HOME | ON TAP | COFFEE & TEA
Story by Amy Zavatto
Photos by Martin Thiel
These days, a lot of us want to spend our free time getting our hands dirty. We’re raising chickens, growing veggies, making our own beer or sewing our own clothes. Maybe it’s a craving for self-sufficiency or an effort toward sustainability. Maybe it’s our way of producing something tangible in an increasingly intangible, cyber-centric world. Whatever’s driving the 21st-century DIY movement, there’s one project that seems to be missing from the long roster of bootstrap undertakings: tea blending.
I couldn’t help but wonder: If coffee enthusiasts can roast their own beans, why can’t tea drinkers blend their own leaves? And that’s how on a recent Sunday afternoon, I found my kitchen counter overflowing with teas of all kinds—Nilgiri and Assam from India, Keemun and pu-erh from China, Kukicha Hatsukura from Japan—not to mention fragrant satchels of everything from cinnamon and ginger to dried flowers. I had decided throw a new kind of tea party, 21st century-style—one that’s hands-on instead of pinkies-up. I wanted to know how to make a custom blend perfectly suited to my palate (or that of my friends’, because wouldn’t that be a cool gift?). So I gathered a few friends and asked Linda Villano, owner of SerendipiTea in New York, to come over and guide us through the fun and surprisingly easy process of blending our own teas.
“Where a tea’s from, when it’s harvested and how it’s processed makes a tremendous difference in what it tastes like, and the best teas tend to grow in high-altitude areas,” explains Villano as she opens a bag of Dooars, a woody-smelling Indian green, and spoons it into a bowl. “Some tea is grown on a flat surface, but that’s less-desirable. Elevation is important—the higher, the better. For example, Darjeeling from Northern India—it’s considered the Champagne of tea. It comes from a specific region in West Bengal at the foothills of Himalayas,” which clocks in at around 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.
As we continue to prep for our guests’ arrival, Villano goes on to explain that a tea’s elevation or region isn’t everything. After all, not all Darjeelings are created equal. If the tea is simply labeled Darjeeling without any indication of its particular garden or estate, it’s of a more generic quality. “They’re still perfectly good leaves from the region, but not the best of the best,” she says. “It’s like the table wine equivalent. When you work with a specific garden or estate, it’s a much higher quality; there are nuances and subtleties from garden to garden, just like in a wine region. The [tea plants] may all be from the same region and have the same terroir, but one might be placed more ideally than another in a garden a little further down the mountain.”
Villano had brought a mind-boggling array of leafy and herbal treasures—seven blacks, four greens, three florals, a half dozen spices and even a couple of dried fruits. My doorbell starts ringing and friends begin arriving, but before we dive in, we brew each ingredient to get a sense of how they taste on their own. “The most important things the blender must know before beginning are how each ingredient tastes independently, be it tea, herbs, flowers, spices or fruit,” says Villano. We could guess what the mint and rose petals would taste like, but it was a different story with the varieties of tea. Some might look alike—and they all come from the same plant—but their flavors can be vastly different depending on where they’re grown and how they’re processed. Here’s how it breaks down:
White tea tastes as close to a freshly plucked leaf as you’ll get, since the leaves are never oxidized, just withered and baked dry or air-dried. White teas have a delicate flavor and can be expensive, which is why they’re not often used for blending.
After the leaves are picked, they’re steamed to retain their green color as well as their trademark vegetal flavor. After that, the leaves are withered, then rolled and twisted, and then either re-steamed (the Japanese favor this method, which preserves vegetal quality) or pan-fried, which can sometimes give the tea a yellowy-tinge and smoky aroma.
Both a category and a style of processing the tea. As a category, traditional oolong always hails from Taiwan or the Fujian province in China. After harvesting, oolong leaves are withered and then gently tossed manually or by machine in a basket in order to bruise the edges of the leaves and oxidize them. This, however, can create a range of styles with some oolongs with less oxidation that can taste like green tea, and others with lots of oxidation that can taste more like black tea. After being tossed, the leaves are then gathered in a cloth and rolled under metal plates until they form tiny nuggets.
Black tea leaves are completely oxidized by processing them through metal rollers, which break up the leaves, stems and opens the veins (which is why black tea tends to be so tannic). After the leaves have fully oxidized for up to 18 hours, they go through hot-air heaters to cauterize the broken veins.
What about herbs, spices, roots and flowers? Those aren’t teas—they’re tisanes, because they don’t come from the Camellia Sinensis plant.
