Although tea types are usually characterized by factors such as variety, harvest date, provenance, and crafting style, each type typically includes a range of quality. To boost yields, lower quality teas are often grown rapidly, in warmer climates, or with fertilizers, resulting in a loss of natural flavor. These subpar teas are commonly used as the base for mass-produced blends, a practice that has earned the term ‘blended’ a negative connotation among dedicated tea enthusiasts.
However, not all blended teas are necessarily inferior. While we take great pride in the single-origin character of teas, some of the teas we carry are not entirely unblended. Blending can be used by skilled tea-makers to develop new and exciting pure tea flavors or to achieve more consistent flavors from year to year. Blends can vary in quality, and we will explore the three distinct categories of blended teas in this article.
The most prized teas in any major tea category are the unblended ones. These teas are not blended and are carefully preserved to maintain their unique qualities. They are harvested early in spring or at high elevations, and crafted in small batches. They come from a single place of origin, a single variety of Camellia sinensis, and a single day’s harvest. The leaves are picked and processed together to create a batch of finished tea that is distinct, even from other harvests from the same farm.
The flavor differences between unblended lots can be traced to natural factors such as terroir, unique crafting techniques, and weather conditions. When sourcing teas each year, several distinct lots are tasted to select the best iteration to suit the palate of customers.
Each batch of unblended tea can be highly limited in quantity, depending on the factors that create its flavor profile. The best unblended teas are typically the priciest teas on the market, due to the specificity of growing and crafting conditions and their inherent rarity. Blending such teas is a dilution of the highest quality lots and is generally avoided. As a result, flavors and quality in this category can vary greatly: from farm to farm, year to year, or even from week to week during the same harvest season.
Blending teas has been a common practice for many reasons, from achieving a specific flavor to creating consistency in a product line. While unblended teas are often considered the highest quality, blended teas can offer unique flavors and improved taste.
Blending can occur at various levels, from combining crops from several growers in a region to mixing different Camellia sinensis varieties. This technique is also used by large companies to ensure a consistent flavor in their mass-market products, even when growing or crafting conditions change.
Expert blenders are employed to achieve a distinct taste for each brand. Blending can improve the flavor profile of single-origin teas that have been affected by imperfect or unpredictable weather conditions. Thus, calling a tea “blended” does not necessarily imply lower quality.
Blending is used in many tea grades, from premium whole leaf selections to common bagged teas made with fannings. The outcome of blending can produce unique and exciting flavors that cannot be found in unblended teas.
Blended teas come in different forms and can have varying levels of quality. While some are created to improve the flavor profile of single-origin teas, others are made to stretch the quantity of a batch or to add seasonal consistency. Blending can also be done with herbs, flowers, or spices to create new and unique flavors. However, the addition of non-tea ingredients can sometimes overpower the natural flavor of the tea leaves.
Mass-market blends used as a base for artificial flavorings are often associated with negative connotations. These blends are typically made with lower quality base teas that can be prone to bitterness and astringency. On the other hand, some high-quality blends, like the Superior Earl Grey made with dried orange peel or the Moroccan Mint blend made with freshly dried mint, use everyday teas that have passed strict tasting standards.
While unblended teas are highly valued for preserving the unique qualities of each lot, blended teas offer a wide range of options for different palates. The only measure of quality that truly matters is whether the finished tea pleases your palate.