What is Unflavored Tea Anyway?

In the world of high-end teas there is a definite bias towards “pure” unflavored tea, and for many good reasons. The complexity of fine tea evokes a whole spectrum of tastes on its own. Tasting them is a more quiet experience than tasting a blended tea. Yet, is this bias truly justified, or even logical?

First, we should look back to the original consumption of tea. Many people would say that unflavored tea is more traditional, but that argument does not hold. Lu Yu documents early tea drinking as simmering the leaves in a large kettle with anything from ginger, scallions and salt, to berries and spices. Before people were so experienced in picking and processing tea, it tended to yield a very bitter brew on its own. Tea was consumed for the caffeine and for the health benefits, and flavors were added to make it palatable.

Of course, tea has progressed since then. Every village has their own tea, picked and processed for different flavors. Buds taste different from leaves, spring tea different from autumn. In all cases, tea tastes a lot better now than it used to. There is no absolute need to add flavorings. I sip a cup of Laoshan Black while I write, and cannot help but enjoy the chocolate notes, the buckwheat, the tingling sensation on the tongue, even five steepings in.

I rejoice in the complexity that tea offers by itself. Indeed, the tea plant is really one of the most remarkable plants that has ever existed, with its unique capacity to yield such a wide range of dramatically different flavors all on its own. It makes a person wonder how so much can be contained within a leaf. Yet, the leaf alone is not the sole contributor to flavor. If it were that simple, I would be in the ranks of those who rail against flavoring teas.

When you look closely, the whole idea of ‘pure’ tea is impossible. There is no pure unflavored tea on the market. All those incredible flavors that can take you to the heights of an emotional and riveting taste experience are the result of both the leaf and its surroundings.

Take a fine pu’er for example. A wild-picked pu’er is more likely to have a very pine-y cooling sensation when you sip it. This is because the plants growing wild on mountainsides of Yunnan are interspersed with various evergreen trees. The aroma of the evergreen is absorbed into the leaves through the air and the soil. Is this really any different from strewing jasmine petals in a pile of green tea to scent it with jasmine flavor? One tea is embraced by connoisseurs as a shining example of unadulterated tea, while the other is looked down upon.

What about the famous Dragonwell Green? This tea is prized for its sweet aftertaste and mineral texture. Much of this comes from the fact that the water of the actual Dragon Well, is very sweet and had its own mineral texture from picking up sediment form rocks underground. In essence, the Dragonwell Green is “flavored” by the water that feeds it.

Laoshan Green and Black are no different. To ensure a village-wide commitment to organic tea farming, villagers plant rows of soybeans to lure insects away from the tea. Later in the season, the soy is mulched and used as fertilizer. This contributes much of the malty bean-like taste that the tea is loved for.

Hopefully it is easier to see that the line between flavored and unflavored teas is not as clear as it may look. The tea leaf itself of course contributes a staggering amount to the final flavor of the cup through the polyphenols of the leaf, but even the polyphenols develop differently in different regions as an “immune-system” response to competition from other plants and insects.

Without competition, the polyphenols, which contribute much of the flavor of tea, would not develop to such an extent. This is one reason why large mono-culture factory farms produce less interesting tea. Technically, you could argue that tea grown on a factory farm is more pure since there is nothing to influence it besides more tea in the surrounding area, but without the synergy of absorbing unique water, or aromas from nearby plants, and without the competition of growing in the wild, the tea just doesn’t get to the same level as a wild-picked, or small farm tea.

In essence, the tea leaf itself is a humble plant, but also one that can respond and grow more and more stunning as it interacts with its surroundings, and undergoes the transformation of oxidization and processing.

Putting aside for a moment the influences on tea before it is dried and finished, tea also goes through a second “flavoring” process as you brew it and sip it. First, you have to consider the water you use, and take into account all the flavors it offers. Straight reverse-osmosis water is never recommended in tea brewing, because it is so pure that it tastes flat. If you use a spring water or filtered tap water, the flavor of this water will come through, contributing sweetness, texture, or in undesirable cases, metal and chemical traces to your tea. No matter what, you are “blending” your tea with a water that you hope will help bring out the best that the tea has to offer.

