Originally written 8/10/15.
All photos from Flickr used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Photo credit: Kevin Dooley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/9583593862/
My dad was in the Air Force, and because of his particular job we moved between Denver and San Antonio a couple times. I went to elementary school in San Antonio, but my sister mostly went to elementary school in Denver, and since you do a lot of field trips when you’re in elementary school, my sister’s been to a bunch of places in Colorado that I haven’t been: the capitol building, for instance, and the Celestial Seasonings factory.
Celestial Seasonings (in case you haven’t heard of them) is a tea company, founded in 1969, and even though they sell millions of boxes of tea every year in multiple countries, they still make all of their tea in one factory in Boulder, Colorado, which I think is amazing. They offer a free tour to anyone who wants to visit. I went for the first time a couple weeks ago when some friends suggested that we go. We were going to be in Boulder anyway (they were taking me out to a belated birthday lunch), so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to cross something else off my adventure list.
The #1 top selling tea from Celestial Seasonings is Sleepytime, and their factory is located on Sleepytime Drive. It’s my goal to be so successful that I can have my house on a street named for me (Adventure Avenue? Blog Boulevard?). The buildings are very homey and charming (not at all like the smoke-producing, industrial horrors conjured up in my imagination by the word “factory”), and there are pretty signs and attractive landscaping everywhere.
Signs direct you to where the tour starts, in a kind of tea shop (where else?). When we got there, a friendly woman took our names and gave us our “tickets”—sample-sized packages of Black Cherry Berry tea that we got to keep as a souvenir. Best tickets ever!
We were early, so the woman handed us each a small porcelain tea cup and said that we were welcome to sample teas until it was time for the tour to start. There was a counter to her right with about eight different tea dispensers: tall silver tubes with spigots on the front like you see as part of breakfast buffets for serving tea and coffee. Each dispenser had a sign next to it telling you what kind of tea it was, what ingredients were in it, and whether it was caffeinated or not (which was useful, because I don’t drink caffeine, and accidentally drinking a cup of black tea would have made me high as a kite for the whole tour).
Past the sample counter was a larger counter where you could order snacks and full cups of any of the teas Celestial Seasonings makes. There was a menu written out on a chalkboard on the wall, and it was huge—dozens and dozens of different kinds of teas, some of which I’d heard of and some of which I hadn’t. To my delight, some of the kinds I hadn’t heard of were available as samples. I love samples, and I love trying new things. Pure heaven!
While we were sipping our Watermelon Lime Zinger tea, we got to walk around the rest of the area, which was outfitted as a miniature museum. There were signs detailing the history of the company, painting-sized versions of the artwork they’d printed on their boxes over the years, and displays of artistic teapots. I don’t know how functional the teapots were, but they sure were beautiful (and, since we weren’t allowed to take photos in the factory itself, you get to see lots of pictures of them!).
The tour seemed very popular, so by the time 11:00 a.m. rolled around, the tea shop was full of people. I was glad we’d gotten there early, because it would have been sad if the tour had sold out (although, since it was free, I guess “sold out” isn’t exactly the right phrase). There was a mix of kids and adults, including a couple in their 70s who walked around the whole factory holding hands. Aww! I want to be like that when I’m 70.
This is one of the fancy teapots. The little bear is the handle, and the tea comes out of the upper left-hand corner of the armchair.
When it was time for the tour to start, all of us were invited into a little film-viewing area lined with benches, where we got to hear an introduction from our wonderful tour guide and see a 15-minute movie about the company. From the introduction and the film, we learned that Celestial Seasonings was founded in 1969 by two friends and their girlfriends. The film started off by saying, “It was the Summer of Love…,” but I’d like to point out, in the interest of historical accuracy, that the Summer of Love was actually 1967 (easy mistake to make, right? Wink wink, nudge nudge). That might or might not cast doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the film’s information, but, since the story they presented was awesome, I’m just going to repeat it as told and you can fact-check on your own.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Boulder, Colorado at all, but the Celestial Seasonings story is about as Boulder as you can get. The four founders picked the herbs they used in the original blends out in the fields and woods, and they sewed the muslin tea bags together themselves. They were so poor that they couldn’t afford the materials to label the bags at first (the bags were just blank), and they tied the bags shut using wire that had been thrown out by the phone company.
They took these bags to a local health-food store and asked if the store was interested in carrying their “herbal infusions.” The store said no (which, honestly, wasn’t all that surprising). But, undaunted, they went back later and asked if the store wanted to carry their “herbal teas.” I guess “herbal tea” sounded better than “herbal infusion,” because the store agreed.
According to our guide, by the way, the founders actually originated the term “herbal tea,” since technically herbal tea isn’t really tea at all (more on that later).
