Adding sugar to tea is a time honored tradition in the western world. And historically, this makes a lot of sense. Teas imported to western Europe were produced in mass quantity, chopped and compressed for maximum space efficiency, and then spent several months on a humid ship, inevitably going a bit stale in the process. For stronger flavor, the broken tea leaves were steeped for longer periods, after which milk and sugar were added to offset the bitterness inherent in the brew.
So while there’s nothing inherently wrong with adding sugar or milk, we often compare tea with additives to sangria. Adding fruit to a cheap wine is likely to improve the flavor, but adding fruit to an high quality bottle only masks the subtle complexities in the wine itself. Basically, it's a waste.
Luckily, there are many teas with complex flavor and an undeniable natural sweetness. Here are five options in a wide range of styles that don’t need any sweeteners to feel like a treat.
The toasty, nutty flavors of pan roasted Dragonwell have captivated green tea drinkers for centuries. First popularized when it was designated an imperial tea in the Qing Dynasty, this style has since become one of the most famous and sought after in China. Today, Dragonwell is ubiquitous, and low quality versions abound, but this hand-picked batch displays the buttery texture and notes of sweetgrass that gave the style it’s reputation.
There are two reasons for this tea’s incredible texture and natural sweetness. The first is the harvest date. Picked in March, this harvest is made entirely of freshly sprouted young buds, which have a high concentration of natural carbohydrates. In addition, this tea is made in a modern style, with less roasting. This preserves more of the naturally sweet compounds in the leaf, though it can also reduce the shelf life in the humid climate of Zhejiang.
Another famous tea name, Silver Needle, describes the downy trichomes that cover these leaf buds. Characteristic of the white tea variety called Da Bai (“Big White”), the silvery coating covers just the youngest buds of the plant. As with the Dragonwell above, this tea is made of only these young buds, which contain more natural carbohydrates than mature leaves. This tea is rich in mouthfeel, but delicate and slightly fruity on the palate.
While the harvest date plays a big role in this tea’s natural sweetness, the flavor and texture are also due in part to this tea’s traditional terroir. Fuding County, the traditional home of white teas, lies in the north of Fujian province, where cold temperatures send the plant into dormancy in the winter months. This period of rest, when the plant produces no new leaves, allows more complex sugars and flavor compounds to develop when compared with white teas grown at lower latitudes.
This oolong tea, grown in Taiwan, is unequivocally unique. As with many Taiwanese oolongs, this tea is grown at a high elevation, which slows growth and encourages flavor complexity. Notably, slow growth is responsible for the creamy texture of oolongs in this style, giving rise to the generalized name, Milk Oolong. Also characteristic of the style is the light oxidation, which produces a distinctly floral aroma and flavor.
What makes this tea unique, though, is its harvest date. Unlike the previous two teas, these leaves were not plucked in the spring. Instead, this tea was harvested at an unusual time in the winter, over a month after the last regular harvest of the year. Normally, the plants would be dormant during this time, but a precise increase in temperature and humidity can essentially ‘fool’ the plant into budding as it would in the spring. Stored sugars are sent to power growth of a small number of new leaves, which are plucked to create this tea. A slow bake at a low temperature helps to reduce and concentrate these natural sugars, resulting in one of the sweetest teas on our shelves.
This black tea, also grown in Taiwan, is equally peerless. While black teas grown in Taiwan are almost always sweeter than their equatorial counterparts (due again to slower growth), this particular tea consistently surprises palates with it’s honey-like aroma and distinctly fruity flavors. Some have even said that it tastes like milk and sugar have already been added.
The primary reason for this natural sweetness is a well-timed aphid attack. Under threat, the plant enters a second metabolism to send more sugars to it’s damaged and developing leaves. It also releases unique enzymes, which are thought to be a natural defense mechanism, sometimes attracting natural predators of the attacking pests. While not great for the aphids, these enzymes contribute to the mi xiang, or “honey fragrance” of this tea.
Finally, this rich black tea is our recommended choice for English Breakfast drinkers who want to do away with added sugar. This tea comes from the Wuyi Mountains, where the first black teas were grown for export to Europe. Flavor notes like malt and cocoa give this tea a surprising depth and complexity, with a distinct lack of bitterness.
Many factors contribute to the natural sweetness of this tea: it is grown in northern Fujian, where the weather is relatively cool and the plants grow slower, allowing for more development of flavor and texture. It is composed of naturally sweet leaf buds, the youngest of which appear golden after oxidation. And finally, a gentle bruising process done by hand maintains and emphasizes the natural sweetness, avoiding the bitterness that can arise in machine processing, where the leaves are chopped or aggressively crushed. The end result is a tea that is satisfyingly full-bodied, while still naturally sweet.
Though we often talk about reducing bitterness with precise brewing methods, no such care is necessary with these incredible teas. No matter what your water temperature or steeping time, bitterness is absent from these brews. Try these easy brewing methods, or steep the leaves in cold water to make iced tea for a summer treat. We’re sure you’ll want to skip the sugar.
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