The Business of Blends

by John Rice, General Manager

One area we have been diving into more at The Tea Table is the craft of blends.  While we have always offered our own flavored blends, in the last couple years we have ventured further into unflavored ones.  Normally, unflavored blends are commercially developed using teas from dozens or even hundreds of farms with the purpose of assuring they have little or no variation from year to year.  While this creates a high degree of consistency, it tends to virtually eliminate any distinctiveness a tea could have.

What we have found while developing more of our own unflavored blends is that we can not only create a better tea, but they always have a more distinctive flavor and are sometimes actually less expensive than the tea they replaced.  Two recent examples are East Fresian and Five O’Clock Tea.  Both of these teas were previously made by a large tea blending company, but in the last few months we have introduced our own versions.  The new East Fresian is a smoother, slightly richer offering with a bit less astringency than the original.  By recreating this ourselves using a limited number of single estate teas, the characteristics of each can come through, while still giving a remarkably similar overall impression.  Anyone who takes the time to savor the new East Fresian will find a complexity that was absent in the original.

New blends typically begin with a carefully thought-out, educated start based on the taste profile we are aiming for.  What follows can be an extensive stream of fine tuning and discussion about what our ultimate goal is.  In a sense, this is a purely creative process, since there are very few “rights” and “wrongs.”  A frequent comment I would hear from Sharon, who managed our tea room for several years, was “some people like astringent.”  Referring  to my slight aversion to that particular sensation.

The process of developing our new Five O’Clock Tea was a bit different.  We began with the same three basic varieties (Ceylon, Darjeeling and Oolong) as the original, but selecting large leaf, singe estate varieties rather than blends.  The major decision was what Oolong to start with.  Since Oolong covers a wide range of flavor profiles, it would set the tone for the overall taste of the tea.  In the case of the new Five O’Clock Tea, there ended up being no experimenting.  When we tasted our first attempt, it was clear we had knocked the ball out of the park on the first swing.  There was still a bit of argument, because it tastes nothing like the original version.  In the end, the unique complexity and subtle richness of this new blend won out.  Quite honestly, this Five O’Clock Tea is the best blend I have ever tasted.  Anyone looking for a hearty breakfast tea may be disappointed.  While it is, technically, more or less a black tea (the Oolong is a “blacker” formosa variety) it is quite light with a sweet, toasty, caramel character that is remarkably complex and pleasant.