Summer may be drawing to a close, but one of the sweet tastes of the season will be available all year thanks to a Bernville family and their Pure Wild Tea.
Sherry Fuhrmann and her husband, Kurt, are the owners of a mint “meadow tea” business they started just more than a year ago. Together with their family, friends and neighbors, the Fuhrmanns plant, harvest, process, bottle and distribute their tea made from apple mint and chocolate mint leaves grown on three acres of their farm, and in other fields, in northern Berks County. The beverage, while locally called “tea,” does not actually contain tea leaves, but is a drink made simply of mint, water and sugar. The Fuhrmanns also sell an unsweetened version and are actively promoting both the unique taste and the digestive health benefits of their product.
First marketed in November 2013, the Pure Wild Tea brand grew quickly and is now a featured product in more than forty stores throughout the county. This summer, the Fuhrmanns participated in several local fairs, including Kempton, Kutztown and Reading, and won the “Best Overall Vendor” award at the Schuylkill County Fair. This fall, they plan to take their tea to the Bloomsburg Fair, the Taste of Home Expo at the Scottish Rites Cathedral in West Reading, and the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January.
“Whenever we offer samples of our meadow tea, we get an interesting response,” said Sherry Fuhrmann. “People say, ‘this reminds me of being a kid, it’s just like the tea my grandmother used to make.’ The tea often brings people back to their family roots, but it also introduces those unfamiliar with it to the traditions of yesterday.”
For Sherry, who teaches fourth grade at Tilden Elementary School, having a meadow tea business was a dream for a long time. As a child, she hunted wild mint along local creeks, meadows and woods with her grandmother. Sherry’s mother would steep the leaves in boiling water, add sugar, cool the drink and serve it to family members working in the hot hay fields. Sherry always wanted to start the business with her mother, Ruth Dieter, but she passed away before the idea came to fruition.
“The technique and recipe have been in my family for years,” she said. “Fifteen years ago, I dug my first mint plants from Mom’s original patch on Bloody Springs Road. I started planting my fields four years ago, and last year was our first harvest. So this labor of love is really a way to memorialize my mother.”
A true family affair, the business’s success relies heavily on the expertise and hard work of old and young alike. Kurt Fuhrmann, who worked for 34 years in computerized welding, built the 50-gallon stainless steel boiler where the tea is processed in a building near the family’s home. Sherry’s father, Gary Dieter, brother, Gary Dieter, Jr., and aunt, Betty Kunkel, help to plant the mint and distribute the product. And Kurt and Sherry’s five children - Beau, 22, Corey, 21, Destinee, 17, Patience, 10 and Serenity, 1 - along with an assortment of friends and neighbors, pitch in to weed, root and harvest the leaves. Tea-planting “parties” have become legendary around the Fuhrmann’s farm in all kinds of weather.
“It takes a small village to run this business,” Sherry said. “People just show up to help and we’ve all learned how to work together as a team, to see what needs to be done.”
Unique to the process is that the mint is grown naturally, hence the name Pure Wild Tea. “Our tea is pure, with no additives or preservatives,” said Sherry. “This is the way Mother Earth left it, and the way my own mother used to make it.”
While the plants are grown and harvested without pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or other chemicals, the Fuhrmanns have not yet obtained an organic certification due to the sheer volume of paperwork and history required. The mint plants take hold quickly, so the family grows and re-roots existing plants, instead of buying more. According to Fuhrmann, this ensures that the beverages have a consistent flavor as they are brewed throughout the year, and adds to its purity.
“When a lot of care has been taken to plant, grow, maintain and harvest this mint by hand, it makes people willing to buy a healthier product,” Sherry said. “It’s a lot of hands-on activity, and you have to love doing this to keep doing this. Fortunately, we do, and we’re on a natural high because everyone loves this product once they try it.”
To make the tea, Kurt Fuhrmann starts boiling 50 gallons of water while Sherry and their daughters go into the fields to cut the amount of mint needed by hand, with scissors. They weigh and clean the leaves, steep them for five minutes in the boiling water, remove the leaves and then bottle and cool the hot beverage. After the bottles are placed in cases, they go into one of two insulated trailers the Fuhrmanns own, and then are driven to local stores and restaurants. Just one of the family’s three-acre fields can yield 66,000 cases, or 792,000 bottles of tea.
In addition to cultivating their own land, the Fuhrmanns have branched out to include local schools and businesses as growing partners. As part of their science curriculum, students at Blue Mountain Academy, in Hamburg, are being paid to propagate 50 flats of lemon balm mint in their campus greenhouse. The leaves from plants grown there will be introduced as a new tea flavor in spring of 2015. In addition, four local farmers with marshy land unsuitable for their own crops have agreed to let the Fuhrmanns use their land to grow mint. And long-time Shartlesville business, Roadside America, has offered three acres of their untilled land for growing.
“The land has been sitting back there, doing nothing, for decades,” said Craig Heinsohn, Vice President at Roadside America. “It’s an ideal place for that kind of mint to be grown, because it’s moist and shady. With Sherry using the land, I don’t have to worry about mowing it so I’m getting a cost savings. It’s a win-win for everyone.” Heinsohn plans to sell the finished product to customers in the Roadside America gift shop with the slogan, “Grown here, sold here, made near.”
The Fuhrmanns believe so much in the power of partnership that, in appreciation of the success they’ve experienced, they are “paying it forward” by donating a nickel of every bottle sold to the Hawk Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in Kempton.
These partnerships have been good for nature and good for business. “The way you get bigger is when other people take ownership of the process,” Fuhrmann said. “I give kudos to my first three or four stores that agreed to give it a try and sell Pure Wild Tea. Having that kind of support is the foundation of starting a business.”
And Fuhrmann intends to see it grow. “I want to keep pushing this as far as it goes,” she said. “I’d like to be the next Snapple or Honest Tea. I envision my Pure Wild Tea spreading through families and becoming a household name.”
For now, you can find Pure Wild Tea in Redner’s Quick Shoppes, Hecky’s in Hamburg, Way-Har Farms in Bernville, Grube’s Dairy in Shoemakersville, Wanamaker’s Store in Kempton and many other locations. Check out the website at www.purewildtea.com for a list of other vendors.