In Conversation With Sarah Scarborough, Tea Huntress
The enchanting mistress of tea shares how this ancient art and ritual can feed your body and soul while connecting you to Mother Nature in profound ways.
Encountering Sarah Scarborough can feel otherworldly. The founder of Tea Huntress in Nashville, Tennessee has an ethereal, cerebral approach to sourcing, formulating and celebrating tea. I first became familiar with her work while researching tea rituals for myself. Her passion for powerful botanical formulations and educating people about the healing power of plants mirrors the mission of Vintner’s Daughter. With our shared love of consciously grown materials and slow formulations, we clicked immediately. So much so, we collaborated on a very special project—our new Oolong Radiance Tea Blend. As you will see below, Sarah’s lifelong reverence for nature inspired her love affair with tea and is the foundation for her work—creating extraordinary teas and sharing her wisdom at intimate events, retreats and ceremonies from Montana to Morocco.
She has the kind of spirit that makes you feel anything is possible. I am so grateful and happy to share our conversation with you.
I guess we should start with our very special Oolong Radiance Tea Blend. It is so skillfully and beautifully composed.
It's the most unique tea I've ever made.
I like to drink tea all day long. This is a blend that I can start with in the morning and can enjoy through mid-afternoon when I need to cut the caffeine off.
I agree. It feels like a bath—an inner bath. I love the combination of the tea because you do get a little bit of caffeine. It’s such a beautiful aromatic tea and then you get the nettle and alfalfa and the nourishing herbs. I feel like I've just taken a vitamin or had a juice or something really nourishing for my body.
That's the reason we chose greens like nettle and alfalfa. We use them in our skincare because they are two of the most, as you know, nutrient dense greens in the world. Poets, doctors and witches have been writing about them for centuries. The fact that you put them in here so fluently brights it all together.
Thank you. I love how the spearmint adds a little something too. Like adding a bit of salt to a dish. It kind of turns it on. Or like a little citrus in a stew. It enlivens it without overpowering. The spearmint is a bit more subtle than say peppermint. It's so good. I love it. We're gushing about our own thing. I also love how it's so simple, it's really just four ingredients. We could have gone crazy and done 25 ingredients, but I think there's something really beautiful about its simplicity. It's how I love to cook. Take a really good piece of fish, add beautiful olive oil and a fresh, potent herb. Finish with some amazing salts, some lemon and it's done.
That brings me to a question about you. Do you feel like your work has always been accepted or valued?
That's a great question. I think I could take it in a lot of directions, but no. I've always been on the edge and I like the edge. I think by nature of who I am I tend to be a pioneer and I tend to see the trends of the future. When I was really passionate about organic farming in my 20s, all my friends thought I was growing weed in California. I wasn't a hippie. While avoiding pesticides on food is the accepted, modern way of doing things, it was not so at that time. And now all these same people are buying organic farms, eating only organic. I tell the same people now, “This might seem crazy now but give it ten or twenty years and you'll be sitting on the floor of your living room drinking tea as an activity with each other. It's just going to take you a minute to get there.”
I feel like my role has always been that of a visionary. You also have the courage to see a vision and bring it to fruition. It's about not being afraid to be on the edge. You're not always accepted. You're not always in the box. There's an uncomfortability that exists in that space. But I've grown quite comfortable with it. Even with tea. When I first got into tea it was all about Fair Trade and ethically sourced tea. That was 2001, so it was a very new concept and nobody understood what it meant. But in that regard, I got kind of picked up by these businessmen in New Zealand and we ended up creating a tea, coffee and chocolate company that we launched into the mainstream Australian market. It was all based on my vision for ethical trade being a viable alternative to multinational consumerism.
Photo by Jun Chiyabari
You do these beautiful tea ceremonies all over the world. I know that is a big part of helping people connect to that truth that we're talking about. How is tea the connector?
