Flavouring Teas

Many of the most popular teas in the world are flavoured, but properly flavouring teas requires a deep understanding and a lot of skill.

By Scott Svihula

Some of the world’s most popular teas are flavoured, such as Earl Grey and Tropical. A lot of skill is required to understand how the addition of flavour will impact the cup so as not to overpower the essence of the tea flavour.

In different parts of the world, flavoured teas can be referred to as flavoured, scented or perfumed teas. In the United States, perfumed teas have a negative connotation, while scented and flavoured teas have two different meanings. Confusion arises when discussing jasmine tea. This is because jasmine can be made both as a scented tea and as a flavoured tea. In fact, just about every scented tea has its counterpart in the flavour world.

Flavoured teas are teas in which a flavouring agent is added to the tea. There are two main types of flavouring available for use with tea leaves: liquid flavour and dry or encapsulated (controlled release) flavour. Liquid flavouring (including emulsions) are the most common type used to flavour tea. Flavouring types are further broken down into category types:

  • Natural (NAT, WONF, Type): Defined substance contained by substance appropriate physical, microbiological or enzymatic processes from a foodstuff or material of vegetable or animal origin as such as after processing by food processes.
  • Artificial (ART): Flavouring substance, not yet substance identified in a natural product intended for human consumption, either processed or not (as defined by Gary Reineccious in Flavour Chemistry and Technology.)
  • Natural & Artificial (N&A): A combination of both natural and artificial components as stated above. Most notably, the carrying agents are artificial (these evaporate during processing); while the main flavour components are natural.
  • Natural Identical (NI): Flavouring substance obtained by synthesis or isolated through chemical processes from a natural aromatic raw material and chemically identical to a substance present in natural products intended for human consumption, either processed or not (per Flavour Chemistry and Technology) This category of flavouring substance does not exist in the US, and products that use this type of flavour (primarily from Europe) must be labelled artificial.

Natural vs. Artificial Flavours

There has been great debate about natural and artificial flavours. Natural and artificial flavours aren’t as different in chemical composition as you might expect. What’s different is the source. The distinction is based on how the flavour was made, more than what it actually contains. Natural and artificial flavours sometimes contain the same chemicals but were produced through different processes.

For example, when amyl acetate, which provides the dominate note of banana flavour, is distilled from actual bananas with a solvent, it is a natural flavour. However, if it is produced by mixing vinegar with amyl alcohol and adding a sulphuric acid as a catalyst, the amyl acetate is an artificial flavour. Either way, it smells and tastes like bananas. An artificial strawberry flavour may contain the same individual substances as a natural one, but the ingredients come from a source other than a strawberry.

The other debate is that natural flavours are healthier or purer. However, this is not necessarily the case. Benzaldehyde, which provides the flavour of almonds derived from natural sources, such as peach or apricot pits, may contain traces of hydrogen cyanide, a lethal poison. Natural flavours can also contain Big 8 Allergens, as well.

Scented Teas

Scented teas are teas that naturally absorb the scent (aroma and taste) of another substance without the application of a flavouring agent. The tea’s botanical structure makes it hygroscopic and easily absorbs the moisture and aromas that surround it. The Chinese are known for their scented teas. Origin-authentic teas like jasmine, rose and Lapsang Souchong impart their flavour upon the leaf via the scented method. Though many believe that only low grade or common teas are used for scenting, there are many highly prized scented teas that are far from being inferior or inexpensive. Scented teas became most popular in Chinese tea culture during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

One of the processes used to scent teas with floral notes is to take the tea from the final firing and pour it onto a bed about two inches high, then a layer of freshly plucked flowers is strewn over the tea. This process is repeated several times. The tea and the flowers are left for a period of time, typically overnight, during which time the tea takes on the subtle aroma and flavour of the flower. Many different flowers can be used to scent the tea in this manner, most notably jasmine — however, rose, magnolia and gardenia are also used. For a stronger aroma and taste, the flowers can be changed out several times with newly plucked flowers and/or mixed in with the tea.

Another popular scented tea is Lapsang Souchong, sometimes referred to as smoked tea. This tea is processed around pine or cypress wood fires. The smoke penetrates the tea, imparting the wonderful “campfire” flavour and aroma. Often the tea is hung in baskets in the final stage of drying above these fires where the smoke rises. However, other methods such as withering around these fires have been used as well.

The Global Tea Championship (GTC) judges several flavoured and scented tea categories annually. GTC is an independent competition that evaluates and distinguishes the highest quality and best-tasting specialty teas. Over the last couple of years there has been a trend towards using more natural flavours, but natural and artificial (N&A) flavours are still the predominant flavour type. The GTC gold, silver, and bronze medal winners will be showcasing their award-winning flavoured teas during World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada, 12-14 June at the Winner’s Tasting Circle. Additionally, World Tea Expo offers several courses where attendees receive hands-on training on how to properly blend and flavour teas: World Tea Academy Live! and Skill Building Workshop: The Ins and Outs of Scenting, Blending & Flavouring Teas.

Consumers Seek Flavour

In the end, the old standby flavours are just as popular today as they have been over the years, yet modern day consumers are looking to expand their flavour options. A Nielsen survey found that the primary reason customers choose the tea they drink is because of flavour. This is even more important than price or tea-base used. Additionally, millennials had an even higher preponderance for flavour being their main reason for choosing a particular tea. While natural flavours are getting a lot of attention today, the survey found, this ranked as the sixth reason for tea consumers as a whole, and fourth for the millennial consumer.

Some of the more popular new flavours on the market today do a great job of pairing exotic flavours with more well-known flavours. This can be seen in teas like Kai Organic Tea’s Maqui Berry Green, which won a Global Tea Championship silver medal for Flavoured Green in 2017, or China Mist’s Watermelon Marula Iced Tea. More recently, we are starting to see teas that are taking their cue from the kitchen, offering flavour profiles of a more culinary nature; like Tea Sip’s Cowboy Breakfast and Amaretto Biscotti.

Scott Svihula is a tea expert, Global Tea Championship evaluator and founder of Orlando, Florida-based Hula Consulting, an independent tea consultancy. To learn more about Svihula’s business, visit hulaconsulting.com. To learn more about the Global Tea Championship or World Tea Expo, visit teachampionship.com and worldteaexpo.com.

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