March 16, 2010

tea lady

— Walking into Homegrown Herb & Tea is a bit like walking into a Western saloon that has been transported into the 1970s.

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Sarah Richards owner of Homegrown Herb and Tea in Portland, adds honey to a jar of iced tea Thursday, May 8, 2008.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: A jar of "Pitta Plunge" iced tea steeps on the counter at Homegrown Herb and Tea in Portland, Thursday, May 8, 2008. It's made with peppermint, spearmint, rose petals, lime peel, cucumber slices, and honey.

Jack Milton

Additional Photos Below

There's even sarsaparilla in one of the tea blends proprietor Sarah Richards serves up in big, steaming pottery cups the size of soup bowls. Belly up to Sarah's bar, pardner, and get a healthy dose of Eastern philosophy with your ''El Mexicano Por Favor,'' an herbal tea blend of cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, sarsaparilla and cacao nibs.

I had heard of this apothecary-style tea shop on Munjoy Hill through two friends who are fans, and have seen references to the place on local food blogs. But I'd never stopped in myself until a few weeks ago, when my best friend suggested we swing by after brunch at the Front Room because she wanted to pick up an ounce of herbal tea to take home.

Richards, 37, is known for her herbal teas, but also for her knowledge of Ayurveda, an Eastern system of medicine that uses nutrition and herbs to bring the body into balance, and for her uncanny ability to tune into peoples' needs. She's often described as being ''like a bartender,'' which makes sense because she was a waitress and bartender for many years. Customers come in, sit at the bar and tell her their problems, and she concocts something herbal to make them feel better.

During my first visit, she laughed about the bartender comparison, saying at least now her customers can remember her advice in the morning. She likes the analogy because ''it takes all the stuffiness out of 'tea shop.'''

Jay Levine, an energy trader who moved to Portland from New York, comes in every day and sits at the bar with his laptop. He said he finds Richards' store ''extremely comforting and very inviting. There aren't that many places that exude this kind of aura.''

Some days Richards asks Levine how he's feeling emotionally. On the day I met him, he was a little under the weather physically, which was unusual, and Richards was mixing up a custom blend for him.

''She's a good read,'' Levine said. ''I trade energy for a living, and my hallmark -- the reason I'm successful -- is because I read things from a gut-instinct standpoint. I go on the fly, which suits me and my clients very well. And she's the same thing.''

How much of the appeal of Homegrown Herb & Tea is based on physical results and how much is psychological is up for debate, but there's no question Richards' regulars love the place and its mystical mojo.

And so does Richards.

''This is absolutely like nothing I've ever done in my life in terms of it just making me happy -- happy to be here, happy to be doing what I'm doing,'' she said. ''I'm exhausted most of the time, and I have a lot of stress in terms of making the finances meet. In meeting my needs financially in life, this was a big shift from stability to kind of instability.''

Richards grew up on a farm in New Sharon, where her brother still lives and grows some of her herbs. She spent nine years as a Spanish teacher, but the idea of becoming ''the tea lady'' was always in the back of her mind. She's been making tea blends for friends and family for 15 years.

Richards first learned about Western herbalism and its more medicinal approach to using herbs. About three years ago, she started studying Ayurveda, which is all about ''balancing'' a person's constitution.

''When I read my first book about Ayurveda, it was as though I learned the key to truly healing people,'' Richards said. ''I really believe that the energy piece is the primary therapy.''

Today, she combines the two approaches -- choosing Ayurvedic blends to balance energy in the body and handpicking Western herbs that will have a more direct effect on someone's ailment. She's committed to helping people, but does not claim to cure anyone.

When people come to Richards for help, she asks them to reflect on what's going on in their lives and in their bodies, ''which is something that most people never do.''

''If you actually reflect on the imbalances in your lifestyle, you paint a very perfect picture of what's wrong,'' she said. '' If somebody comes in and says, 'Oh, I've got a cold,' I've got at least three or four questions to ask them, like what system is it affecting mostly? Is it a head cold, chest cold, fever? Are you having cold sores?

''I ask them a couple of questions that are indicative of certain doshas or (body) types, so that I have a sense of what their imbalance is, so that I can make a cold blend that's balancing.''

For colds, Richards often starts with her generic blend, ''Sniffle Tea with a Sore Throat Kiss,'' which has ingredients such as licorice, slippery elm, ginger and cinnamon, and customizes it from there.

Herbs are everywhere in the store. In the front windows, there are pots of rosemary, sage, lemon verbena, St. John's Wort, peppermint, spearmint and other plants. Some herbs are kept in antique sewing drawers; others in pine spice drawers that look like antiques but are not. Just under the blackboard menu are rows of glass jars filled with herbs.

Richards keeps personal tea blends she's made for customers in an overflowing recipe file on the counter.

''I have the funkiest blends in here, things like worm tea,'' she said, laughing.

Worm tea? That one was for a woman who came home from a trip with lingering parasites.

About half of her customers are men.

''I'm fascinated by the Old West,'' Richards said. ''You'll notice little things in my shop are reflective of saloons, like my fan. And the raw wood. I have a lot of people who say they appreciate my shop because they're not drinkers and they never have been, but they love the concept of sitting at the bar and chit-chattin'.''

A typical cup of tea costs $3, with free refills, or you can buy an ounce of herbs in bulk for $4.50 and take it home to brew yourself. Richards rolls the dried herbs in a plastic baggie and seals it with a little label, a visual certain to result in flashbacks for tea drinkers of a certain age.

In the back of the shop is a small room with a beaded curtain, figures painted on the walls and lots of cushions for relaxing while you and your friends drink tea. More flashbacks.

Richards also makes some food, such as rosemary crumpets, lavendar shortbread and three kinds of sandwiches. She's planning fresh salads for summer, with cheese and bread on the side, and 10 different blends of iced tea. She'll also be having a summer farmers' market once a week featuring some of the produce from her family's New Sharon farm.

But make no mistake, this place is all about the tea.

''I actually get a little peeved when people just order food,'' Richards said. ''I almost feel like making a rule -- no food unless you're buying a cup of tea -- but I've got to get over that.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Sarah Richards, owner of Homegrown Herb and Tea in Portland, talks with customers Adam Chau and Richard Wilson Thursday, May 8, 2008.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Apothecary drawers store herbs in Sarah Richards' Homegrown Herb and Tea in Portland Thursday, May 8, 2008.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, May 8, 2008: Sarah Richards owns Homegrown Herb and Tea in Portland.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Sarah Richards, owner of Homegrown Herb and Tea in Portland, makes a jar of "Herben Cowboy" iced tea Thursday, May 8, 2008.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Sarah Richards owner of Homegrown Herb and Tea in Portland, adds honey to a jar of iced tea Thursday, May 8, 2008.

Jack Milton

 


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)