Tea purists tend to lament café offerings of blended and flavoured tea as an aberration of “real tea”, but what they may not realise is that, from the very early days, tea was a mixed bag – pardon the pun.
A blended history
Archaeological evidence suggests that tribes along the geographical belt where tea originated – the Yunnan province in southwest China through to the northern borders of its neighbours India, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam – consumed tea with other plants, seeds, and barks as remedies.
Chinese records show that tea was a medicine before it was a beverage. Recipes that include tea in various herbal concoctions, to relieve a variety of ailments, pre-date art that depicts tea as a libation in teahouses. There are also records that place tea with stranger accompaniments such as salt, butter, and even onion, before any treatise on appreciating pure tea.
According to historians, it was not until the end of the Zhou Dynasty in 256BCE that people began drinking tea without the addition of other ingredients. Tea then became a popular beverage during the unification of China under the following Qin Dynasty.
Blended and flavoured tea also arrived in foreign cups before pure tea. The Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) was a golden age for the export of tea. Whether the tea was unintentionally flavoured during its journey like Russian Caravan – which tastes like a Russian caravan might, of smoke and camels – or blended at its destination from imported stock, as the British practised, the tea that foreign drinkers consumed was not likely to be pure single origin leaf as the Chinese drank.
Birth of the mixologist
The tea imported to Europe was of variable quality due to poor buying decisions, inconsistent Chinese product, and spoilage during the long sea journey. Tea companies needed to mix tea to find the right flavour profile for their customers. Enter a new occupation: tea blender.
The tea blender’s job was to taste the available product and create a palatable mix the brand could sell. Tasting and blending was an art, and tasters soon started to 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 many brands built their reputation off the skill of their tea blenders.
Stephen Twining, ambassador for one of the world’s oldest tea brands Twinings, says it was a deliberate decision by founder Thomas Twining to focus on blending rather than retail and hospitality.
“My ancestor Thomas set us up to do one thing really well, and that was the buying and blending of fine quality tea. He quickly realised he was not an expert in retail, his skill lay in the blending, so he worked with the expert retailers and the food service hospitality trade to be their supplier of tea, and that’s how we do business,” Stephen says.
Taste and tradition
For every claim a purist makes towards tradition, there is a “traditional” story supporting every tea blend on the market, from Japan’s genmaicha (green tea and roasted rice), which features an enraged samurai, to India’s masala chai (black tea and spices), which originated from Ayurvedic remedies, and the not-so-humble origins of Earl Grey (black tea and bergamot), said to be gifted to the Earl when he was British Prime Minister in the 1830s.
For many brands, blending is simply a matter of providing a consistent product from year to year and the multinational tea companies employ tea blenders for this very purpose. In Japan, this is a standard nationwide practice for green tea.
Modern Australian tea tastes borrow heavily from the British, so it’s no surprise to learn that the tea carried on the First Fleet and subsequent colonial ships was a black tea blend.
Stephen says that across the world there are “wide variances” as to what sells well in each country but “there are more similarities between the Australian palate and the British palate”, starting with our shared propensity to add milk to our tea. The black tea blends we drink here are therefore designed to take milk.
More recently, our tastes have diverted.
“One thing I will say about the Australian palate is that you’re more adventurous with your tea [compared to UK tea drinkers]. You’re prepared to try things,” Stephen says.
This article features in the October 2016 edition of BeanScene Magazine.
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Image credits: Anna Osetroff, courtesy of Twinings Australia