Oregon Mint Pt. 4

January 30th, 2012

If you aren't in the Portland area or visiting anytime soon you can buy Steven Smith Tea online here.

This is my last installment for the Oregon mint story. This section was going to be a sidebar for the print version…

Peppermint isn’t the only mint…

Sure, peppermint takes the cake in Oregon, but spearmint is a close second in terms of in-state cultivation. Two main differences between the mints are that peppermint plants are taller with bigger leaves, and peppermint has a stronger flavor and aroma than the sweeter, lighter tasting and smelling spearmint.

Steven Smith of Steven Smith Teamaker, a boutique tea company specializing in full leaf, small batch tea with a retail shop on Northwest Thurman, has been working with the same local spearmint growers since the mid-1970s — Don, Monty and Marvin Mills of Mills Mint Farm in Stanfield, Oregon in Northeastern Oregon. The Mills family was amongst the first in Oregon to cultivate spearmint and peppermint.

In the mid-70s Smith was a co-owner of Stash Tea before it was sold in 1993 to Yamamotoyama in Japan. At that time Smith and the other Stash owners and employees purchased field run mint (unprocessed mint directly from the farm) from the Mills family and cleaned it in what is now !Oba! Restaurante but which was then Stash Tea headquarters. They used the mint for their tea and also sold mint to Lipton Tea and Celestial Seasonings.

Says Smith, “We cleaned mint there and stored some of it across the street in the Maddox Transfer building before they called the area the Pearl district – I think it should have been named the Mint District for the way it smelled back then.”

After selling Stash in the early 1990s Smith started Tazo Tea in his home kitchen which he sold to Starbucks in 1999 and continued to work for until 2006. In late 2009, Smith opened his newest tea endeavor — Steven Smith Teamaker — in the brick building next to the former Carlyle Restaurant on Northwest Thurman Street.

All of Smith’s spearmint to this day comes from Mills Mint Farm which cultivates 400 acres of spearmint annually with minimal inputs thanks to regular crop rotation (corn, wheat and peas) and intensive hand weeding. If you’d like to try Mills’ local leaves they are blended in Smith’s Fez tea — a combination of Mao Feng China green tea, Oregon spearmint and Australian lemon myrtle leaves.

When asked why Smith still works with Mills Mint Farm he answers succinctly, “Flavor, appearance, aroma, overall approach to business, and long standing relationship.”

Who can argue with that?

Steven Smith Teamaker
1626 NW Thurman St.
Portland, OR
503.719.8752
www.smithtea.com

Read Pt. 1 Oregon Mint
Read Pt. 2 Oregon Mint
Read Pt. 3 Oregon Mint

Oregon Mint Pt. 3

January 16th, 2012

Butler Farms peppermint oil packs a punch.

Peppermint oil distillation takes place immediately after mint harvest at Butler Farms. The diesel powered boiler is the heart of the operation. It creates the steam that travels through the manifold and stainless steel lines into the just harvested mint hay tubs. The mint oil is extracted by the steam and channeled through stainless pipes to the condenser. As the steam cools in the condenser it liquefies and collects in the receding cans. Then by virtue of the fact that oil is lighter than water the oil naturally separates and is poured off into barrels.

For every acre of peppermint that the Butlers cultivate, they process roughly 90 to 100 pounds of peppermint oil, which translates to 40,000 pounds of peppermint oil a year. It takes a mere pound of the extremely potent oil to flavor 55,000 sticks of gum.

There are currently 21,000 acres devoted to mint oil production in Oregon grown by 150 farms, according to Bryan Ostlund of the Oregon Mint Commission. Nearly 70 percent of all peppermint grown in-state, in fact, is distilled into peppermint oil. That’s a lot of gum.

Tim Butler with a tiny jar of the mint oil that his farm produces and distills...

Of course, it doesn’t all become an ingredient in gum. Flavor houses purchase Butler Farms’ peppermint oil from a handler, and in turn sell it to oral care, candy and medical companies such as Colgate, Wrigley, Procter & Gamble and Pfizer.

Ostlund says that the recent history of Oregon mint oil production isn’t entirely rosy. Due to rapid changes in the retail business in the 1990s, “the pressure was on, and still is on, to cheapen products,” he notes. According to Ostlund, many of the older flavor house dependent companies continue to value high quality oil, especially with their older products particularly food and candy products. But, he adds, “Companies with new products coming into production, generally are not putting as high of a priority on quality ingredients. That’s usually when cheaper and inferior foreign mint oil comes into the equation. Essentially, companies are dumbing down their ingredients.”

