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Share a Cuppa: Flavoring Teas


Ever hear of a Tea Sommelier? Well, it has all the prestige of a wine sommelier and just as rare and respected – but for tea.

NAFFS was visited by a certified TAC Tea Sommelier professional during its 105th Annual Convention at the Resort at Longboat Key Club, Longboat Key, Fla. David Arnold spoke to the challenges and benefits of flavoring teas. Arnold, the tea and coffee buyer for TREATT, has made a career of sourcing tea and coffee – from procurement of raw materials to production planning for the Treattarome products.

His intensive study of tea has included countless sub-varieties based on where they’re produced and how each type is traditionally served. He’s also been trained on “cupping” –

the technical term for how the tea is prepared and tasted.

Arnold brought a full array of teas for tasting, including five varieties from lightest in taste and color to the darkest. Each attendee was offered a sample of each to help illustrate the differences described by Arnold throughout his presentation.

Arnold showed attendees how to evaluate the teas using the senses: eyes, nose and tongue. It starts by looking at the tea, he said, studying the color of the brewed tea and how the wet leaves look. Then the aroma of the tea and notes of the tea’s fragrance, which may or may not match up with the tea’s taste.

He offered his audience a basic 101 crash course on teas. True tea comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant, two leaves on a bud, he said. The highest-grade teas are made with high-grade leaves, fewer leaves per bud. Lower-grade teas use more leaves on the stem. Mass production today as it’s done in countries such as Argentina, doesn’t hand-pluck but uses harvesters dragging through the fields. Arnold said this reduces the quality of the tea but offers three, four or even five leaves per bud, making it an inexpensive option. He said it accounts for 80% of the tea used for iced tea production in U.S. because its taste is better cold.

Arnold told attendees about the ancient story of the origination of tea. “Legend has it tea was invented in the Chinese countryside,” he said. “Emperor Shen Nong, it is said, was the father of Chinese agriculture and while he was traveling and boiling water out on an open fire, leaves blew off a nearby tree into the water creating the first tea.”

From there, Arnold said, the original way to prepare tea leaves was to harvest them and leave them out on the floor to dry. Once the leaves withered and the moisture was out of the leaf, it could be collected. White teas, he said, are made with bud leaves and dried to stop oxidation. Today’s green tea goes a step further with a rolled pellet called Chinese gun powder, named for their resemblance to gun powder particles the shape of a small pea.

So Many Interesting Types of Teas!

Arnold identified six types of teas – black, oolong, green, yellow, white and pu-erh. Black tea is fully oxidized tea, among the most common consumed, he noted. Some are astringent, some are Chinese teaman without astringency.

Arnold said he has a personal favorite black tea called pu-erh tea (pronounced POO-air) and it’s the most oxidized form of tea, often aged, and sometimes very expensive. Unlike other teas, which get stale over time, pu-erh is fermented and can mellow and improve with age like fine wine. Some pu-erh teas are more than 50 years old and rare pu-erh teas sell for many thousands of dollars in Asian specialty stores. “It’s not for everyone, though,” Arnold cautioned. “It is an earthy, full-body tea it carrying a strong taste and mouthfeel sensation along with it.”

He walked the audience through the preparation stages from plant to tea ready for steeping. To be prepared for brewing, all six are first withered. The green and yellow teas are then fixed and shaped then dried (with yellow tea requiring the extra step of being heaped) while oolong and black enjoy rolling by machine and oxidation which involves taking off the leaf and using bamboo pans to shake it gently to break it up before going on to the drying step and the white tea is immediately dried. The only different step for pu-erh is fermentation.

When Arnold spoke more specifically about flavoring teas, he referenced the natural scenting of jasmine and chamomile as the tea leaf absorbs the natural oils from the flowers. “The process,” he said, “can be repeated three to five times until you are at the natural rich flavor and aroma sought.”

Blending is a popular method as a way to improve flavors of inexpensive teas. The lower-quality teas can be combined with dried herbs, flowers, dried fruit bits and spices. Added flavors dominate the tea, so specialty teas are not often flavored. “You don’t add a good cabernet to sangria,” he quipped.

Arnold talked about more specifics in the process. He said natural and artificial flavors are added to the brewed tea but that those flavors can be driven off from the heat during pasteurization. He said a work around is required once one sees it happening. He said his team has a number of options, including adding flavor to the brewed tea and allowing it to be pasteurized in the bottle to help keep the aromatics in there. Some stay in the nose but not in the taste. Honey apple crisp tea is a perfect example of something that has a higher aroma sometimes than an actual taste.

In another example harkening back to the comparison to wine, Arnold said “tea is not just a beverage” Arnold said. “But can be paired with so many different foods, depending on the type of tea.” Like wine. Teas paired with sweet food items like cookies and cakes or paired with savory items like cheese and meats. And finally, pu-erh tea, Arnold said, is great when paired with dark chocolate. Lapsang Souchong is black but dried over pinewood.

In addition to being paired with food, Arnold made it clear he sees tea also as an ingredient in food products. “Dried tea leaves are essentially an herb and should be used as such,” he said. He recommended the use of brewed tea as a partial or whole water replacement in recipes. The flavor of tea can be infused in butter, oils, salts, vegetable broths. He said he has seen it used well in marmalades and dressing. He showed a wide variety of cocktails to be made with teas, along with appetizers, entrees, desserts, cheese and chocolates. One example was using Matcha tea for smoothies, ice cream and baked goods for a special flavor. He said white tea is delicate and therefore overpowered easily. Green tea has a little more impact so you can go a little stronger flavor, as in ice cream. Oolong can be green to black and can add flavor to many food items. Black is strong and astringent offering a mouth-drying sensation. Earl Grey is less-so as the essential oils give it its character.

These teas take time to cultivate in the plant, requiring careful attention to the water and sunlight they receive. The expert will know when to pluck the leaves and how to prepare them to create the perfect herb to steep for tea.

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