How a Soft Drink Company Is Giving Greeks Economic Hope with Wild Mountain Tea

While Greece has yet to emerge from its long economic crisis, Tuvunu is giving the farmers of northeastern Greece a business opportunity to help produce a new, all-natural bottled version of the drink that everyone’s grandmother calls a cure-all.

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Sep 8 2016, 8:00pm

It was in 2011 that Nuriye Hasan Sali first met Demetri Chriss, the chief operating officer and driving force behind Tuvunu—a Greek producer of all-natural beverages. At that time, Demetri and his team were travelling through the mountain villages of northeastern Greece, presenting a new business opportunity to local farmers who had been planting tobacco for many generations.

But it wasn't really new at all.

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Sideritis, a.k.a. Greek mountain tea. All photos by the author.

At the heart of this venture was the indigenous plant known as sideritis—a.k.a. Greek mountain tea—which grows wild in the mountainous areas of Greece. For centuries, it has been used to prepare a hot infusion, a folk remedy for winter colds and sore throats. But Demetri envisioned a future in which people from the farming communities of Thrace cultivated their land to produce sideritis for a new, all-natural bottled version of the drink that everyone's grandmother calls a cure-all.

Nuriye, 29, who holds a degree in agronomy from the Technical Institute of Thessaly, was 25 at the time, married and unemployed. She belongs to a small community of Pomaks, a people found in the mountainous villages of Thrace. Pomaks are Greek Muslims who speak a local Slavic dialect and who, until 1993, were subject to a number of discriminatory policies that barred them from leaving their villages after sunset and having visitors from outside the area without authorization, and left them subject to identity checks on the main road leading to the nearby city of Xanthi. Most of the local men are currently abroad, working at shipyards in Germany. Women wearing hijabs can be seen driving motorcycles or, like Nuriye, working as farmers.

"I put my first seeds into the ground in 2011," she says. "Then I had two stremmas"—a Greek measuring system of land area equal to one-tenth of a hectare—"but now I have six. I had my first output in 2012, but the first good one was in 2013.

Nuriye notes that the first two years of growing sideritis requires regular weeding in the fields, particularly because sideritis farmers don't use pesticides. But after that, she says, she only needs to clear weeds once a month.

"I sold my first crop of sideritis to [Tuvunu] in 2012 and we've been working together ever since," she says.

Nuri Conde and Saban.

Nuri Conde and Saban are brothers, both in their late 40s. They have spent most of their lives in Kotyli, a small village less than ten kilometers away from Bulgarian border in the Rhodope Mountains. Their father was a tobacco farmer, and the brothers inherited his profession along with his fields, while also working part-time as builders to pay the bills. In 2012 they heard about sideritis by word of mouth, and attended one of Tuvunu's presentations. They immediately decided to contact the company and started planting their fields with sideritis. Together they own around ten stremmas, or one hectare, of sideritis. "Growing tobacco was really hard," says Nuri.

His son, 24-year-old-Rivdan, interrupts: "I was the one who persuaded them to start growing sideritis." Ridvan recently received his degree in social studies from the state university in Komotini and just finished his military service. Together with his cousin, Saban's son Irfan, they assist their parents in tending the sideritis fields. The two cousins were scheduled to leave their village for a three-month stint working in shipyards in Germany—a common practice for villagers who can't find employment opportunities closer to home. I ask him whether he has considered the possibility of becoming a full-time sideritis grower like his parents. "If I can't find anything relevant to my university degree, then yeah, I guess that I too will one day become a sideritis grower like my father and uncle."

Nuri and Saban are also one of the company's main seed and seedling suppliers. They gather a large number of seeds from each crop they produce and, along with Tuvunu agronomists, they provide new sideritis farmers both with the plants and the expertise needed for them to obtain optimal results from the very beginning. "We have found ways to make growing sideritis easier, so that young people and new farmers can feel better about trying out a new crop," says Saban.

