Today we’re comparing two very similar / very different teas, that are both unusual and both delicious! What’s extra fun is both change their colors making them the most beautiful and mesmerizing teas we know of.
Both are antioxidant powerhouses that are lesser known in the USA, and both are tea that changes color with acids like lemon juice, or alkalis. So, without further ado, let’s discuss:
- What is Butterfly Pea Flower Tea?
- What is Purple Tea?
- Battle Royale: How do the two compare with taste and usage?
- How do their health benefits and antioxidant levels compare?
- Brewing, Uses & Preparation Ideas
- Best for last: We now carry Butterfly Pea Tea!
What is Blue Butterfly Pea Flower Tea?
Clitoria ternatea, commonly known as Butterfly Pea Flower Tea (aka. Blue pea tea, blue ternate, blue tea, blue tea flower, aprajita, kordofan pea tea, asian pigeon wing tea) is a non-caffeinated, herbal tea most prevalent in Southeast Asia. (We’ll say BPT for short in this blog.)
Fun fact: Its name is as saucy as it looks, inspired by the anatomic suggestiveness of its blossoms… It is powerfully, beautifully blue, and it releases its color quite easily, dyeing everything sapphire. Hence why it is commonly used as a natural food dye!
Side note: Don’t confuse BPT with Blue Spirulina, which is a vibrant green-blue algae (from cyanobacteria if you must know). Two bright blue superfoods? Yes, but definitely not the same.
Plus for extra confusion, some tea-lovers refer to oolong tea as “blue tea”, one of BTPs nicknames. When we (the founders) lived in Madrid for a couple years, our friends and local tea shops would frequently refer to oolong like this.
Clitoria Ternatea, the Butterfly Pea Flower - a climbing vine with blue flowers
What is Purple Tea?
Purple tea is from the Camellia sinensis plant, better known as the tea bush. As you may already know, all ‘true’ tea is from this plant, whether green, black, white, oolong or, you guessed it, purple. Purple tea is so named because of its distinctive reddish leaves due to the presence of anthocyanins, those antioxidants which make blueberries blue.
It is processed in the same way as green tea to preserve its fresh taste and antioxidant properties.
Both blue and purple tea look quite unassuming in their dry form! But boy do they get colorful when steeped...
Butterfly Pea Tea vs. Purple Tea
Diving in, here is a blow by blow comparison of these two color-changing teas:
Origins of Blue Butterfly Pea
These teas are grown in very different regions: BPT is grown in Southeast Asia whereas purple tea is mainly found in Kenya and China. BPT is a climbing vine that could almost be mistaken for a morning glory, and walking around neighborhoods in various parts of Thailand we always saw it climbing up garden walls, trellises and even power poles!
The major producers of BTP are from Thailand, China and India, with Thai butterfly tea flowers being famous for their quality. Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines and Taiwan are other producers across SE Asia of BTP for use both domestically and selling internationally.
One farming family can typically produce 6.6 - 11lb (15 to 25kg) of flowers per week, which is up to ~80,000 individual blossoms. Most families harvest BTP in the morning, and farm rice in the afternoon, and sell their harvest to their local distributor.
Origins of Purple Tea
Purple tea on the other hand, is from the tea bush, and so is grown in medium to high tea gardens, where they prefer cool, wet climates. Although originally from China, purple tea was specifically studied and developed further in Kenya by tea scientists, leading to stunning purple tea fields curving over the hills. Sorry, waxing lyrical now!
Due to this purple tea on a commercial scale is almost exclusively Kenyan. Only a few years ago the Kenyan government agreed to remove anti-competition laws, which previously had prevented new tea producers from starting up. Once that rule was removed, purple tea export-level production was suddenly possible, and Kenya could suddenly compete in the luxury tea market.
For comparison, in the international tea markets in 2017, before all the various costs of shipping, packaging etc. are included, a kilogram of regular black Kenyan tea sold for $0.14 vs a kilo of purple tea at $1. This has the direct result of boosting wages and working conditions for tea growers.
