Tea Blending 101

Nowadays, tea blends like Earl Grey and English Breakfast are some of the most popular teas consumed, but, at least in the United States, blended teas weren’t always so beloved. In fact, blended teas were rejected by the U.S. Board of Tea Appeals until the 1970s.

You might be asking yourself, “What is the U.S. Board of Tea Appeals?” and what does it have to do with tea blending?

The U.S. Board of Tea Appeals was a federal agency established with the Tea Importation Act of 1897 to monitor the import of tea. Under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Board of Tea Appeals comprised seven members, each an “expert in tea.” Essentially, tea importers would submit samples of their product to this board, who would test “the purity, quality, and fitness for consumption of the [tea] according to the usages and customs of the tea trade, including the testing of an infusion of the same in boiling water and, if necessary, chemical analysis.” The panel would then decide whether the tea was fit for American consumption and the tea would either be cleared or rejected.

Robert Dick, the illustrious chief inspector for 48 years at the U.S. Board of Tea Appeals, tasting tea that arrived for import.

The panel of tasters ultimately included one full-time employee and six outside experts who would meet and spend hours tasting, touching, and evaluating whether imported tea was good enough for public consumption. The most prolific of these full-time employees was 48-year tea board veteran Robert Dick, the chief inspector, who would taste upwards of 300 cups of tea a day. Surprisingly, the board was only dismantled in 1996.

So what is the connection between the Board of Tea Appeals and tea blending? The practice of blending teas originates about 400 years ago in the Fujian province of China, when loose leaf tea began to win out over solid, brick tea. It was around this time that jasmine and other flowers were added to pure teas to enhance and develop new flavors and fragrances. Over time, master tea blenders and the average Joe alike have made it their life’s work to create clever blends of spices, fruits, and even rice, with pure teas.

In the United States, the Board of Tea Appeals, unfamiliar with these generations-old blends, often rejected the blends that are so popular. In a 1984 interview, Robert Dick said,

“We had one case where the tea was shipped with some oranges and it picked up the flavor and was rejected.”

Yes, they were rejecting Earl Grey tea, but by the 1970s, Dick said,

“We had a letter from the legal people in Washington that we couldn’t reject (flavored teas) because people in this country were flavoring the teas the same way and selling them here on this market.”

The tea board was also well-known for rejecting pu-erh tea for years, which didn’t have a following yet in the U.S. all because of mustiness.

“To tea experts in this country, mustiness is something which they all agree. They would throw it out. … The Chinese like it and that is where I have a lot of my troubles when they attempt to bring it in,” said Dick.
Ryokucha, a blend of Japanese sencha, matcha powder, and toasted brown rice.

The tea board aside, there are a few different types of tea blending that go on today, and most of these tea blends are readily available in the U.S. and around the world.

  • Commercial blending: using as many as 30–40 teas with just as many origin points to create a consistent taste, despite the season or year, for the commercial tea bag industry.
  • Signature blending: blending teas from different origins with dried fruits, spices or flowers, as well as other flavors or essences, in a commercial kitchen in a blending drum.

There are plenty of DIY signature blenders who create their own concoctions at home with simply a few spoons and a bowl, but from a commercial standpoint, signature blending happens in a specific environment where, according to Linda Gaylard in The Tea Book, recipes are geared toward creating 7 ounces of blended tea.

Although many tea aficionados eschew tea blends in favor of pure teas, there are plenty of tea blends that are classic and beloved by the masses.

One of the most popular and well-known blend is the Breakfast Blend comprising teas from India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya in varying proportions. English Breakfast is the most popular, while Irish Breakfast uses Assam in its blend for a more robust flavor. According to Linda Gaylard, these blends “were often tailored to accommodate the hardness or softness of the water in the areas they were created for” and the recipes are closely guarded.

Genmaicha, a Japanese sencha and roasted rice blend [photo via WikiCommons].

Another blend that is slowly making its way into popularity in the United States is Genmaicha, which is commonly called the “people’s tea” in China. A mix of Japanese sencha and roasted rice, this is a tea that rose out of necessity. The roasted rice was added as a filler to make the blend more affordable, but now Genmaicha is rising above the rest. Sometimes, the roasted rice ends up popped, giving the tea another nickname: “popcorn tea.”

Earl Grey tea

Other popular blends include Ryokucha (pictured above), Russian Caravan (Lapsang souchong, roasted oolong, and Keemun), Masala Chai, and Earl Grey. “Dessert teas” also are becoming more popular and, for many, serve as a gateway to a fuller tea experience because the flavors are considered more palatable than those of pure tea. Some of the more well-known dessert teas include Chocolate Mint (a blend of Assam, mint, and cacao nibs or dark chocolate) and Orange Spice (Ceylon, orange peel, dried ginger, and cloves).

Do you enjoy tea blends or are you a purist?

Originally published at teforia.com on January 21, 2016.

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