The Art Of Blending Teas

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Added value, improved cups, and new tastes are all achieved through blending. This highly ambitious activity requires great sensorial abilities, long training and many years of experience to develop the needed artful skills. – By Barbara Dufrene

Selecting the right teas to blend into a given cup profile not only requires a huge amount of knowledge and experience, but it also needs a sense of genuine creativity. Professional tea blenders in the big industrial tea companies usually go through a minimum of three years of training during which they taste and evaluate hundreds of cups from many origins during every working day.

Tea is an agricultural product with harvests subject to overall weather conditions, such as rain, wind and temperature levels, which may affect the crop positively or negatively, like frost or drought. The crop further differs according to the season, with the new leaves, or first flush after the winter rest, being the premium quality. These leaves gradually decline over the summer with the leaves becoming bigger and coarser towards reaching autumn, thus completing the annual growing cycle. Quality criteria can also be found in the:

  • Country of origin and local growing place (a hot and humid plain or a high up hilly slope);
  • Plant material, which can be a special traditional cultivar or a science-driven high-yield clone;
  • Harvesting method, ranging from hand-picked one bud and two leaves to mechanical harvesting;
  • Manufacturing process, with CTC for big volume and tea bags, and the orthodox method.

  The art of blending tea is structured according to the purpose. The mainstream market objective is to stay within a defined cup profile for a given price range and to upgrade the larger volumes (cheaper bulk teas) with teas of better quality and higher prices that give strength and character. This concerns mainly CTC black teas, which make up around 37 percent of the global production. The higher-end market segment combines many variables such as terroir, organic, special picking, traditional recipes, new flavors, etc., to create new products that may not necessarily have price constraints. This segment targets the niche market of superior quality, flavor, wellness, and functional teas.

  Blending not only requires a wealth of tea knowledge, but also knowledge about other cups such as mate and rooibos, as well as many herbals that are used as additional materials, like leaves, flowers, roots and also extracts and essential oils. Premium, specialty and estate or terroir teas are not normally blended with other teas or other plant material – their intrinsic quality is intimately attached to their single-origin authenticity and uniqueness.

Black Tea: The Global Favorite

  Mainstream black tea blends have a big marketshare in the major traditional tea-consuming countries: United Kingdom, Russia, Central Asian and most of the Middle East. In these countries, the vast majority of tea drinkers prefer their black tea with milk, which adds a constraint for deeper color and greater strength for the blender. No data are available of the share out of the volume between loose-leaf blended tea bags and CTC blended tea bags, the latter being better suited for an industrial blending process.

  Black teas in tea bags comprise a considerable number of quality shades, ranging from premium English Breakfast Tea bags and their diverse special recipe blends created by famous traditional brands like Harrods of London, to private label bags, which contain many tea fannings and tea dust and are displayed as the cheapest offer on the supermarket shelves. The tea blender involved will work to keep the cup profile for the established recipes and operate with the set of variables that are specific to the available origins. For low-price products, and according to given price constraints, the blender will adjust the level of tea material quality in order to come up with a cup that meets the consumer’s expectations.

  James Pogson, director of Northern Tea Merchants Ltd, Chesterfield, England, has a precise method to reach the five main market brands in the UK, each with its own specific quality profile and price level. Noting the main origins for the British black CTC blends, Pogson lists his suppliers as India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Rwanda, and Burundi. “In order to keep my customers loyal to our brand, my strategy consists of producing blends that are tasty and are good value for the money. The quality criteria I [value] are the color, flavor, strength, and character of the cup, as related to the retail price. We cater to five price bands, ranging from top to everyday quality.”

  Packed black loose-leaf tea blends may be an even stronger challenge for the blenders, as the teas are not hidden away in the bags. Therefore, the blender will need to also take the visual aspects of the leaf into account. That may often limit the blending to various grades and various seasons of the same origins, such as upgrading autumn leaf with some spring harvest, or adding on some golden buds or blending in more or less broken leaf.

Green Tea: Best Unblended

  Green tea is less subject to blending. The main producing country, China, has no blending traditions. Most green teas there are sold as they are harvested, in their genuine seasonal quality, just graded and sorted. For export, the big industrial green tea manufacturing units in China will produce and adjust according to a set of quality grades and leaf sizes for their gun powders and chunmees. Some of this output may be blended to achieve attractive prices with their major consumers markets such as Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania or Uzbekistan.

  The loose-leaf, quality green teas that we find in the West are mostly unblended, imported from the origin countries, China, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Korea. The cheaper green teas, often bagged, which are found on Western supermarket shelves and do not have any origin indication on the label, will be blends that contain a bulk of filler teas, which are upgraded with some superior quality leaf. There is no CTC green tea on the market.

Creative Tea Blending

  Turning to the innovative side of blending, which mostly uses additional plant material, there are the beautiful, the tasty, and the functional cups. Sharyn Johnston, the founder of Australian Teamasters Ltd, located in Victoria, Australia, is passionate about the sheer endless range of combination possibilities. “Blending is a very delicate process, which needs many years of training and practice. It is important to know about the safety of your added ingredients and to choose those which are complementary and mutually enhancing, whilst avoiding any conflicting tastes,” she said. “The focus on well being and on organic ingredients is definitely on the rise and we get many requests for signature blends.”

  The beautiful cups will enhance the tea leaves with cornflower petals, marigold or rosebuds. The tasty cups will contain Bergamot for the many Earl Grey varieties, or citrus peel for a Russian style tea, or noting the latest fashion, oriental spices and plans for the trendy cup of chai, prepared and consumed with milk according to the Indian tradition.

  The functional cup will contain mint for digestive ease, lemon grass and mate for detoxing activities, and some rooibos for its antioxidant properties. For all these beautiful, tasty and/or functional cups, the list is endless and open to unlimited creativity.

  For the functional tea market segment, tea blenders not only need to know all about the many teas, but also have to be familiar with the many plant and herbal ingredients and their specificities. Such innovative blends will be carefully elaborated in line with a concept for a given set of customers. Having tested the new recipe in the cup and tasted by the palate, it will be registered, whilst making sure that there is appropriate supply available.

  All the blends have their avid and discerning groups of customers and are intrinsic parts of the global tea market. The big tea industry relies heavily on the professional tea blenders, considering their skills to be a cornerstone for profitability and brand loyalty. On a smaller scale, tea blending is always artful, allowing for inventiveness and fun, as there may be less financial constraints. All tea blending brings added value and may eventually generate trends.

Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle Presse du Thé.

Bài viết được chụp từ tạp chí Tea & Coffee Trade Journal – May 2015

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