Look, Taste & Smell
Butterfly Pea Tea
In appearance, loose butterfly pea flowers look like exactly that: whole dried flowers. The greener the stems, the younger the blossoms. Fully brownish-yellow stems mean the blooms are a few seasons old.
BPT has a very subtle taste, similar to green to but more delicate. This is why many typical preparations of this tisane add lemon, honey, or other herbals like lemon verbena. It is also why it is so popular in cooking and mixology, because its delicate flavor doesn’t distract from whatever ingredients are added to it whilst maintaining the color.
The dried blossoms themselves smell earthy yet floral with a subtle sweetness and the brewed tea has a delicate earthy nose similar to the leaves.
Brewed Butterfly Pea Flower tea, with dried blossoms, courtesy BP Guide
Whole leaf purple tea usually looks like twisted pieces of wire, but you can also find it prepared using the CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl) method for a stronger brew. As with all ‘true’ teas from Camellia sinensis, the rule of thumb for loose leaf remains: the more intact the leaf, the higher the quality of the resulting tea.
Purple tea tastes like a lightly tannic green tea, with a subtle sweet aftertaste that reminds me (Elizabeth) of a hard candy.
Loose leaf purple tea has a vegetal nose, with hints of hay or dried grass. The brewed tea has a more floral nose.
Types & Price
Both BPT and purple tea are most commonly sold as loose leaf, with whole blossoms or leaves respectively. Blue butterfly pea flower is the most common type, but it also grows with white, purple and red blossoms.
Butterfly pea tea powder or matcha has recently entered the market and is a striking blue powder that can be used in smoothies, as food coloring, in cooking or simply mixed with hot water. You can find purple tea matcha out there too, though it is less common and is a muddy brown in powder form. As with matcha made from green tea, consuming the whole leaf means a fair amount of bitterness.
Regarding price, both are firmly in the category of premium teas, due to limited supply, high quality controls and worker protections, and, in the case of BPT, time-consuming harvesting - for example, our 1oz packet of BPT contains around 500 blossoms, each of which are hand-picked and dried.
However, BPT goes a long way if you’re using it for the color! Adding only a few blossoms to your tea is all you need to get that gorgeous blue. If you are drinking it for its antioxidants, though, stick with using 1 grams (15-20 blossoms).
pH Color Change: Why do both Butterfly Pea Flower and Purple Tea Change Color?
So both purple and butterfly pea flower tea have become well known recently as they are both pH sensitive. This means that after brewing in water the tea plant will react when either an acid or a base/alkali is added. Both teas change color when you add acid, which sounds more intense than it is.
People usually add lemon or lime, but you can also use acidic plants like hibiscus and lemongrass - especially if you want to add milk but don't want to curdle it. Your highschool chemistry lessons have arrived in your teapot! BPT is a stronger color so the pre- and post- addition of acid is more vivid than with purple tea.
What makes these teas pH sensitive?
So this is super cool, brace yourself: Both purple tea and BPT contain the flavonoid anthocyanin (a type of antioxidant), which contributes to their natural bright blue and purple colors. But anthocyanins are also pH indicators! If you’ve ever taken a chemistry class, then you’ve used a pH or litmus strip. These strips of paper are coated with various pH indicators which will change color when added to an acid or a base. Anthocyanins are some of these pH indicators! The pH actually changes the anthocyanin molecule structure, which changes its color.
You may have seen the same happen by adding lemon juice to red cabbage, and the popular science experiments using anthocyanins as a DIY pH indicator like in this great diagram from CompoundChem.com:
You could easily do the above experiment, but with butterfly pea or purple tea! If you do, send us photos ;-) The pH of 0 (the red bottle) is vinegar, neutral pH is 7 with nothing added, and a pH of 14 (the yellow bottle) is bleach. Of course, don’t drink your pH test if you test toxic things like bleach!
Antioxidants & Health benefits: What is Butterfly Pea Flower Good For? How about Purple Tea?
Both BPT and purple tea are consumed for their health benefits as well as their taste, with those special anthocyanins being one of the big draws. Overall they are both antioxidant rich but purple tea has slightly higher antioxidants than green tea, and BPT has a range of antioxidant properties that make it unique). Although purple tea hasn’t been around as long, given it is the same tea bush and is processed the same way as green tea, for the health benefits it is reasonable to look to green tea for guidance.