Apparently, John Lennon drank Celestial Seasonings tea; there’s some on the shelf in the background of this picture.
Even the company’s name is super Bouldery: one of the two founding women had been given the hippie name “Celestial Seasonings” because someone told her that she was as beautiful as a sprinkling of ambrosia from the heavens. !!!
The company definitely isn’t as hippie nowadays as it was in the beginning. In 2000, Celestial Seasonings merged with the Hain Food Group (which produces natural food and health products like JASON, Rudi’s Organic, and MaraNatha) to make the Hain Celestial Group, which netted two million dollars in 2014. The intro movie was pretty clearly a product of this modern corporate identity; it was slickly made and more of an extended commercial than a documentary (with the name of the Hain Celestial Group CEO prominently displayed but no mention of any of the founders’ actual names, for instance).
However, even as a corporation, Celestial Seasonings maintains many of its original values. They support ethical trade, sustainable agriculture, family farms, and recycling, and many of the international farms that supply the company with its botanical ingredients have been doing so for more than 30 years. So that’s good.
This dress was in a display case in a corner of the film room. It’s made entirely of Celestial Seasonings tea bags. It totally reminded me of my mom, who makes duffel bags out of old bags of dry cat food.
After the movie finished, we were all issued with hairnets for our tour: blue mesh caps with elastic all the way around the bottom edge, just like the lunch ladies at my elementary school used to wear. Men with beards or mustaches had to wear a beard net, too. The guide reminded us that no photography was allowed in the factory itself (dang it), but he promised that we would have an opportunity to get what he called “hairnet selfies” at the end, once we’d left the factory. Yay!
Once inside the factory, we were herded into a little area of concrete floor surrounded by a wide yellow line. This was to make sure that we tourists didn’t get in the way of the actual employees, since it is a working factory. I expected the building to be very loud, what with all the machinery, but it turned out that summertime is the slow season for bagging tea, and only a small portion of the machinery was running that day. Fall and winter, the guide told us, are the really busy times (which I guess makes sense, since hot drinks sound a lot more appealing when it’s cold outside).
Once we were safely penned behind the yellow line, the guide, now aided by a microphone, asked us, “What was the first thing you noticed when you walked in here?”
“The smell!” we all said.
And, indeed, the smell of the factory was strong, unforgettable, and glorious, a combination of all the herbs and spices they use to make their wonderful teas. You might think that the scents of all those ingredients would clash, so to speak (like being in a shop that sells scented candles; I can last maybe a minute in one of those shops before I have a headache), but somehow all these herbal scents combined into one harmonious whole. It was like standing by the stove while you brewed the world’s largest cup of tea.
Doesn’t this look like Abu from Aladdin enjoying a cup of tea with Baby Abu?
The guide explained that the softer herbal ingredients—like peppermint and chamomile—had to be chopped up to go into the tea bags, but that the harder spices—like cloves—were milled using a gigantic mechanical grinder. The machines were milling cloves that day, so he passed around two bowls. The first held whole cloves, and the second held ground cloves, so that we could see (and smell) the before-and-after of the process. Oh, I sure do love the smell of cloves.
Through a window, we could see the grinder, but it was too far away to see anything in detail. Too bad. I love watching machines work.
To get a smooth tea, the guide told us, all the ingredients in the bag have to be a similar size, so once everything was chopped or milled, it was passed through a series of seven sieves of progressively finer mesh. At the end of the sifting process, the ingredient was now teabag ready and could be packed into special white plastic bins.
We got to see the bins—and all sorts of other containers—as we walked from the grinder viewing area to our next stop. This area was a big warehouse, with floor-to-ceiling shelves separated into neat, forklift-sized aisles. To make sure that we weren’t in the way of said forklifts, there was also a forklift-sized path on the concrete walkway surrounded by yellow lines that we weren’t supposed to walk on. Smart!
The shelves were stacked high with bins containing tea ingredients, and each of the bins was neatly labeled with what was inside: hibiscus, rosebuds, acai berry*. Each section of shelving gave off its own delicious smell. It was heavenly. I swear, half of what I love about tea (and the only thing I love about coffee) is the smell.
*Speaking of acai berry, I’d only ever seen the word in print before I went on the tour; I’d never heard it pronounced. Mentally, I’d been pronouncing it so that it sounded like “a guy,” but apparently it’s actually pronounced more like you’re spelling out the letters “S-I-E.” Oops. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me over the years. When I was a kid, I loved the Nancy Drew mysteries, and Nancy Drew had red hair that was often described as “titian.” Ask me sometime how I thought THAT word was pronounced.
OK. A bike jersey with a giant buffalo on it would be pretty awesome.
