Tea comes in all types, tastes and varieties, but it will always be either a ‘pure tea’ or a ‘blended tea’. The vast majority of teas are blends, such as chai, Earl Grey, or jasmine. Within the world of blends, there is a huge range, from lightly flavored teas with a single herb or flower added, to complex concoctions designed to taste like a specific food (e.g. gingerbread or lemon cake). The world of pures is only slightly simpler, and is the realm of the tea epicurean. Teapicurean?
This post examines the world of pures and blends, and then puts blends under the microscope in terms of whether something that tastes like a liquid dessert can also be healthy, and what the science is around tea blends. Spoiler alert: Healthy can also be delicious.
What does ‘pure tea’ mean? Is that the same as single estate tea?
‘Pure tea’ refers to any tea made from a single type of plant. For example, Dragonwell green tea is made only using leaves from the tea bush (Camellia sinensis), and chamomile will only contain chamomile blossoms. Simple, right?
Well. That Dragonwell is likely made from leaves harvested from multiple tea gardens and the leaves are all combined at a factory. The chamomile may be composed of blossoms from different countries, dried and shipped all over to then be remixed. This is done for two reasons: practicality, as one small tea garden in China won’t produce that many tea leaves, and won’t have the ability to process the leaves into tea on an industrial scale, and the second is consistency.
This is the crucial part: a company needs to guarantee their product will always taste the same, year after year. To do this, they buy up tea from several reliable sources, and then blend them until it tastes like their specific tea. It also helps insulate against regional dips in production, such as droughts, floods, or disease hitting a certain tea growing region. Ever wondered why Johnny Walker whisky or Lipton tea always tastes the same? This is how, and why, they do it.
The need for consistency also results in pure teas being blended. Wait, what?! I thought you said it was pure! I’m talking about blends of pure teas. For example, a rich black tea for breakfast only contains pure tea. However, this tea is likely a mix of malty Assam, robust Kenyan and honeyed Ceylon teas.
Professional tea tasters who work for Twining, Liptons and the other big and medium sized manufacturers are under intense pressure to mix and blend the various tea leaves until the final brew tastes identical to what’s already on the shelves around the world.
Which brings me to Single Estate teas: as you may have already guessed, this means the tea was 100% grown on one tea estate. The benefit of this is transparency, in that you can find out exactly where your tea was grown, and can also result in more varied flavors. For example, the tea garden may be on a certain soil type, or at a certain elevation, that results in its tea leaves tasting more minerally, or creamy, or having a certain aroma.
At the extreme end of this, there are some teas that are only produced from certain bushes on one tea estate, with the Wuyi oolongs being one of the finest examples. (These teas are made from only four bushes and descendants of those bushes, and are some of the most expensive teas in the world!).
The challenges with Single Estate tea are, you guessed it, practicality and consistency. Practically, a small tea garden in China may only produce a small amount of tea per year, and processing the tea leaves has to be done by hand due to not having an industrial-scale factory
The challenge for the tea grower is how to find buyers for these teas, and how to avoid pricing him- or herself out of the market. They may send their teas to an exporter, distributor, cooperative, or some farmers may try to sell directly.
Consistency-wise, some years are better than others for producing tea. If there is a bad harvest, the tea may taste bad, despite the farmer’s best efforts.
You can imagine how forgiving the modern consumer can be if one year it tastes great and the next year it's awful because that one sole plantation did not get enough rain. They don’t have the option of blending, and as such many tea producers sell the bulk of their teas to tea blenders or auctions, and reserve their finest quality leaves to be processed into Single Estate offerings.
The big point we want to get across is that Single Estate teas are not necessarily better quality - they might be, or they might not be. There are other reasons why pure teas are blended as explained here, and they don't have to be connected with quality at all.
That beautiful 'Single Estate' tea the connoisseurs are drinking this year, may produce an awful tea next year due to no fault of their own - less rain than usual for example.
Meanwhile, a larger producer will save themselves by blending from another one of their own estates or suppliers.
Tips for choosing pure teas
Here are my top tips for selecting pure loose leaf tea:
- Choosing your loose leaf will likely be based on shape and size of the leaves, and their aroma. If you know what your tea type should look like (e.g. Gunpowder green tea should be in tight little balls, whereas White Monkey Paw/ Bai Mao Hou should be wiry with white downy hairs), that’s the best place to start.
