Though it is common for most tea drinkers to add sweeteners to their tea, we delight in finding teas that don’t need anything extra to satisfy our sweet tooth. Describing these teas is difficult, however, because of the prevalence of teas which are crafted with artificial flavorings or sweeteners. A tea described with flavor notes such as “creamy”, “honey” or “molasses” is often assumed to have some additive included, but in fact, these flavor notes occur naturally in many teas. Today we’ll explore how these naturally sweet characteristics are derived through traditional harvest dates, natural growing methods, and careful crafting styles.
Notes of cream or butter
Many high quality green, white, and oolong teas are commonly described with words like “creamy” or “buttery”. While modern imitations and marketing have led some to claim their teas are “watered with milk” or disguise low-grade teas with milky flavorings, the truth is that slow growth and harvest dates in early spring increase the quantity of carbohydrates in the leaf, leading to a naturally rich texture.
The majority of water soluble carbohydrates in a tea leaf consist of natural sugars like glucose and fructose, which the plant uses to fuel new growth. During the dormant winter season in temperate tea-growing climates like Zhejiang or Taiwan, tea plants collect stores of these molecules in the roots. Then, when the weather begins to warm in the spring, these natural sugars are sent forth to power the budding of new leaves. When these young leaves are plucked before reaching maturity, those carbohydrates create a rich, lingering finish. In pan roasted green teas like our Dragonwell, Panan, this comes through as buttery, while Taiwanese oolongs from high elevations, like Alishan, are more often called creamy.
Notes of honey
Honey is a favorite additive for many tea drinkers in the west, since it dissolves easily in hot water and adds more complexity of flavor than granulated sugar. But some teas are have natural flavor notes of honey, negating the need for any added sugar at all. In particular, teas that have been attacked by leafhoppers or aphids before harvest produce a distinctly honey-like aroma.
Along with high elevation terroir that produces slow-growing teas with a creamy finish, Taiwan is particularly known for this unique effect, first recognized in the Eastern Beauty style in the early 1930s. While this was once believed to be the result of only Taiwanese leafhopper bites, modern research has revealed that the flavor difference results from the plant’s own defensive mechanisms, when it produces specific enzymes to attract spiders or other predators of the herbivorous insects. Therefore, similar effects are also seen in teas attacked by aphids at higher elevations, such as our Tung Ting, Mi Xiang oolong tea or Formosa Red Assam, Mi Xiang black tea. However, any mi xiang tea requires extremely skilled crafting to strike the right balance and create the characteristic honey-like aroma.
Notes of molasses or caramel
While harvest dates and growing methods clearly make a big impact on the molecular composition and final flavor of a tea, traditional crafting methods can also create natural sweetness in heavily oxidized examples like oolongs from the Wuyi Mountains or black teas. Terroir and harvest date still provide the foundation for sweetness in darker teas, but the methods of oxidizing and roasting the leaves can create totally different flavor profiles from those found in lighter styles.
To maintain natural sweetness through the process of oxidation, it is necessary to handle the leaves gently and avoid breaking them. While our Gold Thread Reserve black tea is made of young buds that give it a thick, malty texture, it is the careful and even bruising of the leaves that transforms the natural sweetness into a bold, molasses-like flavor profile. In the Wuyi Mountains, traditional roasters spend months letting the tea leaves rest between careful roasting sessions to slowly caramelize natural sugars without over-roasting or burning the tea. With these careful crafting methods, these masterful tea crafters are able to create a flavor profile that is unmatched throughout the rest of the tea world in famous teas like Grand Scarlet Robe.
What are your favorite naturally sweet teas? How would you describe their flavor? Tell us about them in the comments below!
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