Tea blenders are fascinating people. Would you like to know what makes them tick? I recently took the plunge and asked a well known tea blender for an interview. Linda Smith owner of Divinitea and contributor to Fresh Cup magazine has provided us with insights and gourmet tea information about the art of tea leaf blending.
Now you and I are going to find out why the art of tea blending inspired a woman and her family to create and then share the finest loose tea leaves. Will this story inspire you to become a professional with a passion to cusstom blend tea?
Linda, tell us a little about your food and beverage background.
I began life within the confines of a kosher kitchen. When I went to college my first job was in the faculty restaurant making some real food. I loved the food business so I pursued an education with a Degree from the University of Denver in Hotel and Restaurant management.
I have always been searching the earth for food items you scavenge along the path. Here I began also to work with the herbs you drink, making all kinds of concoctions both for fun and somewhat medicinal for me.
As my food career grew so did my interest in the finest dining having worked in starred restaurants. At one very fine 3 star restaurant we would serve the most elegant and classic French foods with fancy silver service. Tea was elegantly presented with a silver Urn, beautiful cup and saucer, all the proper accents, lemon and pretty grain sugars, and a Lipton wrapped tea bag on a doily. What was wrong with this picture? I began to experiment with end of the meal herbal teas.
It was also important to study with a knowledgeable herbalist so I pursued Susan Weed, a well known healer/ herbalist/ earth mother extraordinaire. Knowing what you are using and staying up to date on the herbs is very important. I kept up with the herbs and introduced teas later on.
As a former chef, it is still in my blood to blend flavors, but it's not so HOT in the blending room.
My mother introduced me at a very young age to wild crafting as she often would pick the early spring chives both in the woods and between the cracks of her patio. I then realized there were plants of the earth that were cooked with and better yet eaten.
My career in food and beverage has given many worldly experiences that have also changed my palate forever.
Imagine picking fresh apple mangos in the summer at the peak of perfection and then returning to your plantation to make mango pancakes for all the guests. This was on the Isla de Vieques, Puerto Rico. The great exotic fruits are many of the fruit flavors we use like mango, passion fruit, pineapple, coconut, lime (limon) and banana.
In Indonesia there were other fruits also tropical and from Mexico I brought back the spicy flavors. Many other islands up and down the Caribbean were rich in lush flavors I aspire to create for my tea lovers. The world is my inspiration and the chefs. I am always pairing teas with foods and desserts.
This week alone I have been working on 3 new flavor combinations, and three fruit tisanes. It is way too much fun to be considered work. I thought I would be in a Hotel somewhere but this is a much better lifestyle and hardly a job.
When did you become interested in the art of tea blending?
I didn't really know it was what I was doing for years. Like being a cook, you just do it. Well this was ever ongoing. It began when I was in my early 20's. Coffee was the beverage offered at every office and restaurant. Everywhere I went people were drinking and offering coffee, awful coffee. It didn't mater what you put in it, still awful. So I stopped drinking coffee.
While on a hike someone pointed out a very useful herb, for a tea, that was often wild crafted. I became more diligent about the earth world around me and started wild crafting herbs, organic, for blending teas. That was over 20 years ago.
Have you visited tea growing countries? Which ones and what can you tell us about them?
I have never been to a tea garden, unfortunately. When I went to Indonesia, I wasn't aware there were tea farms or I would have visited them. My contacts are garden owners like Rajah from Makaibari Tea Gardens in Darjeeling. He calls when strolling around from place to place when in the states.
Otherwise the email keeps us in touch with just about anyone who has email. We have brokers who often act on our behalf filling contracted amounts of chests from each garden.
What prompted you to start a tea blending business?
Just after my children were born my husband recommended I find some work to help support us since I had so much food and beverage experience. I wasn't about to leave my little ones so he said "why don't you start selling these teas?"
It was the best thing we've ever done. My husband and I started Divinitea in 1997. Sales began in 1999 with the introduction of our 4 retail tins, Darjeeling, Biodynamic Green Tea, Herbal Chai and Nite Cap.
The following year we added in Peace on Earth, Mother to Be, Lavender Tea and Ginger Lemon Mint making 7 retail tins. Just as these arrived we expanded the line to 20 plus teas adding Earl Grey, Decaf Earl Grey, English Breakfast and more.
We had just begun. There are endless combinations you can do with teas and the door just opened and the gates flooded with ideas.
This year we celebrate our tenth year in business. It has been a great family business.
Which countries do you source your tea from?
Teas come from many countries. Most recognized are the teas of India, China, SriLanka, Japan, South America and Africa. Today we are seeing the introduction of teas from South America. Seldom used by premium tea companies, these teas are now in the orthodox and certified organic categories. You'll begin to hear from this new tea region in the future.
A tea garden popped up in England; there is one garden in South Carolina, more from parts of South America and others. The teas from Taiwan are not considered Chinese and are exquisite.
Because every tea we purchase is organic, we can only buy from countries that comply with USDA organic standards. Viet Nam was sprayed heavily with Agent Orange so we don't purchase any teas from there.
Most consumers are somewhat familiar with the tea countries because they are named by their country or region or province. Ceylon black, Darjeeling, Sencha, Hunan, Yunnan, are a few of those names. Herbs come from all over the world.
What the consumer doesn't realize is that a blend could have ingredients from many countries. Ginger from Indonesia, along with Cinnamon, Clove, Lavender, nutmeg or mace. Egypt has beautiful hibiscus and peppermint. Chamomile comes from many European countries.
