Siam Tea Blog

Single Variety, Single Origin, Single Picking Tea vs. Blend – A Question of Attitude

Single variety Indian black teas on display

Not only as tea drinkers we are acquainted with the term ‘Blend’. Blend means mixture and is presented as a quality feature on a range of products from the luxury and semi-luxury food sector, apart from tea such as on coffee or tobacco. When I think back of the time, when I knew tea only from supermarket shelves, I remember labelings such as ‘Ceylon-Assam Blend’, ‘Darjeeling Blend’, ‘English Blend’. What I do not remember is ever having perceived such terms as relevant quality features of a tea. For one part, I perceived them as euphonious phrases created by marketing psychologists, for another part I suspected some subject-specific background behind them that would not reveal to me due to my evident lack of knowledge. Today, I know that both perceptions weren’t completely wrong, only that for me as a passionate pure tea lover, the euphony of the term blend has suffered some serious damage.

Jin Mao Hue Golden Monkey - single variety, single origin, single picking periodJin Mao Hue Golden Monkey – The World in a Teacup

The World in a Teacup

‘The World in a Teacup’ is an ancient Chinese philosophic take on tea that will reveal its meaning to the most of us – tea lovers – immediately in an emotional way and without even thinking about it. The tea in our cup – or the leaves from which we prepared it –  is metaphorized as a mirror image of all nature and its underlying cosmic principle: just as simple and at the same time indefinitely complex, just as inconspicious and at the same time indefinitely beautiful, just as fragile and at the same time of eternal permanence. For many tea lovers – all those for who tea is more than just the superficially perceived taste on the palate – this is what makes their favorite beverage and medium stand out from the mass of alleged luxury and/or semiluxury foods and qualifies tea as the vehicle of their personal passion.

Sencha Gokuijo - single variety, single region of origin, single picking periodSencha Gokuijo – The World in a Teacup

Taking a tea for what it is

As passionate tea lovers, our senses and perception embrace a much greater realm than only the physically experienced impression of flavor. The information we have available about a tea, such as its country and/or place of origin, the backdrop and history of that particular type or cultivar, a producer’s family tradition, known characteristics of its cultivation and/or processing, and many factors more coalesce to form a complex mosaic, whose total impression in turn shows a comparably simple picture, corresponding to the perceived ‘simple’ character of tea. The more familiar we become with a tea, the better we will be able to assign its flavor and aromatic nuances and impressions to individual pieces and groups of pieces in the mosaic and identify its overall visual, olfactory and taste impression with the total picture formed by all pieces. In a manner of speaking, all information pertaining to a tea forms the identity of that tea. The claim or thesis raised here is that only a tea that comes with such authentic identy, i. e. an identy that is formed by the natural factors of that tea’s creation, can indeed reflect and convey ‘the world in a teacup’.

Spring Imperial Mt. Wudong Song Variety Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid) Phoenix Dancong Oolong Tea - single variety, single origin, single seasonSpring Imperial Mt. Wudong Song Variety Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid) Phoenix Dancong Oolong Tea – as the name already says: single variety, single origin and from the same picking period

What is a Blend?

In the true sense of the word, a blend for once is nothing but a mixure. This sounds innocent, and it sounds like refinement. The avised goal with blends is always the realization of a given taste profile derived from the demand on the (mass) market, in such way that this taste will be reproducable independent of seasons, year, individual tea gardens and to some degree even of specific types of tea. In a way, this is also about creating identity, only that with blends identity is not created by natural processes, but instead planned by market strategists, and it doesn’t take place in the tea garden or during processing, but at a much later point in the value chain.

Single variety, single origin / garden, single picking / picking period tea versus tea blend : slide

The sense behind the creation of such homogenously amd consistently reproducable tea blends is obvious: the end customer is to be given the chance to identify a specific tea that has been recognized as well-tasting once and keep returning for that tea at any time in the future, with the so identified tea always (widely) showing the same taste. To this end, the artificially created identity of a blend allows for this blend’s homogeneity and consistence across batches, seasons and years, a property that is generally embraced by the market, both on the trader and the consumer side. However, as we will see in the following, as a lover of tea in terms of ‘the world in a teacup’ you might just as well develop a completely different perspective on this!

