Side Order: Celestial Seasonings factory tour, steeped in tea culture

By Amy Reinink
Sunday, March 21, 2010; F02

Walking into the Celestial Seasonings tea factory feels like stepping inside a giant Celestial Seasonings tea box. Whimsical paintings of brightly colored botanicals adorn the walls. Inspirational quotes are etched above the doorways. And there's the aroma, a combination of earthy tea leaves, tangy hibiscus and spicy cloves.

The all-natural tea manufacturer, known for such cult-favorite herbal blends as Sleepytime and Red Zinger, invites visitors on free tours of its Boulder, Colo., facility to watch every part of the tea-making process, from the milling of the herbs to the cellophaning and heat-sealing of the boxes. More than watching, visitors are invited to engage: to sniff a bowl of hibiscus flowers, to view brightly colored boxes zooming across the room on a conveyor belt and to sip teas ranging from Goji Berry Pomegranate Green to Black Cherry Berry in the tasting room.

"We don't hide anything," says "guest relations ambassador" Steve Spencer, a 33-year company veteran who spearheaded the introduction of the tours 20 years ago. "We want people to come in and meet our friendly employees, see our colorful walls and signage, smell the barley and the lemongrass. We want people to come here and experience something. You're not up on the mezzanine, looking through a window."

Celestial Seasonings was born in 1969, when Mo and Peggy Siegel, Wyck Hay and Lucinda Zeising started harvesting fresh herbs from the Rocky Mountains by hand, packaging them in hand-sewn muslin bags and selling them at local health-food stores.

Forty years and more than 50 billion tea bags later, the tea factory attracts more than 120,000 visitors per year, making it the No. 2 stand-alone tourist attraction in Boulder, a funky college town with a well-earned crunchy-granola reputation. (The No. 1 attraction is the Pearl Street Mall downtown, according to the Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau).

In 1990, the company moved to its current location on Sleepytime Drive, a quiet road in Boulder's foothills named for Celestial Seasonings' best-selling brew. Spencer started the factory tours shortly after the move.

Tours now leave hourly from the tasting room, where visitors can sample roughly 100 varieties of tea and browse a gallery of the illustrations that decorate the tea boxes, which the company commissions from independent illustrators.

I spent a good hour in the tasting room, finding that while Chocolate Caramel Enchantment Chai doesn't live up to its decadent-sounding name, True Blueberry and Cranberry Pomegranate Green seem to have addictive properties.

After watching a quick video about company history and donning giggle-inducing hair and beard nets, visitors are led onto the factory floor, which acquires a Willy Wonkaesque mystique as soon as tour guides announce that cameras are prohibited.

Comparisons to the fictitious chocolate factory continue inside the cheery, brightly lit facility, with its humming conveyor belts, shelves of sweet-smelling herbs and peppermint-scented corridors. Spencer starts our tour by passing around bowls of red hibiscus, the main ingredient in the Zinger teas, to show how herbs are cleaned and milled.

"Yesterday, we were milling cloves," he says. "Smelling all these different smells can touch a lot of different parts of your psyche. It explains why people come on this tour again and again."

Next up: The tea room, where huge bins of green, black and white tea leaves sit stacked before a large, colorful world map showing where the tea is grown.

Then it's on to what Spencer says is the most popular stop on the tour: The sinus-clearing mint room. Mint is so pungent it must be kept away from other herbs and tea leaves, behind a heavy garage door lifted and closed for each tour group.

"It's all about that multi-sensory experience," Spencer says, smiling as the tour group ahead of us exits the room with teary eyes and twitching noses.

The factory processes and packs roughly 10 million tea bags per day, and one of the most fascinating parts of the tour is watching neat lines of those bags and the boxes that hold them whiz around the room on conveyor belts. Another is watching robotic palletizers lift them, wrap them in cellophane and pack them in larger cardboard boxes to be shipped.

The tour ends in the gift shop, but there's much more to explore beyond the cash register. Though Boulder boasts lots of great lunch options, a full salad bar and homemade vegetable soup lure me into the Celestial Cafe instead.

Then I make another stop in the tasting room for dessert. As I said, that True Blueberry tea is addictive.

Reinink, a freelance writer in Silver Spring, lived in Boulder for four years.

Celestial Seasonings, 4600 Sleepytime Drive, Boulder, Colo., 303-530-5300, Free tours depart hourly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

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