Although most tea drinkers are familiar with a terms like “breakfast blend”and “Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling,” far fewer could probably explain what exactly a breakfast blend entails, why it is that teas are blended, or what “Margaret’s Hope” stands for. Understanding the difference between a tea blend and a single estate tea can enhance your enjoyment of both.
The majority of widely-available teas are blends, for two main reasons. The first is quality consistency. Like any crop, tea is subject to changes in climate, the elements and growing conditions– when these factors change, the quality and characteristics of the tea plant’s leaves will fluctuate.
But any major tea brand worthy of its reputation is aiming to sell a product with consistent quality– customers who buy PG Tips know what that tea tastes like and expect it to taste the same every time they buy it. If a tea is 100% Assam and Assam experiences an unseasonably warm winter, the spring’s tea is going to taste significantly different than the previous spring’s did. But if a tea company produces a blend based on 20% Assam, 20% Ceylon, 30% Nilgiri and 30% Keemun, for example, variations in the character of each element of the blend will have a much smaller impact on the overall flavor of the tea. By blending a number of different teas together, tea companies can ensure a stable product quality that will become reliable for returning customers.
The second primary reason behind tea blending is flavor. Because of their growing conditions, tea plants, and processing techniques, teas from different regions have different flavors and characteristics– Assams are bold and malty, for example, whereas Chinese blacks are often renowned for their high notes and sweetness. A blend that includes both Chinese and Assam tea gets the best of both worlds–a bold, malty body that stands up well to milk, and sweet high notes to complement and round out the Assam’s more aggressive nature. Blending allows tea brands to pack their tea with flavor and provide teas that are full of complex layers and very few weaknesses. I like to think of blended teas as symphony orchestras–numerous different elements acting together in harmony to produce a rich whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Additionally, blending allows tea brands to create and express a unique identity for themselves. The recipes for famous tea blends are closely guarded secrets–if you think you’re going to make your own homemade PG Tips, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. A brand’s ideal tea blend is one that customers fall in love with and can’t find anywhere else.
Just because you can’t unlock the secret of PG Tips doesn’t mean that tea blending should only be reserved for big name brands. Experimenting with tea blending at home can be fun and rewarding–all you really need is a selection of loose single estate teas and a good loose tea brewing device. I’d recommend starting by combining a small number of teas–brew a few pots, combining two different teas each time and note how the flavors combine and which combinations you like. As you begin experiencing success, you can add another tea or two to the mix and start adjusting the rough percentages of each ingredient. Eventually, you may even combine larger amounts of tea prior to brewing–just remember the saying, “tea gets married overnight.” If you blend a few teas together, the combination will really mature if you let it rest together for a day or two after blending.
Have fun enjoying your favorite tea blends–who knows, maybe your next favorite will be of your own creation! Stay tuned for the second half of this feature where we focus on single estate tea.
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