benito Tea Company products, visit their website at www.sanbenitotea.com.
Photo by Lora Schraft