Professor by day, tea alchemist by night

By Danielle LeBlanc
On April 25, 2014

  • Professor Jennifer Purrenhage has always been in love with tea, so much that she has decided to make her own tea company online. Courtesy Photo

Walking into room 156 in James Hall, it was not surprising to find Professor Jennifer Purrenhage pouring a cup of tea. Samples of teas sat upon her shelf. 

Some were in oval shaped containers and some in large square containers. One of her teas was named Starry Night.

Purrenhage is a lecturer in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment here at the University of New Hampshire. However, not many are aware that she runs her own tea company as well, called The Tea Alchemist.

Purrenhage teaches International Affairs 401 and Natural Resources 435. She is a conservation biologist. In her classes, she teaches about contemporary conservation issues and environmental awareness along with global environmental science. 

Purrenhage said that she first got interested in her field of work while growing up because of her parents.

"I think I got interested in it the same way a lot of people get interested in this field," she said, "which is just growing up outside."

According to Purrenhage, her father is a naturalist. He was always going for hikes and going camping. 

However, her mother was not like that at all. She used to teach English early in her career. Purrenhage said that her mother was really into the romantic transcendentalists, such as Emerson and Thoreau.

"A lot of their writings are really all about spiritual connection with nature," she said. "So I was just kind of steeped in that growing up."

Purrenhage had a lot of interests growing up, however she kept gravitating back towards the sciences. Originally, Purrenhage was a psychology major at the University of Wisconsin.

"I completed all the core courses," Purrenhage said, "but I was always taking environmental science on the side for fun because it was what I loved."

According to Purrenhage, one day her roommate confronted her about how she was always so excited coming home from her science classes and how that should be her major. Purrenhage's school did not have a major for environmental science; however, they did offer a major in conservation biology and wildlife ecology.

"That afternoon she was driving me home from class and we stopped by the dean's office and I changed my major," Purrenhage said. "And I never looked back."

However, along with her love for science, Purrenhage also has an affection for tea.

"I've always loved tea," Purrenhage said. "My mom and I grew up just drinking tea all the time."

Purrenhage said that tea has always been how she grounded herself.  Whenever she was feeling overwhelmed, nervous about something or feeling sick, tea was always how she brought herself back.

"I'll just sit down and have a cup of tea and it's just calming and warm," Purrenhage said. "It's a nice experience."

While in graduate school, Purrenhage was also a certified yoga instructor and a holistic health coach on the side. She was working with people who were stressed.

"Meditation is hard for a lot of people," Purrenhage said, "but it was really easy for people to think about sitting down and having a cup of tea."  

It was not long until Purrenhage started using tea as a practice with her clients. She eventually started to make her own tea. In the past, Purrenhage had made her own tea for fun. However, she later began to share them with her clients.

"I just started realizing that that's what I was really enjoying," Purrenhage said, "making the tea and sharing that message with people."

Purrenhage's message was that tea is something anyone can do -- really  simply in the middle of the busy day -- to keep focused, calm, energized, inspired or whatever he or she was looking for.

Purrenhage soon got the idea to start and run her own tea company. The company had another name previously that originated from the coaching Purrenhage was doing. However, it eventually turned into The Tea Alchemist.

"I was part of a women's entrepreneur group," she said. "They often said, 'We love your tea, but part of what we love about it is that you're a scientist who makes tea.'" 

Purrenhage admitted that the way she approaches making tea is kind of a nerdy process. She writes a formula down and does a bunch of testing and tasting to figure out what works and what does not.

"I'm taking these nerdy notes because of my training," Purrenhage said. "And they love that, they thought that was really fun."

Her group came up with the idea that her company was like an alchemist blending the idea of science and a methodical approach with this creative, aesthetic feeling.

"So that's where the new name came from," Purrenhage said. 

Purrenhage started her business about three years ago. According to Purrenhage, she does not have employees that she pays but rather dedicated friends and family who volunteer to lend a hand.

"They essentially get paid in tea," Purrenhage said.

Her tea company is basically an online store and that is how she primarily does her business. Purrenhage sends tea to people all across the United States, Canada and France.

"Just people that I'm connected with, it's so word-of-mouth," Purrenhage said. "Somebody that I know knows someone that lives in Panama and wants tea."

Purrenhage's teas are available to drink locally as well. Book and Bar in Portsmouth has been serving Purrenhage's tea for over a year now.  Customers can go in and buy a cup of her tea and drink it there.

Purrenhage makes custom teas as well.

"If there's another business owner who has clients and wants to do client gifts and has a tea that represents that person, I'll make a custom tea for them."

Purrenhage's teas all have names that are kind of intentions, such as Be Joyful, Simplify, and Nirvana. Her customers choose their teas based on the feeling they want.

"I'm not trying to be the tea brand that's on the shelf in every Hannaford," she said. "It's a very different kind of thing ... and some people connect with that."

However, Purrenhage has what she calls tribute teas as well. She claimed that the idea is paying tribute to different creative mediums such as Natural Mystic for Bob Marley or Starry Night as a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh.

Purrenhage said that any of her students would probably attest that she never goes through a class without a tea mug firmly in her hand. Some of her students are aware of her tea company and a few have even sampled her teas.

"She generously gave me some of her teas to sample," Lizzie Gill, a student of Purrenhage, said. "They were both delicious."

Gill explained that one was a relaxing tea made with rose petal. The other was a more exciting zinger tea made with hibiscus. 

"I am not much of a tea drinker," Gill said, "but her blends had delicious proportions of ingredients." 

Purrenhage said she feels strongly about the ingredients that are used in her tea. "I use mostly one company," Purrenhage said. "I wanted to find a place that has organic, fair trade and really high quality."

Purrenhage explained that by organic, she means no pesticides are being used on the tealeaves

"That's not necessarily the true meaning of organic," Purrenhage said, "but that's what I mean when I'm talking about tea."

According to Purrenhage she doesn't add oils or anything like that. "You can see every ingredient that's in the tea," she said.

Purrenhage explained that she makes sure her sources have certifications in fair trade and organic products. 

"I use their certifications to have confidence in the products I'm creating," she said.

In terms of other herbs, Purrenhage uses flowers as well; some are even grown locally. She is currently working on creating a local blend with different mints and possibly some calendula flowers.

However, Purrenhage admitted that it can be very challenging balancing her job as a professor and running her tea company. 

It was especially challenging in the beginning when she first started and had to figure out how to balance these two parts of her life.

"It's hard," Purrenhage said. "That's one of the reasons it's nice that, in my role as a lecturer, I have the summer mostly free."

Purrenhage explained that with the summer open, it gives her more time to put a lot of energy into her business. With the extra time in the summer, The Tea Alchemist can be sustained throughout the rest of the year with less effort, Purrenhage said.

"It's also great to have help," she said. "Because sometimes it can by challenging to get it all together, to be preparing lectures and Book and Bar wants a different tea."

However, Purrenhage admitted that she actually really enjoys her two different jobs. She explained that for her, they exercise very different parts of her brain. She enjoys the highly creative "hands in herbs" job verses the academic, sitting at a computer and preparing lectures, being-in-a-classroom job. She even feels that both jobs help with the other.

"It can be really challenging, but it's also incredibly rewarding," Purrenhage said, "much more so if I were just doing one or the other."

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