Some Thoughts on Blended Teas and on Unblended Teas

An article I wrote back in 2010 about unblended teas got a comment the other day from a very well-meaning individual. His remarks were a bit confusing, though, and that prompted me to resurrect that old article here (it was originally posted on a blog with which I am no longer affiliated) along with new information as well as a fairly detailed response to that comment based on what I have learned in the intervening years. I also included the article on blended teas I had done, so you see both sides of things here.

NOTE: When I wrote this first section about blended teas and the section below about unblended teas, I did not differentiate between proper tea blends (all tea, nothing additional) and flavored/scented teas (tea leaves with other “stuff” added). I have chosen to keep these articles as they were and not worry about that distinction, which only matters to us nitpickers anyway. Hee!

About Blended Teas

Tea blends – they’re everywhere these days. Go online and you’ll see dozens of small tea “boutiques” selling their latest tea blends (many have come and gone over the years). Some of these tea blends are fairly normal, such as a special citrus and green tea blend, while others are exotic, like a tea blend with a root beer float taste.

There are hundreds of different teas (and thousands of blends made from those teas). They vary by tea plant varietal/cultivar, where grown, when harvested, and how processed after harvest (including some storage time). Each of these “pure” teas has its own unique taste, and with hundreds to choose from, you could have a different one every day for a year or two and not have the same tea twice.

So, why blend? Why not just enjoy those teas straight?

For the same reason that you might prefer a nut mix to a straight batch of cashews or filberts, or you might prefer fruit cocktail to an apple or a peach. Flavors in the nut mix and the fruit cocktail combine to make a new and different taste experience. So it is with tea blends. You do it to get a taste you wouldn’t have otherwise. From the rich maltiness of Assam, to the champagne fruitiness of Darjeeling, to the earthy goodness of Keemun, your blend will incorporate the qualities of each tea in accordance with its proportion in your mix.

nutmixvsstraight

There are different types of tea blends.

Some examples (click on image for details – if no details showing, please let me know since WordPress is dropping them, usually off of last image in each group):

Each blend brings to tea new flavors that can delight and excite, soothe and smooth, or send your taste buds into shock. Some are a mix of different teas, others are a mix of one or more teas plus some non-tea substance (oil of bergamot, vanilla, herbs, dried fruit, and dried flowers are fairly well-known). Earl Grey (a blend of black teas and oil of bergamot and often lavender) is one of the most popular, although many who drink it aren’t aware that it’s a blend. (Also, some brands like Harney & Sons now have an Earl Grey made with white tea.)

Another well-known tea blend is “breakfast blend.” There are variations named after the country where they originated (or for whose market they were created) and are often still popular. English Breakfast Blend and Irish Breakfast Blend are two of these. Teas grown in different places and processed differently are blended to take advantage of different properties of each and produce a new distinctive taste that will sound a bugle “wake-up call” on your tastebuds. These blends are often based on Indian Assam, with its rich, malty flavor, and add in other black teas that can temper that taste. Ceylonian and Kenyan black teas are other “usual suspects” in these blends. Keemun, a Chinese black tea, is a bit more expensive and is therefore used sparingly. Your nut mix can range from less expensive where peanuts (actually a legume, not a nut) dominate to more expensive with plenty of the pricier nuts like macadamias and whole halves of pecans (not just broken pieces). So can your breakfast blend exhibit that range of value and taste.

Indian Chai (basically, tea with spices added) is another popular blend, and the variations are endless. Most start with black tea, but some new ones start with green and even white teas. They can be strong or subtle, from ones brimming with cinnamon so that the taste stays on your tongue for a week to others teasing your tastebuds with a delicate cardamom that’s as fragrant as it is tasty. They demonstrate one of the great things about tea blends: you can adjust them to your personal taste.

That brings me to the idea of making your own blends. You can purchase pre-blended, but why not try your hand at blending? It can be a great way to use up those tidbits of tea in various boxes in your tea pantry. Here are some basic steps:

  • Start with teas you like as they are (it’s best to start with straight tea, but you could start with a blend and add to it). You’re looking for a good base flavor here, such as a subtly sweet Ceylon or an earthy Keemun, maybe even a kelpy Sencha.
  • Think about what kind of flavors you want to add. (Think of that fruit cocktail. Do you want it heavy on peaches, light on the maraschino cherries, or awash in those seedless white grapes?) You can add floral, fruit, vanilla extract (vanilla bean is better), or a host of other options.
  • Feel free to play around with small batches. Mix up a bit, steep it, and document your results. You’ll want to be able to remix a winning blend.

