Trial & Travel

On any given chilly day, the biggest conundrum these proprietors face is choosing which flavor to brew. Photography by Coreene Smith

Great Lakes Tea & SpiceWhen wintertime starts to blossom in Leelanau County, Chris and Heather Sack reach for two things: their best woolies and a steaming cup of tea. Both seem like simple tactics to ward off a frosty morning, but the chilly challenge is compounded by choice for the Sacks.

As proprietors of Glen Arbor’s own tea emporium, Great Lakes Tea & Spice, the biggest conundrum Chris and Heather face is which tea to brew. Since 2006, their shop has amassed a product line of more than 50 loose and flowering teas in styles and flavor blends to suit every season.

A love of travel and trial may have been what started their adventure, but bringing spicy souvenirs home to Michigan is what keeps them on the lookout for more.

Monikers like Maritime Mist, Siberian Delight or Snowflake Spice Winter Blend are helpful hints to narrow down the choice in the dead of winter. And any chilly day, brewing a cup of Snow Blossom is the perfect reminder that warmth is not far off: One of many flowering teas, its fabulous petal shapes spring to life in the cup.

In the past six years, the enterprising couple has added spices, oils and vinegars to their provisions from far-flung places across the globe. A love of travel and trial may have been what started their adventure, but bringing spicy souvenirs home to Michigan is what keeps them on the lookout for more.

How did you first get into the tea and spice business? We are both natives of Michigan and love all its homegrown culinary treats, but having opportunities to travel around the world launched our fascination with ingredients that can’t be grown in our own backyard. We were eager to bring new flavors to our friends and customers. By 2004, we could see the tea wave washing in and knew that the spice wave wasn’t far behind.

Where do you get your inspiration for the products that you feature? When we travel, inspiration is always right around the corner. Adding new spices and spice blends to a Midwestern ‘meat and potatoes’ palate helps us think outside the box. Best of all, the result is usually really tasty.

Heather and Chris SackWhat is your favorite place on earth? There are too many places with wonderful memories to pick just one, but Turkey is Heather’s favorite; it’s where East meets West and the result is fabulous flavor.

What is your favorite food and tea pairing? Chocolate and chai makes a really mean combination. Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate of Empire in Michigan makes “tea bars” with our tea. We always advise customers to take a bite of chocolate followed by a sip of tea or chai — it’s our version of “Mmm, mmm, good.”

What was your most memorable meal while traveling in Michigan? We don’t have to travel far for Veal Saltimbocca at Trattoria Funistrada in Glen Arbor. It’s really memorable with a glass of Italian red Montepulciano.

What is the most surprising spice you’ve come across? Traveling in Morocco led us to a very unique spice mixture, Ras Al Hanout. It’s a blend that contains anywhere from 10 to 100 different spices and can be used on anything from a meat tagine (long simmering stew) to fall squash. Sumac (but not the local variety) is another spice we’ve fallen in love with that adds a tart and lemony flavor to any dish. It’s widely used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes.

Do you celebrate any special wintertime traditions? There’s nothing more festive than cutting down our own Christmas tree on Thanksgiving Day at Valentine Tree Farm in Maple City. Nello Valentine is a really hospitable tree farmer and friend. We decorate the tree while roasting a bird in the oven and serving a little of our Holiday Spice Blend tea to family.

Learn more at Freelance writer Caroline J. Beck lives in California’s wine country and Lexington, Mich.

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