Butterfly Pea Flower Tea Health Benefits
BPT has a long history of use in traditional medicine across southeast Asia, as well as in Ayurvedic (Hindu) medicine. The tea has been used to enhance memory and other cognitive functions, plus as an antidepressant, for stress relief, muscle relaxation and as a sedative.
In Sri Lankan tradition, for example, it has been used to treat liver problems, bladder issuers and various types of fluid retention (Lakshan). In Ayurvedic traditions, butterfly pea flower tea has been used to “enhance cognitive functions and alleviate symptoms of numerous ailments including fever, inflammation, pain, and diabetes” (Oguis).
We find traditional use data interesting but really our blog is all about the scientific literature: Peer-reviewed medicinal studies of BPT have shown “several biological activities such as antioxidant, antidiabetic, and hepatoprotective properties” (hepatoprotective means it helps prevent damage to the liver) (Lakshan), and BPT extracts are used in many pharmaceuticals.
Antioxidants in Butterfly Pea Tea
But what about the antioxidants in BPT? Because it contains anthocyanins, like in blueberries, this tea has been shown to have anti-obesity and anti-diabetes effects, and a high rate of free radical scavenging activity.
One study also showed multiple antioxidant properties, as BPT contains many more antioxidants than just anthocyanin. That’s a topic for its own blog post though! They did also find in the same study that brewing for 37 minutes released the highest antioxidant levels, and because it doesn’t go bitter was still delicious to drink (Lakshan). Note though they were using powdered BPT, which of course has more surface area than full blooms, which will impact antioxidant levels and the strength of the brew.
Health Benefits of Purple Tea
As we’ve covered this topic a lot before, I’ll be brief here: Purple tea contains our beloved anthocyanins, but also the uncommon antioxidant GHG. GHG has been linked to anti-obesity and anti-aging effects, and it is unique to purple tea. You read that right!
Purple tea also contains the full spectrum of polyphenols found in green tea, but its antioxidants have a higher free-radical scavenging rate than green tea (that’s a good thing).
Learn all the details here
Side Effects of Butterfly Pea Flower & Purple Tea
Happily, there are no known side effects from drinking blue or purple tea. Consuming the roots or seeds of BPT can result in nausea and diarrhea, but this is of course a far cry from steeping the blossoms! (Teahow)
Although neither tea has been as widely studied as, say, green tea, BPT has been traditionally used for thousands of years and is considered safe to consume, without side effects. Purple tea is from the same plant as green tea, but with more anthocyanin in its leaves, which makes it reasonable to assume it is like green tea in terms of safety and side effects. In both cases, though, pregnant and nursing mothers should speak with their doctor, as always.
Caffeine & Calories
This is an easy one: BPT is an herbal, naturally caffeine free tea, aka a tisane. So like chamomile you can drink it in the evenings without worrying about staying awake.
Purple tea, as we’ve already learned, is from Camellia sinensis which makes it a true tea, and most definitely caffeinated. For the caffeine level of purple tea, it is similar to green tea, with around 30mg/8oz - though this will of course vary depending on how hot your water is!
Neither tea has any calories when you steep it - it’s only when you add cream and sugar to make a bright blue latte that you then have to think about that!
Brewing, Uses & Preparation Ideas
Butterfly Pea Tea
BPT is a common natural food coloring. This tisane is popular in many regions in Southeast Asia, but it is most prevalent in Thailand. Here there the preparation of the tea is called Nam Dok Anchan, and is made by blending the tea flowers with honey, cinamon, mint, and passion fruit. It can also be breaded and deep-fried which is yummy!
In Malaysia and southern Thailand, there is a delicious rich dish called Nasi kerabu, which is a butterfly pea tea rice. Vientiene and I have eaten it many times in Malaysia, and it is made by cooking the rice in butterfly pea flower tea. Stunningly beautiful and easy to make!
Recently multiple distilleries have released butterfly pea flower gins, which are - you guessed it - a brilliant blue and turn pink with lemon. A mixologist’s delight!
