Black tea’s popularity has been bolstered by the myriad flavors tea companies are incorporating into the once traditional tea. Yet creating a good blend still begins with a high quality black tea.
It is easy to get the impression that black tea is a little passé, with reliable standard names and blends, but not part of the attention-grabbing innovation trends—especially those that center on health and capturing the interest of millennials.
Much of tea marketing and online discussions are signposts: “This way for new flavors”, “Matcha à la mode along here,” “Millennials! These are for you.” In recent years, the signposts have pointed to green teas, matcha, turmeric, bubble, kombucha, cheese tea, cold brew, and wellness teas, and even tea and booze infusions.
There’s one signpost that is a little weather-beaten and points to sideroads: “Flavored black teas: high quality, value buys.” It’s worth following its path. These flavored black teas constitute a growing range of products whose essence is captured in Upton Tea’s summary:
“Exotic flavors add an extra dimension of complexity to a quality black tea base.”
Call these quality flavored black teas, “QFBTs” for short. Here are representative examples from twelve providers: Lemon Drop (Tao of Tea), Rose Scented (Harney & Sons), Vanilla Almond (Republic of Tea), Cherry Black (Indonique), Cramberry Orange (Frontier), Orange Peel (Kushmi Tsarevna), Hibiscus (Adagio Teas), Cacao Mint (Teavana), Black Current Breeze (Twinings), Pineapple (Hawaiian Islands), and Mixed Berry Black (Arbor Teas). And, of course, there are multiple Earl Greys and Masala Chais.
A distinctive feature of black tea is the fullness and range of flavors that it can absorb and enhance. For green teas, innovations tend to be through lighter enhancements of herbs and flowers. The new black tea products are marked by fruits. The words that satisfied customers use to describe them relate to their exotic piquancy: tartness/sweetness combinations (marked in such citrus flavors as lemon, orange and grapefruit), zest, boldness and, most of all, smoothness. Rose buds and hibiscus are becoming the equivalent of jasmine and chamomile among green teas in that they are distinctive, aromatic and hold their flavors well.
There is a parallel line of generally higher priced QFBT development in the tradition of the elite French teas, which offer very complex tastes often using chocolate, caramel, and almonds. Also used is the decidedly exotic citrus flavor of yuzu, which is “incredibly fragrant, but also super sour and tart” and definitely not an herbal candidate but a zinger black option.
The smoothness and complexity that determine the appeal of the piquant blends can come only from a quality black tea base. Many of the world’s growing regions, such as Kenya, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Assam, competed in the global export markets for decades on the basis of price, through CTC (cut, tear, curl) production with high use of pesticides and fertilizers, frequent labor exploitation and declining yields. This production through environmental and labor exploitation has reached its limits and every one of these countries is recognizing that it must move to “premiumization.” Much of this shift is to produce green tea for the expanding millennial and wellness markets. Kenya matcha is a somewhat curious but indicative instance.
QFBTs provide an alternate path for innovation that builds on existing black tea practices, factory equipment and supply chain coordination to create higher price and growth opportunities. It rescues growers from being trapped in the dust and fannings commodity business, whose erosion has been marked over the past decade. Tea markets are moving towards a preference for interesting flavors over bland or bitter bagged dust and fannings. Or, they switch to coffee. In either instance, “value” now begins with natural flavor.
A quality CTC or blend of whole leaf is the base for making a differentiated QFBT. It doesn’t have to be the ultra-individualized excellence of the great Darjeelings, Keemun Mao Feng, or Assam and Sri Lanka estates. Most QFBTs list as their ingredient source of origin just the country. Sri Lanka is the most common, with its history of rich and full orange pekoe grade tea. Nilgiri CTCs add to the cost and quality choices. China’s giant Baoshan Changninghong Tea company is the largest provider of fine CTC Yunnan black to such other giants as Twinings.
These base teas offer growers stronger prices through premiumization and for blenders an affordable high-quality base. Consumers gain interesting well-made teas.
And they have plenty of choices beyond Earl Grey.