First, I want to thank Kindle Chronicles listener Guven Witteveen for his email recommending that Darlene and I take a tour of the Celestial Seasonings plant just up the road in Boulder. We drove there today in time for the 11 a.m. tour. I am still a tea drinker, and I bought a box of Tension Tamer at the store afterward, along with a mug with a bear in a hammock on it. But I have to confess that I found our visit to Celestial Seasonings to be oddly unsettling.
In the 10-minute video we watched at the beginning of the tour, the company’s hippy history was highlighted via photos of the founders hiking in the Rockies, looking for herbs to make tea with. They looked happy. This was the sixties, and Celestial Seasonings caught the vibe perfectly. Roll forward a few decades, and the company has been purchased in 2000 by the Hain Food Group, owned in part by H. J. Heinz Company. No problem there. I understand that companies get started, grow, and if they’re lucky, get purchased. In fact, it just happened to another Boulder firm that happens to have been co-founded by a cousin of mine, Bruce Edgerly, whose Backcountry Access was purchased on Dec. 31 by global behemoth K2 Sports.
What always happens with these acquisitions is that everyone promises nothing will change, that the original purity of the startup will be maintained even as the new parent unleashes exciting growth potential. Gradually, the growth itself begins driving the bus, and somewhere else another startup pops up from nothing and the cycle begins all over again. This is the animal genius of capitalism.
Where it’s left Celestial Seasonings, though, is an odd mix of hippy history and factory efficiency. As a newly minted tea enthusiast, I equate drinking tea with a drop in my caffeine intake and a mellowing out of my life rhythms. A cup of tea brings me delight at my desk as I write or prepare the podcast. Celestial Seasonings, our guide proudly informed us, processes enough tea in a year to serve 1.6 billion cups of calming tea.
Because of the need for extreme cleanliness, we were told to don hairnets before entering the factory. Another trip to Boulder, another hairnet. One guy even had to wear a beard hairnet, which I tried not to stare at.
As we filed through the door to the plant, we were greeted with a wonderful aroma of seasonings. Mint mainly, it seemed to my very poor sniffer. And it was loud. Conveyor belts ferried little boxes of tea up and down routes that reminded me of a model train set. Huge containers of incoming tea were stacked high in holding rooms, most of them bearing a green “OK” label indicating that the official quality control guy, Charlie, who has been at the job for 38 years, had signed off on that batch.
I would have taken some photos, but our guide emphasized the No Photography rule. “We don’t know if some of you are ‘tourists’ from Lipton,” she explained.
One room had a strong menthol smell, where they store the spearmint, mint and catnip leaves. The latter are the key ingredient in Tension Tamer, which is why I bought a box of it. Our guide said she used to take a cup of Tension Tamer before each tour, but now I guess she doesn’t need it. She knew her stuff and was proud of the company. She explained how the Robot Palletizer figures out how to pick up boxes of tea and pack them on pallets, an impressive sight.
The Boulder plant can pack 10 million tea bags in a single day when it’s running at full tilt. Winter is the busy season, and they wish we would drink more iced tea in the summer. Ninety-two percent of Celestial Seasonings tea is sold in the U.S. Of the rest, half goes to Canada.
I talked Darlene into having lunch in the Celestial Café after the tour, thinking it would be a funky Sixties-type place where we could read our Kindles and eat something healthy. Let’s say it didn’t turn out that way. As a company cafeteria it’s okay, but I wouldn’t rank it as one of the top eating destinations in Boulder. The menu today included beef chili, a salad bar, and a greasy item from the grill that Darlene half finished.
Toward the end of our tour, I asked our guide about George Orwell’s recommendation that tea be made with loose leaves infusing boiling water in a pot. “No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea,” Orwell admonished. Our guide allowed as how some people prefer that method. “For myself, I put three tea bags in a cup,” she said, so maybe that’s a way of approaching the intense taste of the Orwell method.
I don’t want to knock Celestial Seasonings too hard in this rumination. I love seeing a business thrive based in Boulder, with the gorgeous mountains in the distance. And the company’s tea is, in my experience, top notch. There are factories making lots worse things in the world than tasty tea. But taking the tour led to a loss of innocence compared with what I had irrationally expected, based on the cozy image of the dozing bear on the Sleepytime box.