Blending, a two dimensional art entering the fourth dimension
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
When I started in the tea industry, the art or science (if some are to be believed) of blending was focused on consistent product outturn; making sure that the black tea blend, favoured by millions, remained the same cup after cup. After all, a customer, drinking only one type of tea and from only one brand, in the same water, brewed the same way and from the same drinking vessel, in the same space (therefore similar light conditions) and with the same additions (milk, sugar) is a very discerning QC point.
Hence, most systems addressed the sensitivities of the consumer by measuring physical parameters important to the cup: the visual appearance of the brew, the taste, the body and the briskness. Every tea would be judged under these criteria, usually numerically, and then a mathematical weighted average blend of these would produce the physical blend sheet providing the consistency required. Not rocket science I grant you, but it required highly trained palates to be able to discern nuanced differences in tannic levels between two Kenya teas, or astringency between two Uvas or levels of "crop" between two Assams . So, what has changed? The advent of specialty teas happened many moons ago but the explosion of the category and the poetic licence given to "Tea" changed the ability of a system and skill set, focused on black tea, to remain relevant. Of course, replicating quality by SKU is still important but it has taken a back seat to the delivery of differentiated impactful flavour through the introduction of botanical species (other than Camellia sinensis) among other flavouring agents.
In a 35 year span, my personal exposure, changed from 1 to over 40 botanicals plus a plethora of flavours that were not even on my radar, that age ago.
This shift has introduced the need for a new evaluation metric, for blending. No longer are liquors ranging from golden to deep amber, they could now be dull and green or brilliant and fuschia. And on flavour, instead of teas ranging from brisk, pungent and floral to malty, gutty and rounded, we have spice , lemon, berry, earthy and vegetative to name but a few AND, more extraordinarily, these are desired profiles rather than descriptors of taints or the product of faulty manufacture.
So palates are retrained both in the new botanicals and their values for which new scales have to be imagined and introduced; scoring systems are reinvented. No longer simple mathematical certainty; whereas a numerical range for judging the intensity of colour in black teas can be assumed to be blend-able ( ie a score of 2 blended in equal parts with a score of 4 will result in a tea of 3 for colour) there is no such logic for mixing actual variances in spectral colour, a vivid cherry red Hibiscus blended in equal parts with a less intense bronze chicory is not visually represented proportionately in the final cup (just watch the colours injected into your pot of "Nantucket grey" paint, next time you are at the hardware store).
These differences ae manifested when one looks at all the sensory criteria that matter to the Consumer and from a manufacturing angle too. Whereas tea produced for a teabag market from either orthodox or CTC manufacture fall within a similar structure, from a shape and density standpoint, as soon as we introduce botanicals that stem from other plant parts (including roots, seeds, fruits and barks) we change everything. Whereas, the ability to blend could be gauged by density alone now this certainty has been undermined by shape, flowability, static, sugar content and others.
Now, every individual ingredient has a new set of laws that govern what it can be blended with or indeed, no rules at all (attractive to some) engaging artistic flair rather than logic to determine success, a method that can and has delivered exciting new products for consumers but also delivers a world of less consistency which may, indeed, not matter (a whole different topic for discussion later)!
Had the world of development stopped here it would have been exciting enough but the desire for functionality, from tea, has driven a widening of blending parameters to include the efficacious impacts of one ingredient on another, such as the positive impact of piperine from pepper on the absorption of curcumin from Turmeric, or indeed the negative impacts of ingredient combinations, both extending the necessity of blending beyond individual physical and sensory impacts. This overarching desire for health has unfortunately, at times, relegated flavour to a second class of parameter, somewhat of a nod to the old adage "if it tastes awful then it must be doing you good!"
Having spent more years than I care to admit to in this field, I have had to make these adaptations within systems and my own psyche and it is no easy feat, particularly if (being brutally honest) you believe that the use of "tea" should only describe infused beverages that put naturally derived flavour foremost! So as the final frontier (in my imagination) is reached, with an emphasis on mental health products (not a new concept of course, many eastern philosophies follow this path to wellness) the matrix complexes further as does my unease.
Working with a talented young organization, Clover botanicals www.enjoyclover.com , forced me to shelve my misgivings and sent me back to school (remotely of course!!) to consider the complexity of delivering on this new need, mental and physical wellbeing, while keeping the non-negotiable, "got to taste great!" in tact. The output of this year long process in which the owners were thoroughly immersed, is a delightful range of products that deliver more than I could have hoped. To me the trick to the process of development and blending to this multi-faceted ask is an acknowledgment that there is no one system that can do all this but that a systemic approach is still required with measurements being more critical for factors such as available active ingredients not just the residence of them within raw ingredients used and that sensory is going to rely more heavily on the organic process of cupping and experience as well as the input of consumers (how novel!) and the introduction of yet more botanicals.
Looking back on a journey, from singular species blending for a singular need (consistency) to an "anything goes" formulation process in an attempt to answer a growing number of consumer needs, not that much has changed. We still require logic to be applied and we still require well honed palates and experience to ensure that the pragmatic engineering of a systemic approach does not take the delight away from the in cup experience because, whatever we try to add to the virtues of drinking "tea" it better taste great!!