Celestial Seasonings Tea Tour
Story and photos by Anne Quinn Corr
Curled up on the couch with a steaming cup of Sleepytime or swaying in a rocker with a glass of iced Red Zinger, most of us have had the pleasure of sipping Celestial Seasonings herbal tea. It is a cup of comfort known across the nation and beyond. Celestial Seasonings is the world’s most widely distributed purveyor of herbal infusions, annually selling 1.6 billion tea bags that are all produced in the plant outside Boulder, Colorado.
Celestial Seasonings offers free tours, a must-do for foodie visitors to the area. Situated just off the busy Diagonal Highway that links Boulder and Longmont, the packaging facility can be seen from the road and has a large parking lot to handle the more than 150,000 visitors that stop by each year.
Enter the Tour Center lobby, sign in as a guest, and pick up your ticket for the next available tour; tours start on the hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tours are limited to 45 participants and tickets are collected as you enter the theater. While you wait for special instructions by the guide, pick up a cup to sample both hot and cold varieties of six of the daily tea selections. Knowledgeable employees behind the counter will provide samples of other varieties if you want to experiment and don’t see the one you want to try.
Sip tea and soak in the kitschy ambiance while you wait. Snap a selfie in a little nook designed to replicate the Sleepytime bear’s lair, complete with fireplace and orange tabby. Peruse original works by artists from around the world that were commissioned for the tea boxes. Admire the teapot collection. Grab a snack. Don’t miss the photo display to the right of the theater entrance; some images show company founder Mo Siegel and early partners in the business in 1969, picking herbs in the Rocky Mountains outside of Boulder and sewing muslin bags for dried herbs that were sold in a local health food shop. Within a year the company moved its productions to a barn in Boulder and 20 years later broke ground on the state-of-the-art facility used for storing, milling, mixing, and packaging.
There used to be a video that explained the history of the company, but on a recent tour the guide did a great job of filling us in. Rumor has it that a new video is in the works, but until then the oral history entertains. Because the tour winds through the plant while it is in weekday operation, tour participants are required to don hair bonnets and beard constraints, if necessary, to protect against possible contamination. Sufficiently garbed, our blue-capped troop of about 20 people headed outside the theater, past the corporate offices busy with employees, and into the packaging plant.
The earthy aroma of fresh botanicals engulfs you as you enter the 150,000-square-foot building. At the first of five stops we heard a brief talk about the ingredients and passed around bowls to smell and feel. The herb of the day was Ethiopian Ginger, both in its dried, whole state and after grinding and milling into a coarse, aromatic powder. The employee operating the grinding equipment on the upper deck wore a full respirator and protective clothing.
We proceeded through clearly-labeled yellow transit lines, past many stacked sacks of dried herbs, to a room with a garage-type door, and entered to learn all about tea. A map on the wall illustrated the tea regions of the world where Camellia sinensis is grown and harvested. The tea plant needs high altitude, year-round heat, and moisture to grow, so it comes from the tropics.
Camellia sinensis provides all the white, green and black tea varieties, depending on what part of the plant is picked and how it is processed after harvesting. White teas are the most delicate, with just the new, unopened buds picked when the flowers are blooming. This tea has the least amount of caffeine and the most delicate flavor. Green tea comes from picking the opened leaves, allowing them to wither, and then steaming or cooking the leaves to maintain the bright green color (much like blanching maintains the bright color of green vegetables). Black tea leaves are picked, allowed to wither, and rolled to release enzymes in the leaves that oxidize, creating a dark color and robust flavor. All these varieties contain caffeine.
Herbal teas, however, are caffeine-free. They are not teas at all but are herbal tisanes or infusions. The branding applied by the early owners of the company sought to link the product to what the American public knew, so they were labeled “herbal teas that contain no caffeine” and an industry was born.
The next stop in the tour is the Mint Room where the peppermint and spearmint sourced from and processed from Oregon and Washington is stored. The zesty oils had some on the tour dashing out of the room, some tearing up, and others deeply breathing and enjoying the menthol.
We snaked alongside the automated production line, avoiding the beeping forklifts, pausing a few times for explanations. Teabag paper was filled with a teaspoon of herbs, sealed, cut, stacked, packaged in protective waxed paper, nestled into boxes, folded, wrapped and stacked in cardboard cases in just a few minutes. We learned why the boxes shipped internationally are vertical rather than horizontal like those in the U.S. (to fit better on shelves where there is less space), and that Canada is the biggest international customer (with 50% of market share!). We then exited through the Tea Shop, able to purchase from a large array of varieties of herbal teas, as well as black, green and white tea blends. Teapots, mugs, and a variety of tea-inspired merchandise provide the opportunity to take home a memento along with a cup of future comfort.
Sip tea, take it easy, and contemplate one of Celestial Seasonings’ inspirational quotes: Happiness lies first of all in health,” by George William Curtis.
Plan A Trip
The extraordinary Dushanbe Tea House is located downtown Boulder in Central Park. The teahouse was gift from sister city Dushanbe in Tajikistan in exchange for a technology center. In addition to a wide selection of teas and other beverages, the teahouse offers a global menu of small plates and entrees to enjoy while marveling at the building’s architecture.
Pearl Street in downtown Boulder has a pedestrian mall that offers lots of shopping and dining options. Don’t miss quirky Foolish Craig’s for breakfast, brunch, or lunch, or Pizzeria Locale for a slice of wood-fired heaven. If you’re putting together a gourmet picnic, stop by Cured for some charcuterie and cheeses.
For an immersive cultural experience, stay at Chautauqua, a national historic landmark that continues a tradition of genteel enlightenment with lectures, concerts, and events to uplift the spirit. Learn the history before you go to make the most of your visit.
To get in the real spirit of Boulder, take a hike! Trails that surround the town are scenic and offer magnificent views.