Tea connects us back to nature in lots of ways. When you drink potent teas, organic teas, high-vibration teas, they carry within them this earth energy. And when we connect to that earth energy, whether it’s through putting bare feet in the ground or plucking the lemon verbena I have here and plopping it straight in my cup and eating it fresh. There's this earth energy that potent plants carry. So every plant has its own energetic frequency. So if it's tea that has an energetic frequency of connection, there is clarity, harmony, purity—all the things that tea has always been revered for. Chamomile has a kind of joyful, energetic frequency. It's more about calming and relaxing. Roses are very much about balancing and the heart chakra. When we connect with plants that have a potency, especially when we create space to enjoy them, then we can just hear them a little bit better. Their volume is turned up. I love the moment when you say, “Whoa, this is too good. I feel good and my hair and nails are getting stronger because of the nettle and alfalfa. I feel more nourished.” When people begin to drink these higher potency teas, you hear them, you feel them. They shift your life. You have that light bulb moment. It's sort of the most simple way to do it. Not everyone can go into nature every day. Not everyone can go on a hike. Not everyone can put bare feet on the earth or sleep under the moon. But I think the more we can practice creating space for nature, the more we flex that muscle and the more we begin to live in sync with nature.
In part, we want to create space for nature through our skincare. We begin with whole plants, which have vibrations all their own and through a meticulous, thoughtful process, we capture all of that beautiful energy, nutrition and ultimately, their intelligence in order to help create that connection. Tea does the same.
Here's how I think about the potency and the connection of tea. I spend a lot of time in nature but when I don't drink tea, whether that is a stretch of time during the day or a night where I just didn't pack my tea or I go on a trip or I don't have access to it, returning to the bowl of tea is like infusing my body, washing my body with these herbs. It feels like a massage. It feels like a hot bath. I think, “How can I live without this?” So if there are ever times when I don't have tea and I come back to it, I realize, “This is our original medicine.” Before pills or anything else, people had herbs. They knew the herbs. They knew how they worked and what they did. And when you learn the potency of all of the herbs, they all have antioxidant and antiviral properties. We were meant to drink these herbs. We grew up with them. We evolved with them.
And I want that for people. I want people to be friends with tea and to understand it. Because in my life, I know how much of a friend it can be. You have certain teas that will relax you and ones that will inspire you and ones that will hold you when you’re sad and ones that can get you going. And when you start to think of them as friends and bring them into your life as needed, it makes your life better. It helps you regulate your body and your emotions and go through rites of passage and times of transition, seasonally or annually. It's such a joyful practice and such a nourishing and healthy one.
When we drink potent teas and herbs, especially in quiet moments of stillness, we embody Mother Nature and all of her wisdom and truth. This heals and connects us.
Could you walk us through a tea ceremony?
Any ritual is just any action practice with intent. It all is about the intention. Having a cup of tea, running out the door, or even having a cup of tea in silence is not a ritual unless you make it a ritual by setting an intention. So everybody’s ritual is going to look different. There’s two things I also separate: a tea ritual and a tea ceremony. Mostly, I teach people how to create their own tea ritual. That’s just about creating sacred space.
Can you share some ideas for doing this?
