At the corner of Zinger and Sleepytime Drive there is a small prairie dog village. The dogs stare out at you flipping their tiny tails back and forth, and you see the green sign ahead: Celestial Seasonings.
Now, I felt as we approached, this is a land of magical realism. Celestial Seasonings is not just another tea company to me. It is an outpost of the 70’s, a decade when people still were experimenting with new experiences and new ideas about food and drink. The moon had been reached and people honestly thought Mars was next. The country was wealthier than it had been before or would be since. There were possibilities seen in everything. And if you opened the pantry, you would see a box of tea with a magical looking tiger or unicorn, smelling faintly of somewhere far, far away.
Back then, to me, far, far away was an abstraction. I didn’t know that black tea came from China, or India; to me it reliably came from the supermarket. But Celestial Seasonings teas clearly came from Somewhere Else. The pictures on the boxes proved it, if you couldn’t figure it out by the smell, or by the fact that the bags had no paper tabs.
Tea, according to story, was discovered the tidier part of 5000 years ago by a Chinese emperor when a leaf fell in his cup. But Celestial Seasonings, while they sell black tea, specializes in the herbal varieties: the tea that is not tea.
In the introductory video to the tour, visitors learn that the company’s founders got their start in the hills above Boulder, Colorado, where the company still is today. Long-haired teenager types, they hiked out on an herb-gathering mission, brought their findings back, and sewed them in big muslin bags. These were sold as “herbal infusions,” but that concept wasn’t understood well so they started calling it “herbal tea.”
Thus the company was born, and thus it began to grow, helped along by their practice of commissioning original fine art for the tea labels which handily attracted buyers. The paintings, made by nationally recognized artists, are the epitome of whimsy; a teddy bear falling asleep in a chair; a lady in a red dress riding a dragon, or a stampeding buffalo with steam coming out of its nostrils.
As the company grew, so did the variety of ingredients. Today, with 150 different botanical ingredients sustainably farmed from thirty five countries, there’s a modern, health conscious tea in fine art packaging for every taste. Because drinking tea, in the Celestial Seasonings’ way, isn’t just about nourishment or health – though the company emphasizes its use of natural, healthy ingredients – it’s about a frame of mind, an experience.
Visitors find that for this company the idea of giving something back to the community starts at home. Your tickets for the free tour are packaged sets of tea bags, which you take home afterwards. There’s a large waiting room flanked on one side by a no-charge tea bar, where pre-brewed teas stand in serving urns and staff are ready to make you one of 100-plus choices on the tea menu. On the other side of the room is a collection of fabulous and impractical tea pots. Original art, including the original painting of the Sleepytime Bear, is displayed.
The tour proceeds through the factory, allowing visitors to experience 20-foot high stacks of botanicals such as Eluethero Siberica and cloves, and the famous “mint room” where you have to blink your eyes rapidly to avoid tearing up as the scent rushes over you as if you were in an actual cup of peppermint tea. There’s the double-walled room where the green and black tea are stored in white muslin bags like fragrant feed sacks. You then proceed to the factory floor, where boxes of tea whip around the conveyor belt not unlike a scene from Charley and the Chocolate Factory.
In the gift shop after the tour, it’s tea heaven. There must be 100 different teapots in there and at least a thousand mugs, including a number of them the type of which I’d never seen before. Boxes of the tea are for sale for $2.50, less than retail, and a number of chocolates, magnets, t-shirts and other novelty items abound. Now is the time to spend the money you saved because they didn’t charge you to get in. And then go back to the tea bar and get another round of free tea before leaving.