I read a post titled Tea Blends on the Taste of Tea Blog which got me thinking about the distinction between single-origin (single-region or single-estate) and single-harvest teas, and blends. Among die-hard tea enthusiasts there seems to be a general impression that "blends are bad". At least as far as my own opinion is concerned, I think that this is not the most constructive way of looking at things. It's a generalization that glosses over what I think are some of the more true and useful distinctions.
"Generic" And Low-Quality Blends:
Some tea companies seem to bolster their offerings by throwing together a large number of flavored teas, using a low-quality black or green tea, using the same base tea for each blend, and often using essential oils or even artificial flavorings rather than whole ingredients. Suffice it to say, if you're criticizing these sorts of flavored teas, I'm with you on this one. These would be the bad blends.
Blending to Uniformity:
Another type of blending is that which happens in big companies like Unilever, which owns Lipton, PG Tips, and a distressing number of other tea brands. Teas are blended in order to maintain a consistency of flavor. It's the McDonaldsification of tea: it always tastes the same. These would be the boring blends.
Boring is not always bad: some of the teas coming out of the Unilever complex and other big corporate behemoths can be pretty good. But, deep down, there's something artificial about them: tea isn't meant to always taste the same. Weather changes from year to year, and taste changes as you sample tea from different regions. Each batch is different and it takes a lot of effort and energy to make them taste the same. So in principle, I am also not a fan of this type of blending...it seems like wasted energy, doing a lot to achieve something which, in my opinion, is not a good thing.
The final, and in my opinion, best type of blending is when the blending is done as an art. Obviously, these are the good blends These blends often have whole ingredients such as spices, herbs, or dried fruits, and they often involve traditional scenting methods such as the repeated scenting with jasmine blossoms used to produce jasmine tea. Artful blends have carefully chosen base-teas, chosen to mesh well with the other ingredients or flavorings used in the blend. Tea-only blends, if artful, are blended to highlight the unique qualities of the ingredient teas, not blend-out certain characteristics. In short, they're blended to be interesting rather than uniform.
There is nothing inherently wrong with blends. I find across-the-board criticism of tea blending to be baseless: what really matters is how and why the blending is carried out. Rather than going around criticizing blends we could be focusing on the companies that are artfully blending teas, especially those that are blending single-origin teas in such a way that highlights their unique characteristics.
I will probably always prefer pure teas and pure herbal teas, as I like to get to the bottom of learning which tastes and aromas are which. But I think blending can be an art and I want to encourage people to think positively about it.