TeaSource Operations Manager, Michael, gives us candid insight into how tea blends are devised, created, and executed at our warehouse. The process isn’t as glamorous as you might think...
With the release of our new spring blends, I was asked to write a blog about what goes into making a tea blend. I was specifically asked what makes them “special?” Tea blends are difficult and usually encourage creative profanity rather than positive affirmations. But I think the results of hard work and tenacity are “special”, and that’s why I like making tea blends. This is not a how-to on tea blend creation and I am not an expert in the technical sense. But I do wish to give you some insight on what goes into tea blending so you can make better decisions for yourself.
Step 1: Come up with an idea.
Trying to start a new tea blend is similar to coming up with the first sentence of a novel. I wish I could tell you what inspires me at these moments, but I wouldn’t recognize inspiration if it caught me meditating. Luckily, I have smart co-workers and together we go over what what’s been trending, what customers have been asking for, what’s coming up on the calendar, etc. That makes it sound easy, and filling up a whiteboard full of ideas is usually the first sign that you’re overpaid. But the real art form in this step is combing through all the factors at hand and choosing a couple options that might be not only doable, but desirable.
Step 2: Source ingredients you don’t already have.
These are the boring details because they involve the constraints on the creative process: time, money, and knowledge. In my opinion, “constraints” should be the first item printed on the ingredients list of every food package. It’s easy to look for ingredients that aren’t available, especially if you don’t know the industry or plan ahead of time. It’s also easy to find ingredients that are too expensive. Though it sounds obvious, you are limited by what you know and who you know. Omniscience was not listed in the requisite skills for my job.
Step 3: Start blending.
We always start with the base of the blend (usually tea) and the main ingredients we are trying to blend with it. The term “main” ingredient here refers to potency of flavor as opposed to quantity. Few ingredients naturally work well together. Usually it’s like getting two young siblings to play nice with each other. It takes many iterations of adjusting the percentages, changing the base teas, and changing the ingredient source just to make two ingredients work together. If we’re going for a simple blend and we get these two basic ingredients to work together, this is the point where we’d stroke our chins and nod in approval (and maybe even feel slightly taller). But if you want a third (or fourth, fifth, etc.) flavor profile to have significance in the blend, you have to start the process all over again. This is when it starts to get four-letter-word complicated and the repetition starts to breed self-doubt. If I cup the same thing over and over again (the word “cup” here refers to an industry term for objective tasting for the purposes of product evaluation or quality control), I eventually start to question if I can even taste the nuances or whether I’m making it all up in my head. But as I said in the beginning, this is why you want to have co-workers who know what they’re doing, so they can tell you that you no longer know what you’re doing.
Some blends come easy (as few as five iterations), some I never want to taste again (nearing or exceeding 100 iterations). I view blending as a puzzle to be solved, so even the most frustrating moments are just part of the satisfaction of the process.
-Michael Lannier, Operations Manager