Where Butler farms peppermint turns into peppermint oil.

The Willamette Valley has the highest flavor profile quality of peppermint oil in state. It is exceptionally bright and distinct with a nice level of menthofuran (a potent component of mint oil) which is why companies such as Atkinson Candy Company in Lufkin, Texas use it almost exclusively. Other Oregon mint production regions generally produce mint that doesn’t stand alone and requires blending.

Peppermint oil from India, China and South America is often significantly cheaper than domestic peppermint oil but that is of inferior quality. Says Butler, “It all comes down to the consumer. The consumer tells the Wrigleys and Wal-Marts and Costcos what they want; and the superstores tell the flavor houses what they want. Sure they want quality but they also want it cheap. That’s the way it is with all agricultural commodities.”

Despite this sort of cost-cutting and disregard for quality Butler Farms has no plans to slow down its mint oil production. And why should they? According to Bruce Pokarney, director of communication for Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon is the second leading US producer of peppermint and peppermint is ranked #15 of all Oregon commodities in value. Tim Butler is proud to cultivate such an important Oregon commodity. If in upcoming years we as a state can find a way to market Oregon-grown mint oil as a stand alone ingredient these numbers and percentages will likely grow. Maybe we’ll even become the number one peppermint producer in the country.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this story.
Read Pt. 1 Oregon Mint
Read Pt. 2 Oregon Mint

Oregon Mint Pt. 2

December 26th, 2011

Butler Farms in Stayton, Oregon in December 2010.

Although peppermint grows easily in Oregon it has its problems, like most crops, when cultivated on a large scale. Butler Farms wages a continuous battle with pests–everything from spider mites, cutworm, crane fly and nemotodes to symphylans, mint rust and verticillium wilt. One year, they lost 25 percent of their peppermint crop to mint rust. Mint rust, a fungus that blisters and destroys mint leaves, took Butler Farms from profitable to breakeven in one short week.

In other words, says Butler, “You don’t just throw it out there and hope for the best, because there wouldn’t be much.”

In the Willamette Valley, peppermint is perennial. It awakens from its winter dormancy in late January to early February. At that point, Tim Butler goes out into his fields with a winter herbicide spray to keep the weeds at bay.

By the first of March, the peppermint shoots are visible and growing quickly but Butler’s first fertilizer and fungicide applications don’t happen until several weeks later in mid-April. Butler then crosses his fingers, hoping that insecticide application isn’t necessary.

Throughout the year the Butlers monitor their fields with integrated pest management. An agronomy professional scouts the farm testing for nemotodes and other detrimental insects. Depending on the results, some fields get insecticide application while others don’t.

From April on, the peppermint is hungry and thirsty as it grows at breakneck speed. In the summer it’s irrigated with roughly an inch to an inch and a half of water weekly and fertilized heavily as well.

Early-to-mid-August at Butler Farms means peppermint harvest. They swath it, put it in rows, chop it, and pick it up with a harvester (similar to alfalfa, clover and corn harvest). From the field the mint goes into eight- to nine-ton mint hay tubs which are taken to the mint still by truck.

Stay tuned for the next two installments of this story.

Stay tuned for the next two installments of this story.
Read Pt. 1 Oregon Mint
Read Pt. 3 Oregon Mint

Oregon Mint Pt. 1

December 19th, 2011

Edible Portland sent this lovely card out to folks for the holidays.

So even though I’m pretty stinking busy right now working on the Toro Bravo Cookbook as well as being an editor and publicist for Hawthorne Books I’m still freelance food writing. I love covering our local food culture.

I wrote a story about Oregon mint for Edible Portland a while back and due to space constraints it didn’t make it as planned into this winter’s issue of magazine that just published. Despite getting nixed something cool happened to my story. See that card above? Mary Kate McDevitt took my story — followed up on some of the facts and figures — and made it into a beautiful holiday card for Edible Portland that I and probably many of you recently received in the mail. Literary transubstantiation!

Since I interviewed a lot of great people for my mint story I thought it would be a shame to not get it out there so with Edible Portland’s permission I’m posting it for you here in several installments and with a fair few photos. Hope you enjoy it!

Here’s the first installment…

There’s an old poster of Reba McIntyre push-pinned to the bulletin board of Tim Butler’s small fluorescent-lit farm office in Stayton, Oregon. Just below sit two small, mustard-sized jars of oil–peppermint oil. Like most oil, it doesn’t look like much: It is pretty clear with a faint straw hue. But when Butler opens a jar, a minty aroma immediately fills the room. The smell is intoxicating.