The above is a plate of Nasi kerabu from one of our trips to Penang, Malaysia - it tasted as good as it looks - noting of course the blue rice.
Of course, butterfly pea flower is primarily consumed as a tea, and most boba tea shops in southeast Asia seem to have a butterfly pea tea option. It is also decadent mixed with sweetened milk and ice, as well as visually gripping!
This was a delicious BPT concoction we tried at a Taiwanese cafe in Taichung. You can see me sneaking a bite of cake while Vien is trying to take the photo!
How to brew Butterfly Pea Tea
Use 1 gram, which is around 15-20 blossoms
Steep in 8oz boiling water for 3-5 minutes*
Enjoy the color, or add some lemon juice to go on a purple adventure. Start with a few drops and then scale up
* One study found brewing powdered BPT for 37 minutes in 140F (59.6C) water released the highest amount of antioxidants, so if you have the patience you can try that too! (Lakshan) They didn’t test whole blossoms, but it’s a good general indicator. It still tasted good too!
Tips: You don’t need to worry about burning it, it can tolerate boiling water; the longer the steep, the stronger the color, and the taste doesn’t change that much; use glass mugs or teapots if you can so you can enjoy the color! Oh, and avoid getting it on white fabric - you will always have a memory of BPT if you do...
How to brew Purple Tea
Use 1-2 grams loose leaf
Steep in 8oz warm water (approx 160F / 70C) for 2-3 minutes
Admire the hue, or add a twist of lemon for pink fun
Note from Elizabeth: Why are we now selling Butterfly Pea Tea?
This has long been one of our favorite herbal teas, simply because it’s SO FUN. We first came across it in Thailand during our few months there across different visits, and encountered it constantly throughout our travels.
We saw it in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines during our exploration of the world of tea. Packed full of antioxidants which makes it a great superfood and non-caffeinated. Which is why, when we found a great supplier for BPT, we knew we had to share it with you! (And I'm not gonna lie - taking the photos for this blog was so fun too, with such pretty colors)
We’d love to hear what you think, and to see your own color experiments with purple tea vs blue tea. Send us your photos, tell us your experiences, and most importantly - enjoy playing with your tea on IG! @MatchaAlternatives
$14 for 1oz
Pure luxury grade Thai butterfly tea pea flower from Petchabun, Thailand
$10 for 1oz
Pure loose leaf Emrok Purple Tea from Kenya
BONUS: Feel Good Music with Every Order!
Every purchase you make comes with a free download of extended songs from the Dance of Life album by Norwegian composer Peder B. Hellend.
Each thirty minute track is perfect for studying, meditation, or just ambient music for a relaxing afternoon.
References & Further Reading on Butterfly Pea Tea
Origins & Market for Butterfly Pea Flower Tea
Hapinat, H. Production of Tea from the Flower of Blue Ternate (Clirotira ternatea Linn.): A New Social Enterprise for Blue Ternate Growers in the Municipality of Batad, Iloilo, Philippines. https://ap.fftc.org.tw/article/2654
Health Benefits Butterfly Pea Tea
Kungsuwan, K., Singh, K., Phetkao, S., & Utama-ang, N. (1). Effects of pH and anthocyanin concentration on color and antioxidant activity of Clitoria ternatea extract. Food and Applied Bioscience Journal, 2(1), 31-46. https://doi.org/10.14456/fabj.2014.3. https://li01.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/fabjournal/article/view/77397
Lakshan SAT, Jayanath NY, Abeysekera WPKM, Abeysekera WKSM. A Commercial Potential Blue Pea (Clitoria ternatea L.) Flower Extract Incorporated Beverage Having Functional Properties. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2019;2019:2916914. Published 2019 May 20. doi:10.1155/2019/2916914 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6545798/
Oguis GK, Gilding EK, Jackson MA, Craik DJ. Butterfly Pea (Clitoria ternatea), a Cyclotide-Bearing Plant With Applications in Agriculture and Medicine. Front Plant Sci. 2019;10:645. Published 2019 May 28. doi:10.3389/fpls.2019.00645 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6546959/