STORY AND PHOTOS BY ADRIANA JANOVICH
Tirza Wibel works in a well-lighted place, gently turning over tea leaves in a wide-mouthed stainless steel bowl. She works the mixture by hand, tenderly incorporating dark shards of Earl Grey with dried, amber-hued orange peels and cornflower petals colored like chips of sea glass. This particular blend — her own, original recipe — is Inland Grey, one of the top-sellers at Winterwoods Tea Co.
Tirza started the business as a part-time job, something she could do to supplement her husband’s income while staying home with their five children in Colbert. But her teas proved too popular for that plan. In the three years since she launched her company, her seven initial offerings have grown to 20, and business — both retail and wholesale — has grown exponentially. Today, teas from Winterwoods are distributed to 48 states.
“I’ve made the transition from it being a hobby business to it really being my full-time job,” says Tirza, who’s looking forward to further expanding her business. She’s already contemplating her next line of teas, as well as additional collaborations with local farms. She’s also still figuring out how to manage the unexpected growth. “Winterwoods can only get so big and stay true to what it is and maintain its integrity.”
Winterwoods specializes in small-batch, organic, original, preservative-free, loose-leaf tea blends that feature Pacific Northwest ingredients. Huckleberries are locally foraged. Mint is Washington grown. So are the cranberries, hawthorn berries, hops, and blackberry leaves. The lavender comes from Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula. The rosehips and apples come from both Washington and Oregon.
Tirza’s newest line of teas, released this winter, is Pacific Northwest-themed, with flavors such as Wildwood Cedar and Mount Hood Hops, as well as Smoke and Juniper, and Bee Wrangler. The four teas in the series are woodsy and feature ingredients that include cedar, juniper, bee pollen, and hops.
“Tea,” she says, “is in the ingredients.”
Part of what makes Winterwoods unique is that the ingredients are so fresh. The tea is shipped and sold within 30 days of production.
Tirza started Winterwoods in January 2014, several months after moving to the Spokane area from Oregon for her husband’s job. Shane is an assistant athletic trainer and assistant professor of athletic training at Whitworth University.
A former publicist, Tirza had become interested in herbs and the slow food movement while living in Oregon. But her love of tea goes back much further than that.
Tirza grew up in Denmark, where afternoon tea time was a family tradition. She became fascinated with the ritual as a child, largely, she laughs, because of the sugar cubes. As she grew older, she found that taking tea in the afternoon was soothing and unifying; she liked the way people came together around it and how tea seemed calming as well as social.
Tirza moved to America when she was 10, but spent another year in Denmark when she was 16 and, later, studied abroad in England, where “it was the same experience: slowing down and making connections with people over a cup of tea, just really building community. That’s something I’ve carried with me my whole life, the ritual of it.”
When she became a parent, Tirza incorporated that ritual into her own family’s routine, starting with Tea Tuesdays. Now, she and her five children make scones from scratch and gather as a family for tea and homemade treats. Her two oldest children — Mira, 15, and Annah, 12 — often help out in her basement tea studio, which features a commercial kitchen. Her future helpers are West and Ruby, both 6, and Silas, 5.
When the family moved to the Inland Northwest, where Tirza didn’t know anyone, she looked for a way to keep busy and fuel her passion for natural healing. “It was a personal transition for me, moving to a city I’d never been to before,” she says. While she enjoyed working in PR and promoting her clients’ products, she now had an opportunity to pursue something different. “I knew I wanted to do something my kids could do with me, something that was hands-on and would let me be creative.”
Tirza spent about eight months doing research and development and looking for sources for organic ingredients. There are some things she just can’t get locally. The plant that produces black, green, oolong, and white teas — camellia sinensis — for example, is mostly grown in India and China. Tirza also uses strawberry leaf, blackberry leaf, peppermint, and red rooibos as bases for her teas.
She launched her initial line in August 2014, mostly vending her seven teas at local farmers markets and fairs — often selling out. Demand grew beyond her expectations, and by 2015, business was up tenfold.
In the beginning, Tirza was hand-mixing her blends in a commercial kitchen she rented in the basement of a nearby grange hall. She had to haul all of her ingredients and supplies, packed in large plastic tubs, to and from the grange a few times a month.
A Kickstarter campaign raised enough to build a commercial kitchen in her daylight basement. The kitchen was completed in early 2016. By then, her teas totaled 16 different flavors. This winter, she added four more. Today, boutiques, coffee shops, and gift stores from the Inland Northwest to the East Coast carry her teas.
“Inland Grey is always in my kitchen,” she says. “It’s my husband’s favorite.” Other top-sellers are Pacific Coast Lavender, a blend of lavender, peppermint, rose hips, and chamomile, and High Desert Sunrise, with red rooibos, orange peel, lemon grass, hibiscus, rose hips, and calendula. Other favorites include Harvest Apple, Trailhead Huckleberry, and Homestead Peach.
Tirza still sells tea at a few local farmers markets: the Kendall Yards Night Market in Spokane, the Thursday Market in the South Perry District in Spokane, and the Liberty Lake Farmers Market. She’s also a regular vendor at The Farm Chicks Vintage & Handmade Fair and Custer’s annual Christmas Arts & Crafts Show in Spokane.
But she’s no longer a one-woman company. Her husband and daughters help, and she has hired three part-time employees. Teas are still blended by hand, in small batches of 50 or 100 bags, each yielding about 30 cups.
Just as she did growing up in Denmark, Tirza enjoys a cup of tea in the afternoon, taking refuge from her to-do list and other stressors.
“It’s something I do every day as a way of nurturing myself,” she says. “Taking that moment to do something for myself is a way for me to de-stress and center myself. Some people go to yoga. For me, it’s having a cup of tea in the middle of a busy day.”
Spokane-based food and travel writer Adriana Janovich enjoys taking her Winterwoods Inland Grey tea with, sometimes, a splash of bourbon.
Recipes from Tirza Wibel of Winterwoods Tea Co.
Berry Lemon Cold Brew Tea
Fresh or frozen mixed berries, as desired
2 tablespoons Winterwoods Tea Northern Twilight loose-leaf tea
Juice of 1 lemon
Honey or agave to taste
Gently crush berries and place in a large pitcher. Add tea and lemon juice. Add cold water, leaving a few inches of room, and cover. Refrigerate overnight or 10–12 hours. Strain out tea leaves and crushed berries, and serve over ice. Add honey or agave to sweeten.
Northwest Ginger Tea
1-inch cube of ginger root, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons Winterwoods Tea Northwest Berry (caffeine-free) loose-leaf tea
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lime
6 cups water
Place ginger slices in medium pot on stove top. Add tea, lemon juice, and lime juice. Add water, and bring to just below a boil. Turn off, and let steep for 10 minutes or more. Strain out tea leaves and ginger and serve hot.
Minty Green Iced Tea
Handful of fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons Winterwoods Tea Green Bluff Green loose-leaf tea
Fresh lavender leaves (optional)
Honey or agave to taste
Gently crush mint leaves with clean hands and place in a large pitcher. Add tea, and pour hot water over top, leaving a few inches of room. Cover and refrigerate 4–6 hours. Strain out tea and mint leaves and serve over ice. Add honey or agave to sweeten and a few fresh lavender leaves, if desired.