When I used to work for Whittard, many years ago, the store was always buzzing with tourists looking to bring the delights of Britain back to their countries. It also helped that I live in the beautiful and historical Cotswold area, with the spires and colleges of Oxford attracting those who want to visit the top-ranked university in Britain and among the oldest in the world.
Of course, tea plays a major part in tourist retail along with magnets and flags and other paraphernalia, but what says ‘I’ve been to England’ better than a box of English Breakfast? And it’s not just the name of the tea that has its appeal, English Breakfast is also the drink of choice for the natives – whether it’s called that or ‘everyday tea’ or under the respective brand names like PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, etc. It’s all the same blend and it definitely doesn’t grow in Yorkshire!
A recipe with different ingredients
You see, what many people don’t realise is that while we all have our favourite brand and type of tea we prefer, producing that flavour every time is not quite as easy as making cake. You don’t just add the same ingredients in the same order and quantities and get the same result every time. And that’s because the ingredients are never the same.
If any of you are budding or keen gardeners, you’ll know that you can’t guarantee a plant to yield the exact same crop every year. That’s true for tea as well. The climate, rainfall, soil, general weather conditions and time of picking affect the taste of the leaves to a great extent. Through processing after plucking, you can still control what type of tea you obtain but a lot of factors are out of your control as a tea producer.
Tea blending – a craft like no other
What happens is that every company will have a taste they are aiming to achieve. They have a rough idea of the ‘ingredients’ that should go in, called a ‘blend’ in the tea world. For English Breakfast tea, that blend is generally a mix of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon teas, but the exact proportions will vary with each company. The reason why these teas have been chosen to create such a popular and delicious blend are:
- Assam for strength – giving us the kick of caffeine with a strong body we crave in the morning
- Kenyan for colour – that dark golden brown which gets us out of bed
- Ceylon for flavour – that’s not to say that the other teas don’t taste nice but Ceylon, a tea from Sri Lanka, has a really special flavour among the black teas
As each batch of leaves that is bought is different, master blenders in each company will then make many variations of the same recipe with modified quantities of these three teas to match the previous batch they had made. Which was made to match the one before, and so on, to obtain a consistent taste. Master blenders will make even as many as 50 different blends, so you can imagine they have quite a sophisticated pallete to be able to differentiate each one.
All to bring us the comforting taste of our favourite cuppa.
Not all people want that though, much like wine, some tea drinkers prefer to taste the differences in seasonality and yields year after year much like with wine. But to do that, you need to drink single estate teas, which I will talk about in my next post.
Time to put the kettle on,