Next, it is important to remember that we very rarely have a neutral palate. If you just ate, the flavors still in your mouth will influence the tea profoundly. Sometimes this can be a good thing- for example, drinking Tieguanyin after eating fruit or candy just seems to make the Tieguanyin even more intense. However, sipping a green tea in the morning after brushing your teeth will lead to a pretty minty experience.

The final element at play is how long you drink the tea itself. If you do multiple steepings, the flavors and textures of the first steepings will synergize with the later steepings, yielding more intensity of aftertaste than a single sip can provide. The differences between each steeping can have profound effects on each other. Some flavors will be diminished because of relative intensity, while new flavors coming through will be emphasized because of the contrast.

This synergy is even more at play when you taste a series of teas in a row. Whenever I plan a tasting, the order is considered carefully to maximize the contrasts and compliments. The grass notes of a fresh green tea will taste all the sweeter after mineral and stone notes in a Dancong, for example. Play around and see if your teas taste different when you re-arrange the order that you drink them in.

The point illustrated here is that all tea drinking is blending in a way. Even if you are a ‘purist,’ consider all the factors at play that influence the final flavor, many of which are not even dealt with here, like the state of mind in which you are tasting, or the time of day and the weather. When I recognize the almost infinite variables that come together to create something beautiful, and reflect on how incredible that is, it’s easier to recognize the value of introducing a few more variables with thought and consideration.

This is where the tea blending that we think of most often comes in. If a pu’er can taste great absorbing some pine notes from the air where it grows, what would happen if you added just a small amount of spearmint to accentuate that element, and then give it a warmer texture to play off of like cinnamon, then draw out its sweetness with a touch of fennel? This is a delicate art to be sure. Too much of any ingredient can compromise the honesty and integrity of the tea’s flavor, but just enough can create interesting and unexpected angles from which to view the tea itself.

I will never be one to add artificial flavorings and overwhelm a tea with something different. It seems vaguely disrespectful to the farmers I work with. Plus, if I really crave mango flavor, I will just eat a mango instead of drinking green tea that has been smothered by mango flavorings and sweeteners. I love mango. I love tea. I will take each of them on their own please. In fact, having the lingering juiciness of mango on your palate before sipping an autumn Tieguanyin might bring out the juicy elements in the tea, but this brings us back to the realm of subtlety and harmony that we are striving for.

This said, there are cases when blending will create interesting effects. I could drink Laoshan green plain every day and be happy, but there is always this minty quality lingering in the back. You don’t notice it too much, but if you blend the tea with mint and give the mint a solid foundation of burdock, and round it out with holy basil, you suddenly reveal those quiet side notes in the Laoshan green. That experience gives you the vocabulary to go back and try the Laoshan green unblended again and taste something completely new. In this case, drinking a tea blended with subtlety is like working out your taste buds and taste memory so that you can really flex those muscles when a more challenging set of flavors presents itself.

It is this realization that sparked the line of blended teas that Verdant offers. As a blender, I consider it my duty to the farmers to honor the natural quality of the tea they entrust to me. Consider Cinderella – she was never noticed until she was adorned, though her true beauty was on the inside. Adorned in her finery, she turned heads. When the adornments were removed, the prince fell in love with her anyways because the dress, the jewelry, the shoes, helped him see the beauty of the person. Sappy example, to be certain, but it does hold true. I get to play “fairy god-mother” and dress up all the teas in their finest clothes for the ball, which helps make their beauty easier to see, or shows a completely different way to appreciate the same beauty. Nobody picks out clothes so that people will say “cute shirt.” It is better to hear “you look beautiful.” When I blend, I don’t want to distract, but to focus attention on the flavors present.

Truly, this kind of blending is an extension of the “blending” that already occurs in the wild before a tea is picked, and as it is being sipped. Whether we like it or not, tea will always be subject to external influence. The beauty of tea is the way that it can respond, and evolve to something greater given a flavor interaction. We can ignore this, or become aware of it, and seize this awareness to heighten our tasting experience of traditional and blended tea.

Teas Relevant To This Article

Published on by David Duckler

Whether we like it or not, tea will always be subject to external influence. The beauty of tea is the way that it can respond, and evolve to something greater given a flavor interaction....

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Posted Comments

  1. Drew

    Unflavored teas are my favorite.

  2. JD

    Personally, I like unsweetened natural teas with no additives.