What America Needs

Fancy organics make Oakland's Numi Teas the hottest thing in its industry.

Richard Simpson, Numi Tea’s official warehouse manager and almost-as-official brewmaster, sounds the call through the intercom, and everyone in the office — all eight of us — file into the tasting room for the first “cupping” of the day. On the table are four inexpensive porcelain pots, each heading a long row of Chinese teacups filled with what might become Numi’s new organic breakfast blend.

We choose one from each row, numbering them from left to right, and start sipping: first when boiling hot, then again as the brews cool down to see how the flavors develop. Everyone slurps the tea to bring less oxygen into the mouth. Then Ahmed Rahim, co-owner and master tea-blender, starts quizzing everyone.

Some love the astringent notes that Ceylon brings to number three; others prefer the blend in which malty Assam predominates. Rahim dismisses floral but thin number one as “flat and stale,” just as I’m polishing it off. Everyone loves number four, which turns out to be brewed from Numi’s current conventional tea. “We’ll probably play with the blend a little more,” the brewer says.

Numi’s staff is gathering for three to four cuppings these days, what with a new set of blended teas coming out in a month and the pending transition of its entire line to certified organic.

In four years, Oakland-based Numi Teas has become the fastest-growing tea company in the natural-foods industry, out of a field of more than 250 contenders. Rahim stumbled into the world of teas after helping some friends design a tea bar in Prague. He eventually became a full-fledged partner, sourcing hundreds of teas from all over the world, before returning to the East Bay to start Numi with his sister Reem. The two have been at the forefront of an industry-wide movement to produce teabags filled with higher quality whole leaves, not with the tea dust or “fannings” (smallest-size leaves) that fit most easily through packing machines. The Rahims also take credit for introducing America to rooibos and honeybush, two South African tisanes (herbal teas) long popular in Europe. Now everyone’s releasing a rooibos tea or two.

The problem with finding organic teas isn’t the pesticides, Rahim explains as we wait for the second cupping. It’s the paperwork. Many of Numi’s current suppliers already farm without chemicals. However, the USDA’s strict new regulations over the “organic” label on packaging require that producers, no matter where they are in the world, be certified by a worldwide coalition of organic companies. Many smaller farms can’t afford the bureaucracy. Down the road he and his sister, whose vision for the business puts ethics and aesthetics up there with profits, would like Numi to go 100 percent fair-trade, too.

The intercom sounds, and we regroup to try lemongrass teas. Some prefer the grassy, peppery complexity of number three, which turns out to be Numi’s current teabag. But most of us like the bright lemony punch of number one. “Majority rules,” Rahim says. “I think we’ve found our new organic lemongrass tea.”

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