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Understanding Tea Blends

Beginner’s Guide to Four Classic Blends

Tea blending became popular in the 1800s as teas grown in countries besides China became available. Indian and Ceylonese black teas were often blended to suit the taste of customers at such shops as Twinings on the Strand in London.

America’s taste for tea blends has been heavily influenced by the British market. Although our thirst for independence has brought about a more adventurous attitude toward tea in recent years, many of the most popular blends found on American tea menus remain flavored by British tradition. When it comes to blending, there are no standardized recipes. Every tea purveyor creates blends to suit their palate and the tastes of their customers.

Here is my beginner’s guide to four classic blends that are commonly found on both sides of the Atlantic.

Men weighing coffee beans
The Twining Tea Shop London

English Breakfast

The British have always liked a robust strong tea to wake them up in the morning, and English Breakfast blends have traditionally been made up of teas that give a rich flavor and a dark coppery color. The blend often consisted of malty Assam black teas, brisk Sri Lankan teas, and strong Kenyan grades that all combine to perfection with the addition of milk. Many American tea blenders use China Keemun teas exclusively as a base for English Breakfast. Keemun teas are known for their rich earthiness and can be drunk with or without milk.

Irish Breakfast

The average daily consumption of tea in Ireland is 4.5 cups, one of the highest rates in the world. Irish blends are very strong and dark, similar to English Breakfast but with a greater portion of Kenyan Broken Pekoe grades and malty black teas from Assam. Of course, Irish Breakfast blends are made for the addition of milk.

Afternoon Tea Blend

Most tea importers’ catalogs, British or American, will include a lighter blend that is perfect when accompanied by light sandwiches or sweets at the afternoon tea table. Some are made up of just Sri Lankan Orange Pekoe grade teas; others are composed of a medley of Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiris that give an all-Indian flavor; and a few combine teas from both Sri Lanka and India. The blender’s aim is to create a tea that complements, rather than masks, the delicate flavor of the afternoon tea meal.

Earl Grey

The most popular and well-known flavored blend in the world, Earl Grey is a blend of any black tea and oil of bergamot. Not to be confused with the common American herb of the same name, bergamot oil is derived from a citrus tree found in the Ivory Coast, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. This essential oil is one of the most widely used in the perfumery industry and the name is derived from the Italian city Bergamoy, where the oil was first sold. Several stories, all of which relate to Earl Grey who was British prime minister from 1830 to 1834, have developed over the years to explain the origin of this famous tea, but it is impossible to know if any of them are true.

Contemporary tea blenders have concocted countless variations of this popular blend, including Lady Grey, Duchess Grey, Dorian Grey, Lavender Earl Grey, Yorkshire Earl Grey, Rooibos Grey, and more.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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