Tumblewood Teas is the name of the tea company in Big Timber, Montana, founded and run by Riza Gilpin & Laurie Rennie. But what does the name mean? Channel John Wayne’s voice here — I reckon the gals wanted somethin’ western, like tumbleweed and Deadwood.

Thanks, John.

The reason for a western-sounding name is not solely because Tumblewood is based in a small agricultural town on the banks of the Yellowstone River, but because Gilpin and Rennie are in defense of tea, a product of the Far East, as a western drink. With their high-quality product, workshops, savvy branding and persistence the women are generating a tea revolution. It has nothing to do with the political movement; it is a transformation of our appetites and mindset.

When I visited Tumblewood headquarters at 403 McLeod St., Gilpin, a life-long tea lover, and Rennie, a shy but fanatical convert, made for me a delicious and aromatic cup of loose-leaf Rooibos with spring water. They then sat me down to teach me about varieties of tea, the reasons why it is a superior drink, and the proper way to brew it: 195° water for oolong, 208° for black and herbal. Tea parties, I discovered, are serious business.

I was semi-prepared, as I have a little tea cred. I lived in tea-drinking Scotland when I was a kid. My Scottish, paternal great-grandfather owned and operated tea plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1800s. And I have a maternal ancestor who participated in the Boston Tea Party dressed like a Mohawk or Narragansett Indian, which means he was one of the Sons of Liberty. I thus respect the beverage. My tea of choice? Loose leaf Earl Grey blended with the Lapsang souchong, served with milk and honey. But I digress…

Since that wild night in Boston in 1773, tea has been associated in the recesses of the American psyche with the British, thus un-patriotic. That’s total malarkey, of course. As the Tumblewood gals will tell you, the American West was “won” by tea drinkers: Europeans, Russians and Chinese. Settlers drank green and Ceylon (black) tea, according to Rennie who saw steamship manifests at a museum in Fort Benton, Montana. Tea, it turns out, is as western as it gets.

Interestingly, according to Gilpin, the Chinese who built western railroads escaped dysentery because they drank tea. Smart. It was the Chinese, after all, who began drinking leaves from the evergreen shrub, Camellia sinensis, 5,000 years ago for medicinal reasons (green tea, like Rooibos, is rich in antioxidants).

Real tea is native to Asia and is now cultivated throughout the world. The leaves and buds are harvested then processed to varying degrees of oxidation. White, green, black, yellow, oolong and Pu’erh are all from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, whereas Rooibos is a shrub from South Africa, and herbal teas are made from flowers and herbs.

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Tumblewood sells 60 flavors of tea. Some are single origin (unblended leaves grown in one location). Some are blends. All are sourced from the highest quality plants. With their beautiful packaging and fun names like “Black Bart” and “Galloping Green,” Tumblewood products make fantastic gifts.

“These are very serious teas. We name them fun names because Tumblewood is about really enjoying tea,” says Gilpin.

Tea is tasty and versatile. The chef at the Timber Bar in Big Timber now uses Tumblewood’s Lapsang in his prime rib. Yumm! Even the venerable men ranchers who gather at Big Timber’s Frosty Freez (pronounced freeze) now drink loose-leaf Tumblewood tea. They are proof that Gilpin and Rennie are successfully converting our palates and debunking stereotypes one hot cup at a time. 

Tumblewood Teas is sold in most Montana grocery stores, in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, at Montana State University and the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, and at retail stores and resorts throughout the state.

Seonaid “Sho” B. Campbell is a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker, and photographer whose Gaelic name and love of single malts come from her family in Argyll, Scotland.

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