The ultimate fate of most mass tea blends – the tea bagThe ultimate fate of most mass tea blends – the tea bag

Blends can be created on several level of blending:

  • On the uppermost level (or the lowermost one, just like everything else a matter of perspective), teas of different type and origin are blended that often have no more in common than their affiliation with one of the classic categories ‘green tea’ or ‘black tea’. On this level, any identity of the blend’s ingredient teas gained in a natural way gets inevitably lost, i. e. the resulting blend may taste well, but ‘the world in a teacup’…. certainly is something else. Examples for this would be typical mass teas, as we find in the shelves of super- and dicounter markets – mostly in the form of indifferent, shredded leaf and stem material, whose lack of identity is supposedly made up for by convenient portioning in a ‘clean’ and ‘consumer-friendly’ tea bag.
  • On the next level of blending, teas of a single variety or cultivar and thereby in most cases also of identical geographic origin, but from different tea gardens and seasons and/or picking cycles are blended. The homogeneity of variety or cultivar and the natural sets of properties and resulting information coming with that will create some degree of natural identity for such blends, or better: preserve some of the natural identity of its ingredient teas. We refer to such tea as ‘single variety’. Single variety teas will already represent an essential part of the ‘world in a teacup’. However, given the quite limited wealth of facettes (‘mosaic pieces’) of the total picture that faintly starts to evolve, this is still a relatively small part of the world, or a quite simplied perspective on the same that is stripped by a whole range of dimensions.
  • On the next level of blending, tea leaves from one single tea garden, estate or areal (in the case of wild collection), but from different pickings or picking periods (as well as leaf grade, if any) are blended. This way, another identity factor is added to the single variety property, namely that of a particular tea garden. The world in our cup is growing and gaining complexity. At the same time, the contours of the total picture formed by the mosaic pieces is gaining sharpness. We refer to such a tea as ‘single garden’ or ‘single origin’. We find very good examples for single garden or single origin blends in India, where there are only very large tea gardens (‘tea estates’) that often blend teas from different picking periods (as well as different picking standards, where applicable) to a ‘pleasant’-tasting and at the same time inexpensive blend.
  • A tea is single picking, if it is not blended from different pickings, but made from tea leaves of the same picking cycle. Single picking tea will in most cases also be single garden. However, there also are blends that are blended from tea leaves of the same picking or picking period, but from different tea gardens of similar geographical origin. The resulting blend is then single picking, but not single garden, though it might be single origin in a wider sense. Typical examples for such single variety, single picking and single origin teas that are not single garden, would be our Japanese Teas at Siam Tea Shop, which are all single variety and respresentative of a specific picking cycle (e. g. spring picking for high grade Kabusecha or Gyokuro teas, summer for our ‘Sencha Natsu’ = ‚Sencha of the summer‘ or autumn for most of our Bancha teas), but can come from different individual locations and tea gardens in the same region. As opposed to this, all of our teas from north Thailand as well as a large number of our Chinese teas at Siam Tea Shop are fully single variety, single picking and single garden, meaning they were picked from the same tea cultivar in the same tea garden on the same day or within just several days.

Zhejiang Imperial High Mountain Mao Feng Green Tea - single variety, single garden, single pickingZhejiang Imperial High Mountain Mao Feng Green Tea – single variety, single garden, single picking

Single Variety, Single Garden/Origin and Single Picking Tea vs. Blend – A Matter of Attitude

Let’s recap, we refer to a tea as ‘single variety, if its leaves are picked from the same tea plant variety. Where these tea plants are growing in the same tea garden, estate or areal, the tea is additionally referred to as single garden and/or single origin, and where the leaves have been picked in the same picking or picking period, it can also be referred to as single picking. A completely natural way of becoming – and thereby a completely natural identity that lives up to the complexity and holistic requirements of ‘the world in a teacup’ – can only be attributed to a tea that combines all three features: single variety, single origin, and single picking period, at the least.

When in the beginning I said that single variety, single origin and/or single picking are quality features of a tea, there is now – after clarifying those terms – another requirement for explanation arising: which of the mentioned properties is actually good, better or less good, compared to a state of their absence respectively? The answer to this question – like so many things in the world of tea – is actually not a matter of taste, but much rather a matter of attitude. As for attitude, in a perfect world everyone’s free to adopt and nurture one of their own, with even volumes of discussing them not making a single point in terms of ranking them on a good-better-less good scale. However, there is one point I’d still like to make. In the end of the day, the world won’t obey to people, but exclusively to the laws of nature. Whoever aims at having a proper reflection of it – with all of its complexity and at the same time simplicity, and with all of its multifacettedness and constant change – in their teacup, might therfore be well advised not getting an all too limited version of it. For those, on the other hand, for who good taste on the palate is a sufficient qualification for their tea, the term Blend might retain its unspoilt euphony, combined with the guarantee of consistent homogeneity that defies the world’s natural changeability.

