Tea time

Shalva Tea highlights local herbs.

Shalva tea (photo credit: PR)
Shalva tea
(photo credit: PR)
David Ross sees tea a little differently than the average person. Where some may enjoy tea on a cold night, or while under the weather, or even to relax before bed, Ross views it as a means of connection between people, and a vehicle to showcase the wonders of Israel’s herbs in a way that’s both unique and environmentally conscious.
Ross made aliya in 2014 after finishing his master’s in Forestry at Yale University. He initially received a Fulbright fellowship to come to Israel and then decided to make it a permanent move.
“When they ask on the Nefesh B’Nefesh application, what’s your plan, I wrote that mine was to start a tea company,” Ross recalls. “I saw great potential for using local herbs. Everything that existed here already was overpriced and not very interesting. I knew that I wanted to start something new myself.”
After finishing Hebrew classes, Ross went full-time into making his tea dreams a reality. He researched farms and bought 30 different types of herbs that he thought could potentially work in tea.
“I laid them all out on a giant table, bought a scale, and started playing scientist,” he explains.
Because of his education in the environmental world, he had developed a habit of foraging for plants and learning their medicinal uses in the wild. This provided him with a basic idea of what herbs can do.
The challenge was to find herbs that grow in different regions, but can still come together in a flavor profile that makes sense, while incorporating health benefits.
The beginning step was to do the research, find out who was selling what and, equally importantly, what tasted good. For focus groups, he relied on his friends, who tasted many samples and shared their opinions.
Ross originally wanted to call the company Shalom Tea because he envisioned it as tea that would bring people together, one cup at a time. But the feedback he received for the initial name was not positive. The word shalva comes from the Book of Psalms and means “peace” or “tranquility,” which is exactly what Ross’s tea embodies.
“It’s a funky name and it still conveys what I’m trying to convey,” Ross states. “Also, in Hebrew if you say ‘shalvati,’ it means ‘my shalva.’ Israelis like a good play on words.”
Shalva Tea’s ideology extends to the manufacturing plant where it’s packaged. Initially, Ross was renting factory space and friends would help.
“We’d have sticker parties where five of us would buy some wine – but not too much, so that the stickers would go on straight – and crank out a few thousand boxes of tea,” Ross recalls. “However, it was getting to the point where I couldn’t ask so many favors anymore.”
Shalva Tea is currently packaged by Shekel, an organization that provides vocational training for Arabs and Jews with disabilities. Shekel’s involvement creates social benefits within the community, which reinforces Shalva Tea’s quiet motto.
“It’s Arabs and Jews working side by side, not in a political way, it’s just that they have similar needs,” Ross adds. “It’s all like one big family there.”
A year and a half after its initial conception, Shalva Tea is taking shape and developing a growing presence in Israel. There are six flavors: Arava Calm, Carmel ImmuniTea, Cleansing Galil (good for the liver), Soothing Elah Valley (for sore throats), Ein Gedi Digestif (for the stomach), and Jerusalem Harmony.
Each contains between five and eight ingredients.
The technical term for this type of tea is “herbal infusion.”
Shalva Tea is unique in that it is not mixed with black tea from India or China, as is customary with many herbal tea brands. “My point was to have it be totally local,” Ross says enthusiastically. The Jerusalem Harmony blend begins with spearmint and lemongrass as a base; a combination that is as Jerusalem as it gets.
That’s then balanced with carob, olive leaf, which while bitter on its own creates a robustness in small amounts, rose petals, hibiscus to add tartness and a beautiful crimson color, and cardamom.
The idea of harmony infuses every aspect of Shalva Tea. The boxes are produced locally and the packaging is recyclable.
“Having grown up in the environmental world, sustainability is something that I try to embody, even though I despise that word because it’s been overused so much,” Ross states. “I try to not advertise it as sustainable, but there is an emphasis on all the herbs being local and I’m trying to get organic certification now.”
Ross aspires to be certified by the end of the year. In Israel, a company has to be 100 percent organic to become certified, as opposed to in the US, where there are categories for 70%, 90% and 100%. This has proven to be a significant challenge for Ross, because several of the herbs he uses, while native to Israel, are not commercially available as organic.
Shalva Tea is currently sold in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Tel Aviv, with approximately 40 locations selling it by the cup, by the bag, or both; including Cafe Mizrachi in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem’s city center, Cafe Bialik in Tel Aviv, and many other smaller vegetarian and vegan establishments. When Ross realized that demand for tea in Israel is seasonal, with orders slowing down tremendously after the winter months, he was pushed to expand beyond a strictly Israeli focus and look internationally. This involves incorporating tea bags in addition to loose leaf.
“A lot of restaurants that sell it like that it’s loose leaf, so I’m going to keep that, but for mass production, I’m going to go for tea bags,” Ross explains.
The first phase of Shalva Tea was loose leaf only.
Tea bags are more expensive to produce, but they reach a wider market. Loose leaf, herbal tea tends to be limited to people who shop in health-food stores, which could prove to be a sensitive area internationally, given that Shalva Tea is an Israeli product that may not appeal to the Whole Foods crowd. Ross expressed some trepidation in this regard, but has not met with any resistance yet. In fact, he began talking to importers from New York recently and filled his largest order to date for a full palette of tea, which is 2,160 units.
“Listen, it’s not so hard to make a nice cup of tea, using herbs from the region that you live in, but I try to keep the traditional Israeli concept and embellish on that,” Ross relates. “I want this to be something that Israelis can be proud of. If you want quality tea, you shouldn’t have to get it from France or Germany. This is a local, recyclable, organic product. That’s the kind of company I want to have.”