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Tea: A Blended History

Purists beware: tea has not always been about single origin leaves.

Outside, the main square of Krakow bustled with tourists although the heat of the day had become almost unbearable. Inside, the teahouse was air-conditioned and quiet, an oasis. I took a seat facing the window where one side of St Mary’s Basilica filled the view. A wall of tea towered over me on my right. I wondered if I had indeed found heaven.

It should have been heaven. As I quickly scanned the names of the tea, written carefully in Polish and German, I discovered that of the dozens of varieties on display only a handful were actually pure tea. The rest were fanciful floral and fruity blends, infusions and tisanes. Where’s the real tea? I thought, flicking through the menu and translating the descriptions.

I know of many tea lovers who encounter this frustration every day. They are traditionalists at heart, tired of the elaborate tea concoctions that have started to flood the market questing for the consumer dollar. But every now and again I like to remind myself that, from the very beginning, tea has always featured in blends.

Tea as medicine

Those familiar with Chinese tea history may well have heard the legend of Emperor Shen Nung, the so-called Divine Farmer who is said to have ‘discovered’ tea by accident in 2737BCE when some tea leaves fell into his pot of boiling water. Renowned for his experimentation with plants and herbs, his majesty drank the brew and found it invigorating. Shen Nung brought camellia sinensis into his body of knowledge and used it as a medicine, combining it with herbs to support good health.

Whether or not you believe in the legend of Shen Nung is less important than the fact that tea entered history as a medicine, not a beverage. Archaeological evidence suggests tribes along the original ‘tea belt’, which spans Yunnan province in southwest China and the present northern borders of its neighbours India, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, consumed tea with other plants, seeds and barks as remedies.

Some of the weirdest things added to tea include salt, butter, and even onion! And yet traditional Mongolian and Tibetan tea makers still use some of these ingredients. Other additions you may recognise in blends today include rice (genmaicha), citrus peel (Earl Grey), and spices (masala chai).

Historians believe it was not until the end of the Zhou Dynasty in 256BCE that people began boiling tea leaves without other ingredients. Tea then became a popular beverage during the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty, which followed.

Tea blending for taste and profit

Skipping ahead several centuries we come to the export of Chinese tea. Until China started trading tea with its neighbours and Europe, pretty much all of the tea processed in the country was green. It was only when foreigners needed the leaf to last long distances that producers began to fully oxidise the tea, resulting in what we now call black tea.

The tea trade to Europe began in the early 17th century, starting with The Netherlands and spreading to France, Portugal and then, via the Portuguese princess Catherina of Braganza—who married England’s Charles II—to the United Kingdom. It’s fair to say the product that landed in Europe was of mixed quality, a combination of poor buying decisions, variable Chinese product and, of course, spoilage during the journey. The need for a new occupation thus became apparent, that of the tea blender.

The tea blender’s job was to taste all of the available product and create a palatable mix they could then sell. Tasting became an art form, and tasters would drive the decision-making at auctions of newly arrived tea to secure the leaves that would best complement their blends. The breakfast blends sold today are the descendants of these combinations, and brands such as Twinings built their reputation off the skill of their tea blenders.

Of course there were many bad tea blends as well. Scammers would adulterate tea with leaves from other plants and even unsavoury ingredients such as sheep dung to bulk up the final product. Fortunately, when the cost of tea dropped, so did this horrific practice.

In Japan, the process of blending tea is a matter of consistency. A Japanese tea blender will taste batches of tea from many different sources and create a mix, aiming for the best balance of desirable features. The objective is of this blending process is to emulate the same aroma, taste, colour and finish as previous years.

If you buy your favourite brand of tea one year, it will therefore taste the same the next year.

For instance, one year the ratio might be 40% from Plantation A, which has good body and aroma, 40% from Plantation B, which has a strong taste, and 20% from Plantation C, which is sweet and has a nice liquor colour. The following year the blender may use product from the same three plantations but in a different ratio: 30% from Plantation A, which has a nice liquor colour and strong taste, 20% from Plantation B, which has good body, and 50% from Plantation C, which has a great aroma. As the tea changes, so must the blend.

To blend or not to blend?

As for the salad that is today’s blended, and often flavoured, tea, purists have an unsurprising suspicion that blended tea is lower quality tea. After all, if a brand uses the finest tea, it compromises the tea’s natural taste with the other ingredients. Most blenders used lower grade tea and keep the good stuff to sell on its own. Then there are the margin-hungry blenders that buy cheap tea and add a cocktail of fruit, flowers and/or flavourings so they can push up the price. That’s the prerogative of capitalism, but hardly of service to selling the virtues of tea.

On another note, acknowledging the history of tea blending decouples ‘tea traditionalism’ from ‘tea purism’. Unlike Japanese tea blenders, purists embrace the variation from year to year—appreciating single origin leaf is akin to finding beauty in a transient, perhaps imperfect, beverage.

As for me? In that small Krakow teahouse, I drank a cherry sencha blend and felt refreshed. It wasn’t really about what tea I had, I realised, it was simply the break I needed at the time. And that served to remind me that tea is not just a tasty beverage—blended or unblended—but an experience.

The world’s favourite tea blends

English breakfast: a blend of different black teas so popular it’s synonymous with ‘normal’ black tea in many places around the world.

Jasmine tea: green tea scented with jasmine. Cheaper blends feature jasmine petals and/or jasmine flavouring.

Earl Grey: black tea with bergamot peel. Modern blends often use bergamot oil.

Moroccan mint: green tea with peppermint leaves, popular in the Middle East.

Masala chai: black tea brewed with a mix of spices, the national tea of India.

Genmaicha: Japanese green tea with roasted rice.

Butter tea: black tea mixed with butter and salt, a staple of Tibet.

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