Butler Farms in Stayton, Oregon — just south of Salem — is a little less than a decade shy of becoming a century farm. Tim Butler’s maternal grandparents purchased the farm and its then 160 acres in 1918. Butler’s mom grew up on the farm; Tim, now 61 years old, grew up on the farm with his siblings; and Tim’s children, who are all adults now, grew up here. These days Butler, two of his brothers and a nephew run 2,100-acre Butler Farms. Tim’s wife, Joanie, is the farm bookkeeper.

Peppermint is integral to Butler Farms. They cultivate 400-plus acres of it annually, in addition to various vegetable crops, and every last bit is distilled on premises into peppermint oil. They began growing peppermint in 1995 after learning of a neighbor’s success.

“That’s typical of farmers,” says Butler. “You watch what your neighbor’s doing. If he’s successful at it you think, ‘Well I can do that too.’”

The Butlers are not alone in Oregon mint cultivation. The state is second in the nation in terms of peppermint cultivation (a very close second to Washington) and has seven main cultivation regions: the Willamatte Valley, Klamath Basin (including Susanville, Northern California and Tulelake), Madras, Hermiston, Ontario, Klatskanie and La Grande. The Madras and Hermiston areas focus primarily on peppermint leaf production while the Willamette Valley specializes almost entirely on peppermint oil production…

Stay tuned for the next three installments of this story.
Read Pt. 2 Oregon Mint
Read Pt. 3 Oregon Mint

Voodoo Vintners & Montinore Estate

November 7th, 2011

My friend Karen checking out the cow horn stuffed with *@#! at Montinore Estate.

In early September I was lucky enough to be invited to one of the Hardy Plant Society’s Kitchen Gardening Group outings. I’ve been to other events with this group and they’re great. You might remember this talk all about grapes that I went to last spring.

For September’s outing we met at Montinore Estate vineyard and winery just outside of Forest Grove. We waited in the vineyard parking lot — it was a beautiful day — until everyone arrived and then moved into the tasting room where we met Montinore owner and vintner Rudy Marchesi and his wife Susan Fichter. Lucky for us they took us on a tour of the 230+ acre vineyard that Rudy’s owned since 2005. (He owns 30+ additional acres at other area farms.) Here’s a great article in The Oregonian all about Rudy and Susan’s passion for food and drink.

Check out Katherine Cole’s book that came out this summer that features Montinore Estate — Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers — if you haven’t already. I wrote about Cole’s book and some of her upcoming book events and wine tastings in last week’s Willamette Week.

During the Montinore tour Rudy taught us all about biodynamic farming and it was inspiring. I worked on a biodynamic farm in Spain for several months in 1996 through WWOOF and it was a trip down memory lane for me listening to him describe and sometimes demonstrate various biodynamic practices.

On biodynamic farms cow horns, such as the one above, are packed every year with cow manure, buried and overwintered until the spring when they’re dug up and mixed with water in a vessel shaped like a pregnant woman’s belly. I got the job of stirring that shit so to speak and then applying it to the fields of the culinary herb farm that I worked on. Biodynamic practices are very unique and from my limited experience they seem to work.

Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate talking with the Hardy Plant Society's Kitchen Gardening Group about biodynamic farming.

The group taking in the scenery and learning the history of Montinore Estate.

Where water turns into wine at Montinore...

It wouldn't be a wine tour without a tasting in Montinore Estate's beautiful tasting room.

I learned a lot during this tour including:

The name Montinore comes from the original ranch owner who was from Montana before he moved to Oregon. Get it? Mont-in-Ore.

Because of all the moisture this growing season mold and mildew have been a constant struggle in vineyards. It’s been a challenging and expensive season.

Rudolf Steiner was a rad dude. He’s the grandfather of biodynamic agriculture as well as Waldorf education.

The reason Rudy got into biodynamic practices…phylloxera. An area of the vineyard was destroyed quickly by this pest so Rudy reevaluated growing practices and in 2001 (before he owned the vineyard) stopped all use of herbicides.

In 2003, Rudy took a biodynamic course in New York while still farming back east and in 2005 he bought Montinore Estate. In 2008 it was certified as biodynamic.

There are 25 or so biodynamic vineyards in Oregon but only seven are certified.

Hardy Plant Society Oregon
www.hardyplantsociety.org

Montinore Estate
3663 SW Dilley Road
Forest Grove, Oregon
503.359.5012 ext 3
Open daily 11am-5pm
www.montinore.com

Buy Katherine Cole’s book Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers
Read my review of Voodoo Vintners in Willamette Week