If you want really great mints, the pacific northwest USA has the best. And California orange peel can't be beat! Herbs out of season come from out of the country. You can get fresh harvested lemon balm most of the year but as the winter progresses some herbs must be imported.
Where did you receive your training?
Where have I received my training? I began at a very young age cooking with my mother and great grandmother. She spoke Yiddish, I spoke English yet we communicated through food. Every Friday she cut the fresh noodles for her delicious soup. After the noodles were lying to dry she sat with a nice cup of red rose tea, a bowl of sugar cubes and her favorite cup. This was my introduction to tea.
This was a kosher kitchen and upon leaving the nest I went to college for a business degree and found my way around to business with Hotel and Restaurant Management. The food, travel and wine business was fun, creative and lots of exciting people. Along the way through my education I worked at starred restaurants with top toques from all around Europe in French kitchens.
Elegant foods deserved elegant teas. Silver tea service in a three star restaurant serving a Lipton tea bag wrapped in paper with attached string on a doily. What an awful sight.
Here is where it really began. It became apparent in food service that to a certain point everything was important but the tea. A lousy bag will suffice, that is not good enough.
This is where I started playing with herbal combinations because at the time Celestial Seasonings was the hip thing in tea. I was in Colorado when lemon zinger was birthed as the new generation of herbal teas. So like a chef I began to create good tasting teas with out the flavorings using Mother Nature's bounty for ingredients.
I studied with Susan Weed, a renowned herbalist and writer, learning to identify and work with ingestible herbs and weeds and roots and spices and so much more. This was as much fun as cooking. Friends would come over and ask for a special blend. I would pull out baskets full of herbs from my farm and local woods concocting seasonal blends for toning different organs and detoxifying blends.
There were teas I made for your month, your baby, your pregnancy, bad breathe, stomach, headache, colds, constipation, high anxiety, arthritic pain and more. I'm not a doctor.
Certain herbs and spices are recommended for specific ailments. Learning these herbs and combining them for taste and possible relief is helpful. Some of the more recognized common herbs include peppermint, chamomile, ginger, licorice, cinnamon, lemon grass or verbena, dandelion, nettle, alfalfa, red clover and much more.
I really began studying herbs on my front lawn; dandelion, plantain, red clover and mint. The first three are blood purifiers, blood cleaners, and liver and kidney cleansers. This is a pure detox combo.
All this knowledge is necessary to formulate safe tea and herbal blends. Nothing on the herbal warning list should be used in a flavorful tea combination.
The only herbal medicinal like blends are ones that I have been using for over 10 years, Mother to be, Nite Cap, Herbal Chai, and Detox. As a blender of herbs and teas there are constantly new pieces of medical and clinical data supporting evidence of tea related health claims. The learning process is never ending.
Is the art of tea blending at all like cooking?
I began blending teas not realizing this is what I was doing. It was an extension of cooking. It became a very special talent that other tea blenders were not offering. We have so many ingredients, all safe, to use and mix and match for optimum flavor.
I notice on you web site Divinitea.com that you mention specialized blending can be done. This definitely would be the art of tea. Can you walk us through that procedure?
When a customer wants a custom blend we begin by asking "What do you want the flavor or taste to
ultimately be?" Some are very clear and some don't know where to begin. You need some idea of what flavor you want to taste.
When we make the many different flavors of chai, we use a base recipe for the spices and then change the base for the tea as requested. Some customers don't want pepper so we adjust the recipes to fit the customer's needs.
Many customers taste a tea and ask if we can reproduce this existing blend? The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no.
There are so many tea flavors available to choose from, some are better on black, or green depending on the
flavor. This is the fun part. You never know what will come up when you start playing.
This season we've developed poached pear, cranberry orange spice, white tea chai, raspberry lemon, peach green and blueberry green teas. Peach Melba was a new flavor this summer and is a year round tea.
The sky is the limit.
Why do you feel loose leaf tea is better than tea bags?
Over 20 years ago when I entered the blending world, there was no option for me other than full leaves, full herbs and spices.
The reason I started blending teas was because I broke open tea bags and could not identify most ingredients except hibiscus, because it was red. All other ingredients were dust and unidentifiable. This is where it began.
I was not about to put this into my body when I could not identify anything. So after reading the ingredients, identifying the fillers (ingredients used to fill the bag but have no flavor) I went to work looking for these ingredients in their whole forms.
There were many days while hiking in the woods that I would find herbs like nettle, dandelion, alfalfa, plantain, yellow dock and red dock, sumack, and so much more. After working with books and teachers learning the properties and how to properly identify the herbs the blending began.
One of the first lines of teas I made was for the different organs. Thats right while studying ChiCung; the teacher identified the opening of organs during the different seasons. This interested me and I began making seasonal teas for the internal organs. This was over 20 years ago and the other students were open to tasting these . They weren't bad and so I sought out better tasting blends, still using full leaf herbs, spices and teas, there is no quality comparison.
Open up a tea bag and see for yourself. The level of quality changes when you begin to break the leaves. We only use the best of all ingredients, whole leaves and whole herbs. You can do a taste test for yourself and see. This is why I began making teas.
I didn't think the current tea blenders were doing a good job or using quality ingredients so I sought to do it better. The other reason for following this route was when the chef in a three star restaurant served silver tea service with the wrapped Lipton bag. What a joke?
I took my blending to the next level.
Thanks Linda, for sharing so much information with us. I think my readers and I will have a new respect for the art of tea blending. I look forward to learning more about the art of tea from you soon.
Is this a career you might want to explore?
Gourmet tea information
A second interview with Linda Smith
Facts about tea
Another tea professional shares