Around the world, flavored teas are some of the most popular. Famous styles like Jasmine Green, Masala Chai, and Earl Grey are all made with a base of Camellia sinensis tea leaves and added flavor. Despite the occasional snobbery of purists, flavored styles come in a wide range of quality, from mass produced tea bags at the grocery store to whole leaves flavored with organic ingredients. To check the quality of flavored teas, it is important to ask how the extra flavors were added.
The highest quality flavored teas are scented naturally. This method uses fresh and natural ingredients to impart flavor directly to the tea leaf, after which the source of the scent is often removed, as in traditional jasmine teas. The best jasmine teas (famously from Fuzhou, in Fujian Province) use spring harvest tea leaves, dried and stored until the most aromatic jasmine flowers blossom in late summer. Once the fresh flowers are plucked, they are layered with the tea leaves, which absorb the fragrant oils from the drying flowers. After each day, all the jasmine blossoms are removed and replaced with fresh flowers, leaving the finished tea with several layers of jasmine aroma that will last through multiple infusions.
Natural scenting is highly limited by source material, though. Mixing fresh fruit with tea leaves, for instance, would introduce too much moisture and be more likely to rot the tea than impart lasting flavor. Natural scenting is also not very efficient, since it requires a lot of the scenting ingredient to transfer flavor to the tea leaves. Naturally scented Earl Grey, for instance, is limited by the rarity of bergamot, a citrus fruit that grows almost exclusively in Southern Italy. Roughly 100 fruits are required to make just 3 ounces of the essential oil used for scenting! The laborious processes used for naturally scented teas means that they are more commonly made with high quality leaves to create a premium end product.
Blending is one of the most popular ways to flavor tea, especially loose leaves. Historically, blends were the easiest way for poor tea drinkers to improve the flavor and stretch the quantity of the inexpensive teas that were available to them. Masala Chai (probably the most famous example) uses bitter black tea as a base, blended and stewed with a variable blend of Indian spices, and served with milk to offset the bite. Genmaicha is another example from Japan, which uses toasted rice to balance the flavor and extend the shelf life of green tea leaves. High quality leaves are not often used to create blends, since the added flavors usually dominate the subtle characteristics of artisanal teas.
Many blends today are actually made without a tea base at all, and are more accurately called herbal blends or “infusions”. These are usually caffeine free, and offer interesting or aromatic flavor combos. They’re also more akin to the blends of roots, herbs, and fungi prescribed by traditional Chinese herbalists, so they often come with health claims. Of course, if you’re looking for an herbal remedy, we recommend seeking out a consultation with a licensed herbalist rather than counting on commercial blends. But if you’re searching for a tasty, caffeine free infusion, just make sure to ask your vendor about the origin of the ingredients, and look for visible pieces in the blend to make sure it’s the real deal. Or for ultimate customization, make your own blends by mixing your favorite teas with dried flowers or herbs.
Artificial flavorings are the most common way to add new and exciting flavors to tea leaves in the modern world. Flavor and aroma scientists have perfected the art of distilling these sensory experiences into chemical compounds, which can then be used to create extremely consistent flavor that will be the same in every tea bag and every box on every grocery store shelf around the world. Large companies also use professional blenders to create consistent batches of pure tea from the varied crops of many farms, but flavorings are easier to replicate, and usually push the tea flavor to the background, making the quality of the leaves somewhat irrelevant.
Artificially flavored teas are rarely good value. Created flavors are often used to “disguise” the flavor of low-grade tea leaves, and usually don’t stand up to multiple infusions, as the flavoring is added only to the surface of the finished dry leaf. In a loose leaf tea, it is easy to identify artificial flavors because they typically smell overwhelmingly strong but taste comparably “weak” or “thin” when brewed, and have few if any visible ingredients. Occasionally, flavors are added to enhance or mimic medicinal blends like ginseng teas, which can be misleading when marketed for health benefits.
Overall, though, flavored teas are not inherently bad. Just like any other style of tea, there are high quality examples and low quality examples - and low quality versions are usually more common. Just like we wouldn’t use a good aged Cabernet to make sangria, we don’t usually add flavors to our best teas. Rather, flavorings are often added to mask or balance the flavor of a low quality tea, while high quality leaves are usually valued for their more subtle inherent flavors. Paying attention to the method and ingredients used for the flavoring process is usually a good clue to the quality of the base tea leaves, and can help you distinguish an indulgent, complex treat from a flat, mediocre flavoring.
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