By now, we’re excited to delve into the tea and tisane bounty waiting for us in the kitchen. But before we start blending, Villano lays out a few ground rules:
First, the size of the ingredients matters. Most of the time you’ll be making a cup of tea for yourself, and you’ll need just one teaspoon for a six- to eight-ounce cup of tea. That means you want to make sure all the ingredients in the blend will be present and accounted for in every teaspoon so the tea tastes consistent from cup to cup. So make sure all the ingredients in the blend are the same size and small enough to fit together in a teaspoon. Villano also stresses that to ensure a proper ratio, measure out each ingredient of your blend with the same measuring tool, whether it’s a teaspoon, a cup or a glass. We were using teaspoons, so Villano had us use a kitchen scale to see exactly how much our spoonfuls weighed, since one person’s idea of a teaspoon can be bigger or smaller than another’s. That way, we had a more precise measurement to work with if we wanted to re-create our blends on a larger scale.
Next, brew a sample cup of your blend—and do it right. As a general rule, Villano suggests one to three minutes for white teas and green teas; three to five minutes for oolong and black teas. Most tisanes, however, tend to be very forgiving and won’t strengthen much in flavor after five minutes. Also, says Villano, “broken-leaf teas steep much more quickly than full-leaf teas, usually imparting a stronger flavor.”
A few other tips: “Water quality is very important,” says Villano. “If you have good tap water with low minerals and no chlorine, that’s great.” Otherwise, she recommends using filtered or bottled water, and don’t bring the water to a full boil for greens and whites. Water that’s boiled provides the perfect steeping environment for black tea and many oolongs to extract the right amount of flavors and aromas and prevent the tea from becoming overly extracted or astringent. And never microwave your water and tea. “Oxygen in the water is essential,” says Villano. “It’s what makes the cup brisk, bright and crisp by assisting in releasing the essential oils in the leaves, which are largely responsible for flavor. Microwaves deplete oxygen and produce a flat, non-descriptive cup.”
Finally, be nosey. Scent is a powerful tool for tea blending. Familiarize yourself with what the teas smell and taste like on their own so you can determine which characteristics you want to highlight and which you want to keep as accents.
Let the blending begin! We each grab a teaspoon and a ramekin. Since we had already smelled and tasted the brewed teas on their own, we start to gravitate toward the teas that had first captivated us. Some of us are drawn to the smoky, twiggy flavors in black teas like the Chinese black Keenum, while others find it bitter and astringent and prefer the more delicate nuances in the Indian Nilgiri. Some dive into the fruity combo of Villano’s dried apple and mango blend to add sweetness to a funky black tea like the Kenyan, while others head straight for the soft Provençal accent of lavender in a green. And all the coffee drinkers in the crowd love pu-erh, a robust and earthy Chinese black tea that had a pleasingly bitter note like dark chocolate.
As I look over the options, I realize the process is a lot like choosing wine—it’s all about trusting your palate. I might not know all the names of the teas, or sometimes even how to pronounce them, but I know what I like, so that’s where I start. I love the smoky aroma of the Chinese black Keemun and rose petals seem like the perfect complement—this turns out to be a blend that Villano sells. “It’s a good combo,” she says, “but don’t be fooled—rose petals can be more powerful than you think. I’d keep to a ratio of four to one.” She’s right. Brewed, that one teaspoon of rose petals mixed into four teaspoons of Keemun adds just a little flowery accent to the black tea’s campfire base-note, softening it perfectly. I call it Guns n’ Roses, and the success spurs me to create another blend.
Villano had brought a soft, fresh Japanese green called Kukicha Hatsukura that smelled like walnuts and young, snapped twigs. I mix four teaspoons of it with one teaspoon of lavender and half a teaspoon of spearmint (mint, it turns out, is really powerful in a blend). I brew a cup and take a sip: The soft, freshness of the Japanese green combined with the bright mint and floral lavender is perfect. And I love that by simply following my nose and taste buds, I can create a tea that’s exactly right for me.
As we blend, Villano tells us to keep in mind that every tea blend should be balanced and have a base note, or dominant flavor and aroma. “I’m not big on superfluous ‘stuff’ in the cup,” she says. “I’m all for complexity, but this is not to be confused with clutter, which only confuses the palate. Keep the blend clean and purposeful. If there’s too much going on, things will cancel each other out and create muddled notes.”
She also reminds us that you can always add tea to a blend, but you can’t take it away, so start with the lower ratio when you’re not certain of strength. Brew a cup and taste your initial blend, then add to it if needed. Take notes so you can keep track.
With everyone happily crafting their own mixes—spooning and measuring, brewing and tasting—calls of “Smell this!” and “Taste that!” burst from different parts of the room as we each proudly discover our own signature blends. Tea blending might not be as daring as keeping your own bees or raising your own chickens, but it’s just as satisfying. And it requires the ultimate DIY skill that nobody else can teach you: The ability to trust and follow your own palate.