The guide told us that once the different ingredients were chopped and sifted, they were ready to get mixed. Employees, following special recipes, made the different kinds of tea by pouring the right ingredients into a mixer, something like a smallish cement mixer, and letting the ingredients blend together for about 10 minutes. Then the tea mix was emptied into a new bin, ready for bagging.
But first, each batch of tea had to be tested. The blendmaster brews a cup of tea from the mix and tastes it, comparing it to a master blend to make sure that the flavor is right. If it’s not, the batch gets dumped back into the mixer, and the blendmaster tells the employees which ingredients to add to correct the blend.
“How does he know how much to add?” asked a little girl near me.
“He’s got very sensitive, very highly-trained tastebuds,” the guide replied.
“Whoa. What happens when the blendmaster dies?” my friend whispered as we followed the guide through the shelves. “How do they find a new one?”
I’m pretty sure that a company like Celestial Seasonings has multiple tasters on staff for various parts of the process, and that there are programs in place for finding and training tasters, but I’m thinking of writing a story where people on a fantasy world lose their Blendmaster and have to find another one through a mystical process akin to finding the new Dalai Lama. Don’t steal this idea; I had it first.
Our next stop was a separate storage area off the main warehouse. Like the main warehouse, this big, square room was full of shelves loaded with bins.
“This is the Tea Room,” the guide said. “This is where we keep all of our different kinds of tea leaves.”
That’s when he explained that tea only technically comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, an evergreen shrub native to parts of Asia. All the different forms of tea—black tea, green tea, white tea—come from Camellia sinensis. “Teas” like Sleepytime and chamomile are herbal infusions, not really teas at all. In fact, in some countries it’s against the law to call something like Sleepytime “tea.” If you want to call it something fancier than “herbal infusion,” you have to call it “tisane.”
Chinese legend has it that Emperor Shennong first discovered tea 4500 years ago when a leaf from Camellia sinensis fell into his pot of boiling water. It’s now the second-most popular drink in the world (right after water), with more than 4.5 million metric tons produced worldwide in 2010.
That’s a lot of tea.
From the Tea Room, our guide led us into a narrowish corridor with two garage-style rolling doors on one side. “This is the Mint Room,” he said, gesturing toward the first door. “This is where we store all of our peppermint, which we use as an ingredient in many of our teas, like Tension Tamer. We store spearmint in the room next door, but sometimes when we have an overflow we put the extra spearmint in with the peppermint.”
As he spoke, he pressed a button, and the garage door rolled up into the ceiling, revealing a storeroom absolutely stuffed full of bins marked “peppermint.” The room was so full that there was only a small strip of empty concrete in front of the shelves.
“The reason that the mint is in its own room behind this closed door,” the guide went on, “is that the scent of mint overpowers everything. If we stored the peppermint with the other ingredients, every kind of tea we made would taste like mint. We can’t even chop the mint here at the factory. Our growers chop it for us straight from the field, on dedicated machines that only chop mint. Once you use a machine to chop mint, you can’t ever use it to chop any other ingredients. The mint is so strong it would taint anything else processed on the machine, even if you washed the machinery first.”
“We’re going to let you into the Mint Room a few people at a time,” he said. “Please feel free to come out as soon as you need to.”
Need to? That sounded ominous. Especially since the guide was grinning at us in this funny, knowing way.
As soon as I stepped into the Mint Room, I knew why. The smell of mint, which I love coming from the mint plant on my balcony, was absolutely overwhelming inside the enclosed storeroom. It was like my plant times a million. Peppermint fumes bombarded my eyeballs, burned the inside of my nostrils, and whooshed down my throat when I gasped in surprise. Imagine being attacked by mint-flavored tear gas, and you have an idea of what it was like. Death By Mint.
Hey! There’s another story idea!
After about ten seconds, I turned around and left in a hurry. I wondered if employees had to wear a gas mask when they worked in there. The guide said that sometimes visitors cry because their eyes get so irritated by the fumes, and he has to tell them not to rub their eyes, because that only makes it worse.
There were three kids on the tour who stayed in the Mint Room for the whole 5 minutes we were there. They must have been mutants or something*.
*Hey, that reminds me—have you ever noticed that in the X-Men comics and movies, nobody ever has lame mutant powers like resistance to peppermint or immunity to hiccups?
From there, we got to walk around the lines, the areas of machinery where the tea is bagged, boxed, and plastic-wrapped. This area of the factory is two-storied, with most of the machinery on the main floor and a series of hoppers on the mezzanine. Forklifts take the bins of blended tea onto the mezzanine and pour the blend into the hoppers. The tea goes down a chute and is inserted into bags, which the machine separates into pairs of tea bags.
Meanwhile, on a different machine, flat pieces of printed cardboard are rolled into an area where a piece of waxed paper is laid on top of each of them. The machine then folds this cardboard-and-waxed-paper combo until, like origami, it has formed an open box lined with wax paper. Magic!