Wild Zheng Shan Jin Jun Mei - single variety, single origin, single seasonWild Zhengshan Jin Jun Mei – single variety, single origin, single picking

The benefits of a blend are obvious: the tea will taste as expected, across all packages and batches, seasons and years, unless the desirable flavor changes due to new taste trends and developments on the consumer market. In this case, the blend might either be adopted to such changes, or a new blend is created and offered in parallel to the original blend (such as for example ‘Classic Blend’ vs. ‘Y2K Blend’). Also, the blend principle allows for virtually infinite diversification. After all, there is not just one desirable taste that can be realized by means of blending, but an indefinite number of such. Seen with respect to the omnipresent growth and thereby diversification pressure on the modern market, this certainly makes the creation and sale of tea blends boldly tempting.

Wild Yunnan Golden Tips - single variety, single origin, single pickingWild Yunnan Golden Tips – single variety, single origin, single picking

The alleged disadvantages of single variety, single origin, single picking teas are logically arising from the above mentioned benefit of blends, namely the latters’ homogeneity and consistence over time. Single variety teas, and even more so teas that are additionally single origin and single picking, are coming with just about the opposite: taste, fragrance, visual appearance and other properties will not only change from day to day of picking, from one picking period to another and from year to year, but in fact will show differences even on the same picking day and in the same tea garden, virtually from one corner of that tea garden to another. Different soil, different lighting and shadowing patterns, different time of day, different incline and different angle of incidence of the sunlight, different pheripheral vegetation, all these and more are factors that can make a perceivable difference for a tea picked in the same tea garden on the same day. Years, seasons and picking periods, as well as different leaf grades and picking standards additionally contribute to ultimately sabotaging the homogeneity and consistence of a single varitey, single origin, single picking tea across time. If you buy a package of DMS Si Ji Chun Four Seasons Oolong today and fall in love with this tea, you might be disappointed when stocking up the same tea a few months later. Or maybe, you’ll like that tea bought a few months later ever better! Or perhaps, you’ll like them both, each of them for what it is, for its own individual natural identity.

Zi Sun Cha Green Tea - single variety, single garden, single picking periodSpring High Mountain Premium Zi Sun Cha Green Tea – single variety, single origin, single picking

The world in a book shelve

When it comes to delimit the quality of a (well tasting) mass teas against that of an (also well tasting) single variety, single origin, single picking ‘artisan’ tea, I love to refer to a comparison with a book shelve… A book shelve can be machine-prduced from press board with a laminate displaying a perfectly natural looking oak or mahagony grain imitate. This book shelve might actually be good looking. It might also display a functional design and flawless workmanship, so that it altogher both pleases the eye and fulfills its purpose. However, another book shelve could be manually crafted by a carpenter from massive oak or mahagony wood. Also this book shelve could be good looking. And also this book shelve can display a functional design and flawless workmanship, so that it altogether both pleases the eye and fulfills its purpose. And although both book shelves – from a superficial perspective – might even look completely similar and fulfill the same functional purpose with similar excellence, we will still rate the value of the second book shelve as much higher as that of the first one. On the market, this perceived difference will clearly be reflected in different prices, so that the one book shelve might cost only USD29.90, while the other might not be available below USD 800, or so. Now, what exactly is or makes this difference, and what it means if applied to our tea is something that I’d love to leave to the reader for contemplation, with the aim of motivating you to reflect and possibly recreate your personal value concept of tea. As a little finger post, though, I’d like to remind you once more of that little metapher repeatedly quoted in my above deliberations: ‘The World in a Teacup’, or: the world in a book shelve. As I said, it’s all a question of attitude!

Sencha GokuijoSencha Gokuijo – single variety, single origin, single season

You will find single variety, single origin/single garden and single picking and/or single picking period teas from north Thailand, China and Japan in Siam Tea Shop