The first step would be setting space. That usually begins with a tea runner, called a chabu. If it’s not a runner or a piece of textile, it can be a piece of wood or anything that you set down to delineate the space. It’s just like when you go to do your yoga practice, you put your yoga mat down, you create a space. Once you have a runner or whatever you are using, you begin to add whatever it is you want to add. Find your favorite piece of teaware like a Shiboridashi (a small, handle-less teapot) because you love the way it feels in your hand. Or maybe you met a teaware artist or that's what came to you. They say teaware comes to you rather than you going out and finding it. You have your teaware, you bring it in, and then you have to have tea. So we always look for high vibration teas—those that are from old groves or are ancient teas or are native or primitive teas, meaning they come from seed and not cutting. They are naturally farmed. Choosing organic, biodynamic teas is always good. So there’s all this terminology that says, “This tea is clean and it has a high vibration.” So we pick teas that have high vibration because their volume is turned up and we want to hear what they’re going to say to us. Then you add your water. There’s something about sitting and having a tea session that’s really beautiful. So you’re steeping and re-steeping and re-steeping, pouring the tea over and over again. In order to accomplish that you need to have hot water by your side and at the ready. For the kind of tea ritual I like to do, you can accomplish that one of a few ways. You can get a thermos and fill it up with hot water. I like those big green Stanley thermoses. Or you can get a hot plate if you’re going to be seated next to an electrical outlet. You can also get a stove, like a burner, that operates on gas, if you’re outdoors or camping. Having hot water at the ready helps you create this beautiful rhythm of the practice. It’s very much about the pouring of the water. The steam rising. The incense coming up. The aromas rising. You’re decanting and rinsing and there’s a lot of flow and motion in the practice. It becomes this moving meditation, like a yoga practice.
Photo by Xinhua / Barcroft Media
For your table, you can add incense to create a certain mood that supports your intention. Aloeswood is very relaxing. Palo Santo can be heart opening to clear the space. Sandalwood is sexy and warm and frankincense has an abundance of energy, it can be quite sharp and cleansing. Every sacred smoke adds a different essence. You can add crystals if you want to. Some people like to add rocks for certain intentions. I always warn people against cluttering the tea space too much because in teaism it’s all about purity and harmony, peace and respect. Keeping the key tenets in mind always dictates the ritual to me. I think of the concept of wabi-sabi in design and how less is more. So you want to create more space and less stuff. I always tell people, “It’s not a yard sale, it’s a table. Whatever gets put on the table should have the center stage.” At the end of the day, it’s about the tea, it’s not about anything else. If the stuff you add is not accentuating the tea, it needs to go. I also have some playlists on Spotify that I share with people that can set the mood for different seasons, different kinds of tea.
I could work out any problems in nature. I could stare up at the sky and the birds and she would show me. She would show me the rules of nature and how the world works.
Then it’s a matter of preparing your tea in silence and sipping your tea and noticing. It’s quite magical and very hard to put into words. The magic that happens when you intentionally create a sacred space, sit down with your hot water, you’ve got this elemental alchemy of earth, water, wind, fire that you're creating through the tea. You’re moving. It’s a meditation. You’re ingesting and embodying the earth’s wild wisdom that comes in through the leaf. And after about three cups, something always shifts. You have this moment of shifting where you’ve dropped in. You drop out of the thinking mind and into the conscious self and into the wisdom that exists in our bodies and in our guts. You can access this space through meditation. You can access it through yoga, or maybe even a hike. But there's something about coming into that space through three cups of tea (for me it's three) in silence in a sacred space that’s beautiful. It's completely ineffable. There's no word that can describe it. I watch people do it all the time in ceremonies. Even when l teach people their own ritual, they'll say, “I had the most beautiful tea session. I am in love and my life is changing.” It gives you this moment to drop into nature. It’s like when we talk about the clarity of being in the forest. When you are surrounded by nature and think, “Oh everything's peaceful and it makes sense because I'm in a forest.” When we drink vibrationally high or potent teas and herbs, especially in quiet moments of stillness, we embody Mother Nature and all of her wisdom and truth. This heals and connects us.
What's something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I love gin! People might think I only meditate and drink tea all day, but I love a well made gin cocktail.
What is your dream holiday destination?
Prague in the middle of the winter at a tea hut. They have this very cool bohemian tea culture, it’s all about poetry and tea rooms.
Favorite charity or non-profit organization?
I have always built my businesses around purpose and have been a long-time member of 1% For The Planet. Also, Surfrider Foundation. I love the ocean and surfing and the idea of protecting oceans. If I didn't get into agriculture, I was going to be a marine biologist.
Lastly, if you could have anyone's singing voice, who would it be?
*Portrait photo by Elizabeth Wiseman