The open boxes are rolled onward, and the now-filled teabags are deposited into the boxes. Different parts of the machinery fold the waxed paper shut, close the box, and then seal the box inside tamper-proof plastic wrappers so that psychotic jerks can’t poison your tea. The sealed boxes are then rolled over to a robot that loads the tea onto wooden pallets for transportation (so cool! Although the robot doesn’t look like Optimus Prime; it looks more like the arm that holds up the lamp at the dentist).
There are multiple lines in the factory, so that they can produce multiple kinds of tea at once. Sadly, since it was summertime, only one line was running, so we didn’t get to see much of the machinery in action. I was mesmerized by the part we did get to see. It was amazing. And the series of metal rollers that take the boxes around to each machine totally looked like a miniature roller coaster. The tea was going on a fun ride!
My favorite part of the factory floor was a big sign hanging on the wall that said: SAFE-TEA IS OUR PRIORI-TEA.
I love you, Celestial Seasonings!!!
We had come to the end of the tour. Everything had been fun, informative, and well-laid out, with beautiful, whimsically-illustrated signs which I was very sorry that I couldn’t take pictures of. Celestial Seasonings had put a lot of thought and effort into making a good tour.
But the genius part of it? The exit door from the factory LED INTO THE GIFT SHOP.
And what a gift shop! Besides boxes of every kind of tea they make (including a bunch that my grocery store doesn’t carry), they sell tea infusers, mugs, honey, sugar, chocolate, mints, collectible tins, magnets, key chains, t-shirts, stuffed animals, travel pillows, soap, jewelry…..
Seriously, there was nothing they DIDN’T sell, and everything was attractive, reasonably priced, and nicely displayed. Moreover, a lot of the goods were natural and/or made by companies that were locally-owned and/or supporting a worthy cause, and all the clerks were super helpful and friendly.
I could not wait to line up and give them my money.
Through a Herculean effort, I managed to only spend $20, buying a pair of earrings and two new kinds of tea (including acai mango zinger, since I know how to pronounce it now). But I would definitely love to go back sometime.
Thanks, Celestial Seasonings, for a fun tour! If you’re in Colorado, I recommend trying the tour sometime. Just make sure to bring some money for the gift shop.
Bonus Adventure—Blooming Beets Kitchen
If you’re in Boulder and looking for a Very Boulder Dining Experience, try Blooming Beets Kitchen, where my friends took me for lunch. They don’t use any grains, processed seed oils, or processed sugars in their cooking, and the only dairy product they used is a very limited amount of butter in certain dishes. Their vegetables are mostly organic, and during the summer they work with local farms to supply produce. The meat they use is mostly local and grass-fed.
From 11-2 you can order from a brunch menu, which has both “brunchy” items and “lunchy” items (their description! Ha ha—it’s like I wrote the menu!). The three of us ordered from the lunch menu.
One friend got the Coconut Wrapped Blooming Burrito: “chorizo, sautéed onions and peppers, cauli rice, sweet potato hash.” I was interested to find out what “coconut-wrapped” meant. Basically, the “tortilla” of the burrito was actually more like a crepe, and the crepe was made from coconut meat. You can buy commercially-made, paleo-friendly coconut wraps from some stores, or I found some recipes online for them. Cauli rice, which I’d also never heard of, is cauliflower grated to the size of rice grains and sautéed. It’s another paleo-friendly food.
My other friend and I both got the salad of powergreens and beets, toasted pecans, and pears tossed in orange basalmic dressing with chicken. I love beets, and the beets and greens in the basalmic dressing tasted great. The pears tasted like they’d been coated with some kind of lemon juice mixture, and I didn’t like that as much, but everything else tasted great.
The restaurant was very clean and attractive inside, and the staff was friendly and passionate about what they do. The owner even came out at one point to ask how we liked everything.
The prices ranged from $14 for the burrito to $18 for the salad with chicken, so it’s a little more expensive for lunch than someplace like Chipotle, but you’re paying for fresh, local, and organic ingredients.
I had been tentatively thinking about asking my husband to take me to Blooming Beets for my birthday, but, after eating there, I was glad that I’d gone with my friend instead. My friend is gluten-free and sugar-free, so it’s wonderful for her to be able to eat in a restaurant where she can have everything on the menu. She’s also very open-minded and interested in natural, healthy living.
My husband, on the other hand, is practically the opposite of a vegetarian and is a loud, judgmental skeptic who is only interested in the “green movement” if it involves watching The Hulk smash things in the Avengers movies.
If you and/or your dining companion are like my husband, DO NOT GO to Blooming Beets. It will be best for everyone.
If, on the other hand, you are more like my friend or me, it is definitely worth the trip for a special occasion.