Whenever my sister and I visited our Auntie Mad, she would put the kettle on the stove and ask us if we’d like a cup of tea. In our younger years, the idea of sitting down and drinking tea seemed antithetic to our purpose – a quick stop just to say we’d visited on our way to somewhere else.
As we got older, though, having a midday cup of tea gained some traction. We began to look forward to the chance to slow down and wait for the water to boil, the teabag to unleash its flavor as it steeped. I can recall every detail of my aunt’s kitchen and most of the stories she told while we drank our tea.
Auntie Mad passed away at the age of 102, and I’ve come to believe that her inclination to relax and renew with a cup of tea every day contributed to her longevity.
“We create our illness and our wellness,” says Sarah Richards, the owner of Homegrown Tea and Herbs in Portland. “We can grab a cup of coffee and keep going, but tea makes you wait – and stop – and reflect.”
Richards’ tea shop on Congress Street has been offering people a cozy place to slow down and savor one of her many concoctions of teas and herbs since 2006. On the large blackboard behind the bar, she lists the special blends of the day. In early March, with the wind still stirring the cold, damp air, the offerings included Evergreen Spice, a welcome blend of green tea, allspice, juniper berries and star anise; and Simple Winter Tonic, an all-herb, immune-boosting blend of echinacea, elder flowers, lemongrass, ginger and ginseng, steeped in bowls with honey as a sweetener.
The funky space, which Richards says she felt the need to rescue from its terrible feng shui six years ago, provides seating on corner benches by the windows and along one wall. A beaded curtain hides a small space for a more intimate chat, while the four stools at the bar provide the chance to chat with Richards while she works.
Richards’ shop has become a mecca for those seeking a fresh blend of herbs and teas that might relieve insomnia, a lingering cold, chronic allergies, or stress. On one Friday afternoon, a gentlemen approached the bar saying a friend had suggested he stop in for a remedy for his insomnia. Richards asked him a few questions, such as how often he had trouble getting to sleep (every night), and if he was taking anything for it now (Ambien). Richards suggested a blend of valerian root, linden flowers, chamomile, lavender, hops and lemon balm, which she calls the “Nightcap.” She advised the customer to drink it slowly and forego the Ambien, and she warned that it might taste a little bitter at first because of the hops. With a big smile, the man left with his bag of tea and a tea basket in which to steep it.
“The most spiritual thing I do is offer the space and the opportunity for people to share themselves,” Richards says. “I didn’t understand when I opened the shop that I was filling such a niche.”
Opening a tea shop was actually Richards’ retirement plan. She’d been dabbling in tea making since the age of 20, when someone gave her an herbalists dictionary. A New Sharon native, she taught Spanish for 10 years in the Portland public school system. The impetus for change, she says, came when she learned about ayurvedic medicine and the philosophy of keeping yourself in balance through an understanding of your “dosha type.”
“That was the missing piece of my herbalism practice,” she says. “I realized why the teas were working (to relieve certain ailments). You can be an amazing healer once you understand that.”
Her tea shop’s semi-out-of-the-way location, halfway up Munjoy Hill, allowed Richards the opportunity to grow slowly as she learned more about ayurvedic medicine and experimented with different blends. Her scroll-like menus (and comprehensive website) now offer a plethora of choices for whatever mood or ailment strikes. As Richards explains it, humans are made up of three types of energy that must remain in balance for optimum health. The three types are Pitta, Vata, and Kapha energy, which relate to the elements of fire, air and earth.
Richards says she can often tell which dosha is out of balance by a person’s manner and body type – and especially by what they say is ailing them. She’ll recommend a tea based on her observation, and has even refused to serve someone a blend that she knows won’t make them feel well.
“But people like that,” she says with a smile. “They know I care.”
Her bread and butter these days is her wholesale businesses. A number of restaurants, including the Green Elephant in Portland, serve her herbal blends. But Richards, who also tended bar in her younger days, still enjoys listening to her tea shop customers’ stories and watching them enjoy their cups of tea.
“Creating something with intention and drinking it with intention, I love that moment,” Richards says. “Just drinking a cup of tea – it’s magic.”