- The aroma should be fresh, without a hint of staleness. Fresher tea which has not been industrially dried to death have more oils and have a fresher scent.
- A good tea company should always store their teas in dark, airtight containers, and tea packaging once you buy should be airtight. If you see tea being stored in clear glass jars for extended periods of time, run the other way, especially matcha! Light degrades the leaves over time, and the flavor and antioxidants disappear. At home tea hopefully doesn't sit around in the sunlight much - it's in a cupboard and/or drunk faster so you don't need to worry too much.
- Ask how old the teas are, and if they are stored correctly then anything under a year old should be fine. That being said, more delicate teas, like Sencha, can lose their spring-like flavor faster. At Matcha Alternatives, for example, teas are delivered weekly with small batches held, so that the leaves are always fresh and the oils haven’t degraded with time.
- Consider how the teas are procured, and if the tea company ethically sources their teas. MatchaAlternatives.com sources teas from the Ethical Tea Partnership by the way.
What are tea blends? Are all tea blends created equal?
Blended teas are teas with more than one ingredient, such as added fruit pieces, blossoms or oils. These teas tend to have a ‘bigger’ taste due to the inclusion of natural or artificial flavors (read my recent piece What are “Natural Flavors”? for an introduction).
Not all blends are created equal, either: Many companies add synthetic flavors, additives and synthetic aromatics to enhance the fragrance of tea. Some companies even add artificial dyes! Added flavors are often also used to mask low quality tea. For example, it’s depressingly common to find cheap but sweet-smelling jasmine tea tastes terribly bitter and the aroma vanishes once its brewed. You’re just left with a cup of cheap green tea. All Matcha Alternatives flavors are all-natural, nothing artificial.
Why do companies do this? Because, short of making a cup of tea, it is tricky for a customer to determine tea quality. As mentioned above, the only guidelines are look and smell - in the shop perhaps.
An enchanting smell is an incredibly powerful tool, and by the time the customer actually brews the tea, they have already purchased it. It’s especially common to see this with teabags and also mass-market tea vendors. A useful rule of thumb is to avoid teas that contain artificial colors and ingredients, as the flavor is more likely to be short-lived and fake.
One surprising tea blend fact: added fruit pieces and blossoms often don’t add that much flavor, but do create a gorgeous aroma, and make for a pretty tea. There are two solutions to this: The first is to add your fruit or flowers to your loose leaf tea blend long before it’s ready to sell, so that the scents infuse the leaves, and the second is to add natural flavors (usually a distillation of the same ingredient), and then blend in petals or fruits to enhance the look, aroma and taste.
At Matcha Alternatives, we don’t use any synthetic additives, our teas contain no dyes (we are a health-focused company run by total teaheads, after all!), and we use organic fruits, flowers, oils and spices wherever possible.
Tips for choosing a blended tea
- Avoid tea blends with added sweeteners such as sucralose, saccharine, and aspartame
- Think of tea blends that are mainly made of candied fruits and caramelized ingredients as treats (mostly cooked down, high in sugar, and lacking phytonutrients)
- Look for blends that are mainly composed of other herbs, flowers, dried fruits, and essential oils
- Avoid “fragrances” as this is a very vague term that includes both naturally derived and synthetic aromas
Are singles /pure teas or blends better for health?
Singles or pure teas are a beautiful, simple way to supplement your health. If you were struggling with low iron levels, and started ingesting therapeutic amounts of moringa on the advice of a health practitioner (but made no other changes) and your iron levels improved, you’d know for certain it was moringa.
Blends, on the other hand, are synergistic. You may notice an even better improvement in iron levels if you were to take a blend of moringa, lemon, raspberry leaf and fruit, and hibiscus flower. This is because of the inclusion of two “nutritive” herbs, while the vitamin C present in the fruit and flowers enhances the bioavailability of the iron. This is a case of something we call synergy (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts).
Chinese herbalism adds licorice to nearly all blends because it enhances the action of the other herbs
What’s the science around drinking tea blends for health?
I enjoy both classes of tea, but blends are my favorite. When I look at the ingredients of a blend, I’m positively giddy! (Don’t go shopping with me unless you want to spend an eternity in the tea aisle while I read labels and gush over the formulations….or throw back others). Even at home, mixing pure teas is so much fun: you can definitely blend two teas together - see what happens! You may discover your new favorite drink.
