ANNA MORTON & EMILY ERB | LEAVES & FLOWERS | West Berkeley
The ancient ritual of tea is quiet, slow, and considered, without neither the frenzy of urban coffee shops nor the efficiency of restaurant kitchens. Consider it fitting then, that after leaving their coffee and food industry jobs respectively, Emily Erb and Anna Morton started Leaves and Flowers, a Berkeley-based tea company offering hand-crafted herbal infusions and small-batch teas.
Leaves and Flowers officially launched in November 2014, but it was a year before that, in the fall of 2013, that Emily and Anna committed to starting a tea company together. It was a logical next step for both of them: Emily’s experience in coffee translated well into another taste-centric brewed beverage, and Anna, who had finished her coursework at the California School of Herbal Studies in Sebastopol and was working at a restaurant, desired more nourishing and healing work with food. They were new friends, but when Emily approached Anna about her idea for a tea company (she had a dream they would work together), both women immediately saw their complementary affinities and abilities. Their friendship and business developed simultaneously, says Emily.
The ancient ritual of tea is quiet, slow, and considered, without the frenzy of urban of coffee shops or the efficiency of restaurant kitchens. Consider it fitting then, that after leaving their coffee and food industry jobs respectively, Emily Erb and Anna Morton started Leaves and Flowers, a West Berkeley-based tea company offering hand-crafter herbal infusions and small-batch tea.
Tea seemed simple enough. But in its most familiar and convenient form, we see not the whole leaf but its shredded parts—semblances of herbs and leaves and flowers—enshrouded in a white filter-paper bag, attached to a string. Anna and Emily wanted to make tea differently. For one, they wanted to focus on the plant, and they wanted to work with local farmers to procure herbs, a far cry from most of the international derivations of tea that are common today. “We started with the herbs we had access to,” says Anna. They went around to local farmers’ markets asking farmers whether they’d be willing to grow herbs for tea production. Most farms, they realized, grew small batches for culinary production, but didn’t grow 200 pounds of lemon balm, per se. “Some people were on board with us immediately,” says Emily, including Green String Farm, Bernier Farm, and Marin Roots Farm. Now Leaves and Flowers has an entire community of farms that grows eight different herbs for them, including lemon verbena, oregano, sage, tarragon, and nettle—and all the farmers have been extremely supportive.
Herbs are dried on perforated sheet pans in the Leaves and Flowers warehouse in Berkeley, a spacious room that appears to be intentionally sparse and functional. After drying, they are de-stemmed, stripped, and rolled before the blending begins. Preserving the integrity of the plant throughout the entire tea-making process is rigorous, labor-intensive, and demanding. But in all the work that Anna and Emily do, it’s clear that the wholeness of the herb—a plant with healing and medicinal qualities—matters, both in its cultivation and its use; it’s not merely a commodity or a culinary triviality. “We just let the herbs be what they are,” says Anna.
When Anna and Emily began experimenting, they realized that they could not make tea blends haphazardly and randomly. In fact, blending required a consistent system and a practically scientific methodology. “At first we thought we were going to make flavor-driven blends,” says Anna. “We didn’t realize how hard blending was going to be.” They had to take into consideration: the size and shape of leaves, the consistency of the tea, and how micro-batches of tea could be scaled into much larger batches. Anna compares the process of finding a balanced blend to mixing essential oils for perfume. “You find a chord or a pair, like ginger and rose.” You test out varying proportions of each part along an entire spectrum (90-10, 80-20, 70-30, etc.) until equilibrium is reached. The resulting flavor strives for harmony and detectability of each ingredient. The first blend they made is still one of their most popular: “Leaves of Grass,” a mossy green triumvirate of lemon verbena, peppermint, and tarragon.
As Leaves and Flowers grows, they are faced with the perennial dilemma of every small business: how do you expand production while still preserving the integrity of the product? “We do every part with our hands right now,” says Emily. “The challenge is to scale. It’s daunting but exciting.” And how do you procure a seasonal product that is only available five months out of the year? The questions will continue arise but the literal grassroots effort thus far—striking up relationships with farmers, purveyors, and local makers—seems to have laid the foundation for a truly local and community-oriented business. “We have a strong commitment to working with people who are local. We live in such a fertile place. It’s possible to build a community here.”