I just made myself a cup of tea with a teabag from a box that boasts “The Single Origin Tea”. I’m clearly not a dedicated tea snob, since I am using a tea bag, so why might I be interested in where my tea leaves originated?
The significance of “single origin” tea first came to my attention when I worked, very briefly, for a company that imported and distributed wholesale teas and tissane blends. They had come up against competitors who were successfully convincing their customers that tea designated with this vague title is somehow superior. But what does “single origin” even mean in the context of tea?
Firstly, it means different things at different times, which is not very helpful.
The company that made my teabag, Dilmah, uses this as a brand tagline, and it seems to mean simply that all its tea comes from the same country; Sri Lanka. Tea is a large and traditional industry in Sri Lanka, and the nation, previously known as Ceylon, has long been famed for its tea production. Thus, a stated connection with this country as a “single origin” may be seen to be a stamp of quality for the brand.
In other cases, the term “single origin” is used to denote tea that was produced on a single plantation; this is currently a trendy way to market tea. Some modern tea brands will go so far as to stamp their boxes with the details of the location, harvest time and year. The connotations of quality here are perhaps similar to those associated with wine labelling; if you really enjoyed the spring harvest of 2013 you will surely seek out more from that vintage. Except that tea does not age in the way that wine does and surely freshness is essential.
The wine analogy is useful, however, in explaining partly why a dedicated tea drinker might seek out teas from a single location. In the same way that wines from different regions have unique flavours, tea will demonstrate different qualities depending on where and under what conditions it is grown. In order to learn about these and educate the palate, it is necessary to separate the tea leaves.
The average supermarket box of teabags, however, is likely to contain tea from all the tea production nations around the world. The intention of a large tea corporation is to provide a delicious cup of tea every single time. The tea experts who choose which tea leaves to go into a standard teabag are seeking a consistency of flavour for their brand. This means that as a consumer, you can gain a fairly good idea of what a Twinings, Tetley, Lipton or Bushells brew will taste like (and hence be able to choose your brand).
So is “single origin” tea better? Since the phrase is a marketing tool, it doesn’t really provide any information about the taste of the tea.
If your goal is to become a tea connoisseur, then the label may be helpful as you discover the distinct flavours of teas from specific plantations or regions.
If you just want to drink a satisfying cuppa, then it probably won’t matter to you how many origins are in your favourite brew as you dangle the string…