When it comes to herbalism (I am an evidenced-focused professor, researcher and herbalist), blends take precedence. It’s rare for an herbalist to suggest a single herb for anything (we call these herbal “Simples”). The use of Simples is a rudimentary form of herbalism and is mainly a folk use. The beauty of the practice lies in combining herbs for a specific purpose: the synergies.
Mainstream medicine is conducted with the philosophy of reductionism. Many of our medications are derived from isolated plant constituents that are then synthesized in a lab. We see this reductionistic perspective reign in scientific literature, when the testing of herbal blends is immediately considered “lesser” science because they believe that testing a blend is not an evaluation of a synergistic result, but rather an introduction of confounding variables. It’s a complex argument which sort of misses the point because yes it could be harder to isolate a specific ingredient which is “the one making the difference” but on the herbalist’s side, the point of the synergy is that “the difference is because it’s not just one isolated ingredient”.
This doesn’t make herbalism unscientific, we simply recognize the benefit of synergy. One can still run trials and tests with double-blind randomized control trials comparing placebos or alternatives and see the effect contrasted with the synergistic blend. The best part about plants is that you can combine them into infinite blends that will rarely cause any negative effects (if used appropriately) but rather, instead, poorly blended plants will simply not have much effect. Whether used for culinary purposes, flavor, or therapeutically, their benefits are massive.
What is important is the scientific process. Unlike so many (almost all?) of the tea blogs out there in the wilderness that is the information super-highway, I deeply research and reference these posts and you can read for yourself in the References section at the end of every blog.
A Note From The Herbalist...
The choice of consuming blends or pure teas is up to you and what you’re looking for: both are beneficial with distinct characteristics. Whichever you choose, do pay attention to ingredients and quality - they make all the difference!
For antioxidant fiends, drinking a pure tea, whether it's a 'true' tea or herbal, is a good choice. For example, drinking pure honeybush, mate, green rooibos, etc., you'll be consuming the maximum amount of antioxidants per teaspoon, because a blend has less of the main ingredient to make room for the blend components. These additions may have other health benefits, but reduce the antioxidant hit from the base tea.
For me, one of my favorite blends is Earl Grey: it’s the first tea I ever liked, and I haven’t looked back. The pretty purple calendula blossoms make it look pretty, but it’s all about the bergamot essential oil for me. Bergamot has anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce pain, and also tastes SO good. If you’re feeling festive, try a rooibos London Fog: make a strong cup of Classy Earl Grey Rooibos, then add some steamed milk (I prefer soy, but it’s up to personal preference), vanilla extract and a touch of honey. My favorite winter drink!!
Explore our Posts & Teas
|Smell the Roses Cherry Rooibos - Rose, caramel, and a hint of cherry makes this a seriously romantic tea
Ingredients: Rooibos, rose petals, dried cherry, All Natural Flavors
Glorious Genmaicha Green Tea - This Japanese green tea is mixed with popped brown rice, giving a smooth and strong tea with powerful aromas and flavors of roasted rice
Ingredients: Green tea, Roasted + Popped rice
Roasted Ginger Chai Yerba Mate - Blended with exotic spices from India, this tea is spicy with mocha notes, and loads of caffeine from the mate + black tea combo
Ingredients: Roasted mate, Black tea, Chopped and powdered ginger, Cardamom, Coriander, Cinnamon, Cloves, Black pepper, All natural flavors
And of course... All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. The information here is for educational use only.
Blended vs Pure Teas - References
Simple Test for Color Additives in Tea, World Tea News October 11, 2012, https://worldteanews.com/tea-industry-news-and-features/simple-test-for-color-additives-in-tea
2019 Advanced Biotech, Synthetic Aromatics, https://www.adv-bio.com/synthetic-aromatics/
Reductio ad absurdum Logic, Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/topic/reductio-ad-absurdum
Descartes (1596-1650) And The Cartesian Dogma Of A Mechanical Universe, https://www.holisticeducator.com/descartes.htm
RateTea.com, Additives in Tea, Jul. 19, 2017, https://ratetea.com/topic/additives-in-tea/80/
Interesting! I’ll probably be going through all the different teas we have on the shelf now trying to work out of they’re blends or pure now!
Loved the tips for choosing pure teas! Very useful and practical. I just need to go and buy some non-glass jars to store my tea 🤦🏽♀️