Herbal and Flavored Tea Invasion
BY LYN LEVERETT
The smell of chamomile wafts through the air. The amber liquid pools in the cup. These are all signs that one is about to embark on the herbal or flavored tea experience. Herbal infusions and flavored tea have helped consumers discover the wonderful world of tea. Officially, a beverage can only be considered tea if it comes from the camellia sinensis plant. Therefore, a flavored tea is a combination of true tea leaves and flavoring, either artificial or natural. As Linda Smith from Divintea in Schenectady, New York notes, “An herbal infusion refers to a single herb or a blend of herbs, most often they are caffeine-free, infused in boiling water (steeped for 3-5 minutes or longer for fuller flavor). Flavored teas are true tea leaves, camellia sinensis, scented or flavored with either an essence or something like orange or lemon for flavor. Earl Grey is a scented or flavored tea which consists of scenting the leaves with the essence of Oil of Bergamot. Tisanes are often associated with their medicinal properties, for example drinking Chamomile for relaxation or to reduce stomach distress. Infusions and tisanes both may have medicinal properties as all herbs have some medicinal value.”
Where do master tea blenders acquire their ingredients? The majority of tea professionals either go directly to the source or have strong relationships with importers/exporters in origin countries. At Premier’s Tea India Ltd, as one could expect, tea is purchased from tea estates located in India and various flavors from various international companies based in India. Divinitea uses only organic ingredients in their blends, “Also we work indirectly with ForesTrade in Vermont, who bring into the U.S. very high quality organic herbs and spices. We source the world for the highest quality teas and herbs for all our teas. When available, we use ingredients grown in the U.S. like mints, lemon balm, chamomile, and more,” notes Linda Smith.
After choosing the ingredients, tea masters must decide what crazy concoctions to release to the consuming public. A very important consideration, in fact the first sensory experience a tea drinker encounters, is aroma. There seems to be a consensus in the tea industry that tea’s fragrance initiates a consumer to an almost sensual experience. Some tea masters use aroma as the blending starting point, “There is no sale of a scented or flavored tea without the distinct aroma or nose. It is the nose of the blend that lures the tea drinker to purchase the blend(s). This is how I determine the exactness of the blend is first through its nose/aroma and then the taste. If you can't get the aroma past your nose how are you going to drink it? If it smells bad to the customer, they won't buy it. There is an exception to this rule when we look into teas for health. I think people will drink anything if they can be assured of better health as a result. Test marketing Green Rooibos is an example. Many customers were originally turned off by the smell (similar to fresh cut hay or grass) but when they heard more about the anti-oxidants far out weighing green tea, then they wanted more and more of it,” reflects Smith.
Smell is not the only thing that matters, tea makers are savvy, they study trends in lifestyles and health to help develop their newest flavors. At Demmer Tea in Vienna, Austria, “Either customers, our franchise partners or our employees give us ideas and we create them and then let a selected group of customers taste and rate them before bringing the new infusion onto the market,” notes Peter Sunley. Numi Tea in California goes straight to the source, “As the founders of the company speak a combined seven languages, our first introduction to an herbal or tea is usually from the source, not from a marketing brochure at a trade show,” says Francis Aviani, marketing director. In addition, Numi considers cultural impact as well as flavor, “As we begin our research, our first point of interest is whether it is unique to the U.S. market. With the infinite number of herbals in the world, we enjoy the opportunity to celebrate the world’s herbal diversity. It follows then that our second consideration is for the culture and tradition that the herb comes from. As a growing company, we have to consider how the increase in demand for the herb will help support the culture it comes from.” Jim Harron, Jr. of Simpson and Vail Tea in Connecticut notes, “One way is by watching trends in other beverage markets. We also experiment a lot.” Another aspect to consider when developing a new infusion is market trends. Recently rooibos and honey bush have penetrated the market, but other factors contribute to new blends. Linda Smith of Divinitea addresses the health benefits of herbals, “Since the increased interest in female issues and anti-oxidants I blend teas for these markets like African Elixir, very high in anti-oxidants, trace minerals and isoflavones.” At Numi, “Lemon Myrtle, as found in our Sweet Meadows Chamomile Lemon Myrtle blend, is definitely a hot herb on the market. We’ve had a few people call us looking to source our Dry Desert Lime, so this may be on the cusp of a trend as well.”
After years of perfecting blends, top tea manufacturers have loyal customers with favorite flavors. There’s the standard Earl Grey, Lemon, and Chai. But there is no limit to the imagination when popular flavors on the market include Dry Desert Lime, Red Mellow Bush Rooibos, and Bushmen’s Brew Honeybush.
After the tasty brew has been developed, the correct packaging must be used to ensure taste does not deteriorate. Fresh is best, but when a product must sit on a shelf, there are a few options for making sure that flavor does not breakdown. Tea industry members have to consider many factors in maintaining freshness. They have to store it correctly before blending, preferably in a cool, dark, and dry. Another consideration is the size of the lot purchased, tea makers have to be very aware of the demand for their product. An overabundance will mean that raw materials (e.g. leaves, herbs) sit around collecting dust. “Herbs have a shelf life and how they are stored and when they get used is crucial. Buying what you need and batch sizes that get used immediately is the issue. Herbs will loose flavor when exposed to heat, light and moisture. We buy smaller quantities so everything is always fresh. Buying large lots is only good if you can use them up quickly and store them properly. Everything is stored in dark, cool and dry storage,” notes Linda Smith. Jim Harron, Jr. of Simpson and Vail confirms the importance of proper storage, “If not stored properly (in the dark, airtight containers, cool place) the flavor dissipates over time.” This is not to say that herbals have no shelf life, “Normally, all or most flavors do last for 18 months without much degradation in the quality of flavor,” observes Santanu Acharya of Premier’s Tea India Ltd. Francis Aviani of Numi Tea agrees, “As a product of nature, any plant form and essence will be broken down over time. However, if sealed in a tight, darkened container, it can maintain its freshness for more than 18 months. However, the real reason for the flavor breakdown of most herbs in teabags is that they are the cheapest and lowest grade part of the herb (the stalk, flowers, or roots, depending on which part of the herb is at the lowest premium.) Then flavored oils are added with the “flavored essence” that the herb should have to begin with. For instance, in Lemongrass, the higher up the stalk, the more “grassy” the flavor is.”
Besides storage, packaging is pivotal in preserving taste and aroma. Most experts agree that the best storage is loose tea in a tin, but that is not always an option. “Some teas; bags or loose in cartons, paper or plastic, not in tins, will only have a prolonged shelf life if you put them immediately into colored glass jars with a very tight seal or air tight tins for ultimate freshness. These containers can give the teas a very long shelf life. I have dragon pearls scented with jasmine that are five years old and still exquisite because they are so ideally stored. Not that we suggest you keep them this long but this is an experiment ongoing to determine the longevity of this particular variety of tea,” notes Linda Smith. Numi Tea prefers a foil wrapper, “The best way to package an herbal is in a dark, foiled, sealed envelope.”
Ingredients, aroma, storage and packaging are all factors for a perfect cup of herbal or flavored tea. If one thing is missing, the whole experience will be ruined.
Tea & Coffee - November/December 2002
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