Be bold. Try new things. Use up those leftover teas. It’s a win-win situation. Enjoy!

About Unblended Teas

Just as there are advantages in blended teas, there are advantages in unblended teas. These teas are all true tea, no other “stuff” added. Some are single-estate and others are a single tea type (such as Assams from various gardens). The single type teas are sometimes referred to as blends. I include them here to separate them from things like Scottish Breakfast (usually, Keemun and Assam black teas). If that’s being overly nitpicky, blame it on my 20+ years of writing software guides, project plans, and website content.

Single-estate Teas

Some examples (click on image for details – if no details showing, please let me know since WordPress is dropping them, usually off of last image in each group):

These unblended teas are often sold under the name of the tea estate where they are grown, harvested, processed, and packaged. They are often identified by when harvested (the year and the flush, i.e., first, second, or autumn). In fact, there is a trend toward knowing when and where a tea was harvested and standards for labeling teas with this information are being proposed.

With a single-estate tea, you know exactly what you’re getting. As you learn more about tea, this becomes increasingly important. These teas generally have a nuanced flavor and subtle character totally lacking in blended teas. They will vary, though, depending on growing conditions and time of harvest. For example, Darjeelings harvested in Autumn have stronger flavor and are considered lower quality than first (Spring) and second (Summer) flushes.

Single Tea Type Teas

Some examples (click on image for details – if no details showing, please let me know since WordPress is dropping them, usually off of last image in each group):

Of course, unblended teas don’t have to be all from the same grower. They could just be the same kind of tea. Irish Breakfast tends to be pure Assam and is labeled “blend” sometimes because the tea doesn’t all come from the same estate. (Note: Some Irish Breakfast teas are blends of Assam and other types of tea such as Keemun or Ceylon.) You might call these teas blended, and in a way they are, but again that’s nitpicking.

Unblended teas are usually higher quality than blended teas. A blended tea can have lower quality teas mixed in with the higher quality tea, and you wouldn’t be able to tell. This is especially true of those cheap bagged teas at the discount store.

I’m speaking generally here. Buying your blended teas from vendors whom you know to use only high-quality teas assures that you’re getting the best.

Some single-tea types are greens such as Gunpowder (Chinese) and Sencha (Japanese). Also, oolongs are often not blended with other tea types. Many white teas are also unblended.

Pick an unblended tea to try. Then, enjoy its distinct flavor, like the pure voice of a flute playing solo. Enjoy!

The Comment

John Bilsbury comment posted 15 June 2016:

If you want unblended black yet you still have a common selection go for assam, ceylon, keemun. darjeeling, lapsang souchong or one of those. Many orthodox black teas like Nepalese and Nilgiri and Gong Fu are not even sold in stores, only vendors carrying specialty teas. These should not be milked – although people who are used to drinking blended teas never will like ones you are supposed to drink straight like Japanese green or oolong or those unblended black orthodox teas

Blended teas are the English breakfast, orange pekoe and earl grey. The latter two actually can go without milk and there is an increasing number of pekoes that can anyway although the first may not be able to

You should not milk unblended teas although you can if you want to. My father loves to milk tea. I am so and so and will drink anything as I dont really care

My Response

Actually, the Assam, Ceylon, Keemun, and some Darjeeling teas you mentioned tend to be blends of lower grade (but not necessarily bad tasting) teas from a variety of tea gardens (Assam has hundreds, there are 87 Darjeeling gardens, and who knows how many gardens supply the tea leaves for Keemun). Keemun was mentioned in my first article on that other blog site as a blend. I consider Lansang Souchong a scented tea and therefore put it in the blended category.

Nepalese and Nilgiri teas do not need to be steeped using the gongfu method. You can, of course – that is your choice. Some of these teas can have milk added. You would need to experiment a little to see which work.

Unblended black teas are not a special class of black teas to which you should not add milk. I can and do. So can you. Again, do what you like.

Japanese green teas do not take milk. So I agree there. As for oolongs, it depends. The darker roasted ones can have a little milk added, but you miss out on a lot of flavor subtleties so I tend to refrain from adding milk.

As John implies, though, it’s all up to you.

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3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Blended Teas and on Unblended Teas”

  1. Great information! I am debating whether to source the blends for my next tea box or do the blend myself so this article was very timely!

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