The process is simple: The seeds are sourced from mature plants and cultivated in a basic nursery twice a year, once in September and once in March, depending on when the new fields are sowed. For two months, the seedlings need to be watered every day, without using any kind of pesticides or fertilizers. When the small sideritis plant is ready, it must be replanted within three days from its extraction from the nursery. The process of planting new plants only needs to be done once every five to seven years, except when a particular plant does not supply the necessary quantity or quality of flowers needed for the beverage's manufacture. Sideritis flowers are gathered in bouquets from the fields by hand in June, air-dried for a week in protected warehouses, and finally packaged and delivered by company trucks for shipment to the manufacturer in Komotini, about 50 miles away. "Sideritis is cold- and heat-resistant; it needs relatively little attention and doesn't require watering. The plant can reach one meter in diameter and produce as much as 180 branches with flowers, each weighing around five grams," says Christos Kavounis, Tuvunu's chief agronomist, who has extensively studied Greece's wild flora. "The colder the weather, the stronger the plant," adds Saban. The only difficulty faced both by the company and the local farmers is to find enough arable fields, due to the mountainous topography of the region.

Drying sideritis before shipping it to Tuvunu's production facilities.

The factory receives the dried sideritis bouquets in stacks, which have been placed in recyclable cartons. Each carton has a label indicating all the relevant information about the grower and the farm of origin. The honey used in the beverage is also sourced locally in large, 25-liter containers. Guiding me through the production line at Tuvunu's facilities in Komotini, Christos explains: "They use a cutter to cut the dehydrated branches into smaller pieces, which are then sucked through a closed-circuit tube system, with the help of an air compressor, to a large 17,000-liter tank containing warm water"—nicknamed the briki, which means "coffee pot"—"essentially replicating the way sideritis has been traditionally boiled in homes around Greece since antiquity, on much larger scale." The fresh lemons are typically sourced in southern Greece, near Ancient Mycenae, and are squeezed on-premises. The fresh juice is added to the boiling kettle through a small machine, again with the use of a closed-circuit system. The same machine is used to add honey while another one is used to add a bit of raw brown sugar. The use of such a system keeps the loss of flavours and the scents of the natural ingredients to a minimum. All the ingredients are then mixed in a large tank using big blades, nicknamed "knives," that separate the solid materials from the liquid ones. From that, the final product is extracted and then bottled. The same process is followed for the production of sugar- and honey-free Tuvunu. "We had to add brown sugar in order to lower the quantity of the honey," says Christos. "If we put too much honey in the drink, it would overwhelm the taste of the sideritis and produce a less fragrant, [less] balanced beverage."

Bales of sideritis, ready to be turned into tea.

According to Christos, gathering wild sideritis plants from the mountains is strictly prohibited by law, and the company refuses to accept any plants that cannot be traced to a certified grower, in order to conserve the wild flora and the population of the species. Aside from the obvious advantages that come from preserving the local ecosystem, systematic cultivation of sideritis offers three basic advantages: First, you can control conditions like the acidity of the soil and restrict the use of fertilizers (Tuvunu's product is made solely with organic ingredients); secondly, you can certify the product as organic; and thirdly, you can have some control over the fields, as opposed to wild outcroppings of sideritis, which is essential for the local families who make their living from sideritis.

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One of the brewing vessels at the Tuvunu facility.

Nuriye tells me that there are virtually no additional expenses for the growers, and almost every part of the plant is sold to the company. It is a significant source of income in extremely turbulent times, when unemployment has hit record numbers throughout Greece. "In my village, around 40 to 50 women are currently working as sideritis growers," she says, "while many men—or at least the ones left behind—have expressed interest in becoming growers, too."

Nuriye has gone from being unemployed to becoming an employer herself, as she frequently hires men to hoe her fields. She states that the sideritis cultivation has basically made her financially independent, and that this is a tremendous opportunity for women like herself, who up until recently were expected to stay at home in their predominantly patriarchal communities.

The final product.

Brothers Nuri and Saban both love going to the fields. They have been given a rare chance to work and get rewarded in a stable, protected and fair environment. The company has signed individual contracts with each of its growers, so they know ahead of time that the product of their labor will be sold at a guaranteed price. Saban jokes that with this product the world will one day be theirs.

Demetri adds—in a cooler manner—that one day all the mountains of Thrace will be full of sideritis fields. "What better way to bring life back to the mountains of northeastern Greece? This is the real Greece—beautiful scenery, unpretentious people, and a feast for the senses."

As Demetri says, "Greece is like the sun. It is eternal."