Tsaa Laya: Paying Tribute to the Tradition of Herbalism Through Creative Blends of Herbal TeaMarch 17, 2017
While Japan has their elaborate tea ceremonies and India is known for its rich tradition of chai, the Philippines is not typically a country most people would associate with tea. But Filipinos do hold a culture of tea-drinking—a form close to it—rooted in the tradition of herbalism. Steeped or boiled in water and consumed as tea (among many possible preparations), local herbs form a big part of Philippine alternative medicine and are believed to cure a number of ailments, including fevers, infections, even diabetes. And the world of local herbs has long fascinated Jamir Ocampo, founder of Tsaa Laya.
“I consider myself as [an] herb hunter trying to discover more and more of our local herbs,” shares Ocampo, who grew up in the mountains of Cordillera and coming from a family of “herbolario-wannabe[s]” that advocated the health and homeopathic benefits of local herbs. “It feels like discovering a Pokemon every time you [make a new discovery].”
His passion for local herbs is only fitting, it would seem, given the Philippines’ high biodiversity. “Even [certain types] of herb[s], like Lemongrass or Mint, [come in numerous sub-varieties] in the country,” he explains. But there is a lack of documentation on the taxonomy, properties and taste profiles of these herbs. Moreover, they are valued primarily for their medicinal properties—but people hardly take their flavors into consideration. “Most current local herbal teas only emphasize its health value without working on its taste,” laments Ocampo. “We usually treat our local teas as a medicine only to be taken when we feel sick.”
Through Tsaa Laya, Ocampo showcases the many possibilities with these local herbs. By combining them with other aromatic herbs, fruits, and spices, Jamir is able to create blends that can be valued not only for how they benefit people’s well-being, but also their taste. “The competitive advantage of our Philippine herbs is the peculiarities of our diverse herbs and the unique blend you can create from such diversity,” he relays. Ever-zesty lemongrass, for example, shines in their own right in Tsaa Laya’s Tanglad variant, but happily takes to the spicy warmth of ginger and turmeric in the Lemon Ginger blend. In the Pandan variant, the so-called “Asian vanilla” gets to showcase its natural mellow sweetness; and in the Java Banaba blend, it helps round out the fuller grassiness of balbas pusa and banaba. And in the Centella Mint blend, gotu kola, an herb also known for its ability to help heal wounds and improve concentration, mingles with the cooling sensation of herba buena mint.
“While mainstream teas such as Black Teas or Earl Grey focuses on establishing a standard flavor on what a classical tea should taste, Philippine herbal teas have so much room to be creative,” says Ocampo.
At its core however, Tsaa Laya was founded with the humble desire to improve the lives of his fellowmen. Ocampo, who had been working under the Commission on Human Rights in 2011, was assigned to an urban poor community undergoing demolition in Pasig city. The community was set to be relocated to a rural resettlement called Calauan in Laguna—much to their dismay, however, given the lack of dependable access in Calauan to water, electricity, and (most importantly) livelihood. “That community made me realize that the relocation of informal settlers from Manila to countryside is not about housing, but a question of livelihood availability in the resettlement area,” he explains.
“Other than reporting all the human rights violations on the community, I was not able to do anything at all to alleviate their problems. That incident challenged me, and I took it very [personally].”
Dissatisfied, Ocampo tried his hand at entering the British Council’s Social Enterprise Competition in 2012, pitching the idea of sustainable livelihood for the Calauan community by growing and producing herbal teas, and won seed funding. In 2015 he also entered the Impact Accelerator Program in Singapore, winning an equity investment to complete the construction of their tea factory. And as fate would have it, he would discover Calauan’s clean environment and idle lands were well-suited for herbal gardening and tea production.
To this day, Ocampo is dedicated to giving back to the community. “We don’t intend to turn community beneficiaries as our employees. We want them to manage and eventually own the tea processing facilty that we invested on them.” This entails training to develop attitudes of ownership and entrepreneurship in hopes of passing on the company and having them take the lead. “We are running an incubation program now instilling skills and assets to our community partners that will enable them to be business managers-owners of this tea livelihood.”
Ocampo is also focused on extending the livelihood project to a second community of indigenous people in Kiangan, Ifugao, where the local farmers suffer from low income, resulting complications in managing their rice terraces. “Some are converting areas of the rice terraces into vegetable farms, which affects [their] heritage value,” he laments.
These are big goals to think about at the moment, but Tsaa Laya is taking things on step by step—taking a page from the way he relishes the beverage. “Since most of our herbal teas are calming rather than caffeinated stimulants,” Jamir relays, “I hope our tea drinkers will feel the value of taking things slow.”
“When people spend time steeping our teas, finding delight on the aroma and flavors of the herbs, and simply looking how the loose herbs unfurl in hot water, I hope the whole tea experience will let them spend time with themselves and realize that we have a choice to withdraw from this daily grind, and to retreat to our own place of solitude and meaningfulness.”
Philippine tea company and social enterprise crafting creative tea blends that highlight and pay tribute to local herbs.