By the time you read this, you may have already used half a dozen products made with the mint oil that comes from a relatively unknown company in White Swan.
The toothpaste you brushed with this morning. The mint mocha you grabbed at the espresso stand. The gum you chewed after lunch. The mint chocolate chip ice cream you had after dinner and the Bengay you rubbed on your aching back at night.
You’ve heard the Yakima Valley is the hop capital of the world and the apple capital of the nation. But you may not know that the Yakima Valley is home to one of the largest mint oil dealers in the United States.
The Labbeemint complex rears up like an apparition in the mint fields of the Lower Valley, so far from Yakima you start to think you made a wrong turn. But you can’t miss the six-story evaporator tower, topped with an enormous American flag.
Inside, I’m greeted by C.J. St. Hilaire, a tall, knowledgeable guy who is the president of Labbeemint. He’s been practically steeped in mint his whole life. His family has raised peppermint and spearmint in White Swan for decades, and still sells their crops to Labbeemint. C.J. married the founder’s granddaughter and has been with the company for 13 years. He was promoted to president when his father-in-law retired.
Jack Labbee, who founded the company, took over the 300-acre family farm at the age of 19 after his father died in a plane crash. Up until the mid-1960s, Lower Valley farmers produced mostly sugar beets, alfalfa and hops. Then mint came on the scene.
“It was introduced in Sunnyside. Different farmers started raising it, and Jack got introduced to it. He really fell in love with it, as a lot of growers do,” C.J. said. “At one point, Jack became the largest mint grower in the United States,” buying or leasing land all the way from White Swan to the Upper Columbia Basin.
He realized he was producing so much mint that he could cut out the middleman, or the mint dealer, and sell directly to the companies making products like mouthwash, toothpaste and gum. Labbeemint was formed, and Jack began to buy mint oil from growers in Oregon and Idaho and blend them with Yakima Valley mint oil to produce the unique flavors that companies like Colgate and Wrigley wanted.
“It’s not unlike winemaking,” C.J. said. “You’re going to be using grapes from this region and that region and we’re going to put them together, so we get the desired product.”
The mint arrives at Labbeemint in liquid form. Ryan Furguson is a farmer who has about 500 acres of mint in the Lower Valley. He swaths it in the field starting in July, and lets it dry in windrows for three or four days depending on the weather.
“That allows the membrane of the oil glands on the surface of the leaves to thin out and makes it easier to distill it. Then we chop it, blow it into these tanks, and bring it back into the distillery. That’s where we introduce the steam to it, which volatizes the oil on the surface of the leaf,” Furguson said.
Condensers cool the vapor back down to a liquid. Furguson and his crew draw the oil off the top, put it into 55-gallon drums and truck it over to Labbeemint. The Furgusons will produce around 100,000 pounds of oil this year.
Mint may seem simple, but it has hundreds of different components. Labbeemint concentrates, refines and blends about 30 of them, each of which has a different boiling point.
Decades ago, Jack Labbee had the foresight to buy a crucial piece of equipment called a fractional distiller, which took Labbeemint to a whole new level by allowing it to separate all those components into different tanks, much like the process of separating crude oil into diesel fuel, gasoline and other products. Thanks to this process, the company can make the unique flavor blends that each customer desires.
As C.J. walks me out to the production area, he stops by the mint plants growing in the landscaping. We pluck off a couple sprigs and roll them between our hands. Peppermint has a cool, bracing aroma. “That cool sensation that you get? That’s the menthol in the plant — one of the major components,” C.J. said.
Spearmint is much stronger, taking me aback with its minty assault on the senses. “That’s the carvone,” said C.J., “another cooling component.” Spearmint is so powerful that if you get the concentrated oil on your skin it can burn you.
Before entering the plant, we wash our hands, insert earplugs, put on hairnets, and C.J. adds a beard net. Cleanliness is paramount, as Labbeemint and other ag companies are subject to increasingly strict regulations. The delicious aroma of mint hits us when we walk in the door and wafts through the entire 40,000-square-foot building.
There are several people at the company, C.J. included, who are designated “sniffers.” Sometimes if the farmer wasn’t that great on weed control, the mint will smell “weedy,” or if the windrows got rained on, just like hay, that will affect the oil as well.
C.J. didn’t get any formal scent training; instead, he learned by “being immersed in mint, thousands and thousands of barrels over time,” he said with a grin. The company has a mint “library” near the lab where they sniff new batches to make sure they match what each customer has come to expect. In the next room, scientists evaluate samples with gas chromatographs.
As we walk through towering stacks of barrels, dodging forklifts along the way, he describes the vast distances this mint oil will travel, pointing to barrels headed to New Jersey, Amsterdam, India and beyond.
Colgate is their biggest customer, and he says they’ve been a great supporter of the American mint grower. Proctor & Gamble is also a big customer, along with Wrigley. But he adds, “A big part of our business is what are called flavor and fragrance companies. These are companies that most people haven’t heard of — not retail names, but companies that put together a lot of the flavors and fragrances and compounds for the companies you see in retail.”
There are also medical uses for mint. The company has pharmaceutical customers who use it for patients with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and other digestive problems. Hospitals are now using a combination of mint and rosemary oils to relieve the nausea some patients suffer after surgery.
Mint is a key ingredient in aromatherapy, an industry that’s growing fast. You may have seen aromatherapy diffusers in people’s homes and offices. Labbeemint partners with one of the biggest aromatherapy companies — Young Living. And that’s not all. One customer uses mint oil as a deer repellent, to keep them from chomping on landscaping.
The next time you absentmindedly pop a stick of gum in your mouth or reach for the toothpaste as you get ready for bed, give a little shout-out to this quiet but powerful Yakima Valley company that puts the flavor and scent in products consumed worldwide.