This past Tuesday, I met with one of my professors, senior lecturer Dr. Jennifer Purrenhage. Dr. Purrenhage, or Jen, or Professor P, is a fantastic professor; while her title is senior lecturer, she does not solely lecture.
It is rare, actually, that she lectures for an entire class period.
I’m a Wildlife and Conservation Biology major, and am taking my second class with Purrenhage. Purrenhage teaches numerous classes for the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment with the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA).
Last year, I discovered that she owns a tea business. My family is very particular about our tea—you have to use a certain amount of tea, depending on the tea type and brand, and you have to make it a certain way.
I ordered one of Purrenhage’s black teas, Nilgiri Rose, and loved how smooth the tea was mixing with the light touch of rose.
In total, Purrenhage sells 26 varieties of loose-leaf teas and tisanes. The difference between teas and tisanes is the type of plant that goes into the mixture, she explained. Teas incorporate some part of the Camellia sinensis shrub. Tisanes have other plants—tisanes are your herbal drinks. She blends the teas as orders come in, so customers always receive fresh tea.
Her brand, The Tea Alchemist, arose out of some of Purrenhage’s other work in teaching meditation. Purrenhage assigned her clients to use tea as a mindfulness practice after meditation was not successful, and blended tea for her clients. The Tea Alchemist developed as clients and friends encouraged Purrenhage to sell her blends. “It wasn’t my intention for that to be a business.”
With each blend, Purrenhage focuses on intent. The Tea Alchemist’s motto is “Drink with Intention.” The appearance of the blend, the symbolism of each ingredient, and even the blend’s name are all intentional and meant to evoke a certain mood or emotion.
“I just like creating experiences for people,” she said.
Developing blends is a creative outlet for Purrenhage, who has tried other, more commonly thought of methods of creativity, such as painting or drawing. “You’ve got all of these colors and scents and texture…it’s this really creative process.”
When Purrenhage develops a new blend, her process focuses specifically on holistic intuition. She often first picks a name for the blend, giving her “the type of spirit” to work towards.
One tea blend is named HOWL, after, in part, the iconic Beat Movement poem. “Howl” was written by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and was subjected to a now infamous court case, whose prosecutors wished to censor the vulgar poem.
Wolf Larsen, a stage name for a songwriter and friend of Purrenhage, and the image of wolves howling at the moon, also inspired HOWL. The blend uses flowers, like jasmine whose blooming cycles are related to the moon or night. The spice of cinnamon represents fearlessness, while the blend’s appearance reflects a midnight sky.
Towards the end of our conservation, we stopped to drink tea. I drank Unflappable, Purrenhage’s newest blend, which was an oolong tea combined with orange peels and petals from the calendula flower, a yellow flower.
Purrenhage placed a generous amount of the Unflappable blend into my mug in a loose-leaf tea strainer. Loose leaf was important—she does not put her tea into portion-size bags. This is for two reasons: for mindfulness, so you can see the ingredients and colors of the blends, and so the tea itself can undergo “the agony of the leaves.”
When the tea is prepared, Purrenhage explained, each tea’s preparation process, such as drying or fermenting, will cause the leaves and parts of the tea to shrink. For these leaves to then properly release all the flavors they may contain, there needs to be enough space for the leaves to separate and return to the size they originally were — “the agony of the leaves”.
Purrenhage set a timer for the tea to steep; four minutes. She had HOWL, which turned a blood moon color once it finished steeping.
As we waited for the tea to steep, Purrenhage began to speculate on creativity, wondering a chicken or egg question: Does the creativity she uses in her teaching encourage her creativity with tea; or does the process of making tea lead to creativity in teaching?
The two classes of hers I’ve taken heavily incorporated creativity—my freshman year class had us creating silhouettes of endangered species in marking Earth Day, while this year, my class sketches wildlife and observations we make, along with traditional notes.
As I took my first sips of Unflappable, I focused in on the flavors, just as Purrenhage intended. I tasted sweetness and a light earthy tone. The sweetness was likely caused by the orange peel, Purrenhage said, with the oolong creating the earthy taste. The sweetness surprised me; we had put no sugar or honey in it.
Having consumed a mug of Unflappable, I know it is a tea to savor.
Knowing also that many people can be hesitant about tea or have not liked it before, I asked Purrenhage for recommendations.
For coffee drinkers, Get Well Grounded “has that earthiness to it” that coffee drinkers may prefer, she said. Get Well Grounded is a pu’erh tea that has rose petals and root of the eleuthero shrub. For those unsure about the flavor of tea, Touch of Grey, an Assam black tea with a few ingredients, including orange peel, is best.
Students interested in Purrenhage’s tea can contact her, visit TheTeaAlchemist.com, or stop by the Book and Bar in Portsmouth.