How to Brew Tea with Sweeteners
Choosing the Perfect Pairing
I have a really hard time prioritizing myself. I have a bad habit of filling my time with tasks and spending my day doing things for others, whether for work or at home. Rarely do things make it on my to-do list that are specifically for me and what I want to do. But, there has been one thing that is a constant. One thing that does bring me back to myself, my joy, my happiness.
Picking up that warm mug with both hands, letting the steam hit my face as I take the first sip that brings me right into the peaceful center of the present moment.
As a long-time tea drinker, I’ve never been into the whole setup and clean up required for loose leaf tea, because it always took too much time. Between trying to figure out the blends I liked, how much sweetener and what type was just right, most times it was too much of a hassle so I ended up settling for an “okay” cup of tea that came from a grocery store tea bag, because it was easy.
I really only used to sweeten with refined white sugar, raw cane sugar or clover honey from a honey bear. Boring, but consistent. I wanted just about a teaspoon of sugar or half of one of those little white packets with the giant SUGAR letters on it. My tea story was predictable. A cup of black tea in the morning, whatever was cheap, and then another one in the afternoon.
Not that it’s all that difficult to add a teaspoon of sugar to a cup of tea, but why should I do it EVERY SINGLE TIME? I wanted it to be blended in the tea bag, which I assumed would be an easy thing to find.
Wrong! Plot twist. For years I never found a sweetened tea bag, so I decided to make it myself so that at the very least, I could have it. But, I had a hunch others who wanted to know how to brew the perfect tea would appreciate it too. After starting the R&D process at my kitchen table with various teas, I realized how huge the world of tea really was. Even more surprising was the amount of different granulated sweeteners out there.
At this point in my life I had already understood the terrible effects of refined white sugar on the body, so that wasn’t even going to be an option for my sweetened tea bags. Why be boxed in by the two options to sweeten tea when there is a world of natural sweeteners that can also bring flavor to the cup? I found granulated maple and honey, smoked raw sugar and coconut sugar. Each bringing their own unique flavor and minerals to the cup.
This is when the fun exploration began. It reminded me of the very first time a new candy landed in my halloween bag when I was 6. I remember exactly when I tried Nerds for the first time and thought my mouth was going to explode! Now, Nerds are completely and utterly terrible for you in every possible way, but you get my point. This time, I was creating a Nerds experience for tea freaks. Such an honor, by the way. I was in over my head, totally overwhelmed at first, but as I explored pairing sweeteners with so many different teas and herbs, I slowly started to learn what worked and what didn’t.
The Science Behind Flavor Pairing and Why it Matters with Tea and Sweetener
Without a culinary or science background, I used the trial and error method of how to brew tea based on past experiences with different flavors in cooking, baking and cocktails. I started with the basics. A simple black tea, a green tea, maple granules and honey.
The maple granules, I sourced directly from a farm up in Vermont and connected directly with the farmers themselves, which was an amazing way to source ethically and transparently. I ordered over a dozen black tea samples from a direct trader who sources tea from all over the world by traveling to small farms and helping them import their tea into the United States to be sold to tea rooms and tea companies like mine (although, rarely do other companies actually source ethically and directly, I’ve found out). The black tea samples were surprisingly different from one another. I had the expectation they would all be the same, but I was so wrong! The black tea that I liked the best had a nutty and caramel undertone which worked perfectly with the maple. In fact, the maple granules brought out an extraordinary flavor in the black tea I selected from India.
The green tea samples I tried were the same way. So completely different from each other. Some were mild and woody, some light and floral, some were grassy and bitter. The green tea I landed on paired perfectly with honey granules.
Through my non-scientific method of trial and error, I came to realize a simple concept. Stronger teas blend well with a stronger sweetener and more subtle, nuanced herbs and teas pair better with a lighter sweetener. Also, if you want a particular flavor to stand out in a tea blend, it’s best to pair with complimentary ingredients in a subtle way rather than introduce another conflicting, dominant flavor with it. Seems pretty logical, right?
A Supercomputer and a Professional Chef – The Perfect Pair
It turns out there is an actual science to pairing flavors like tea and sweetener. I found a genius book called The Flavor Matrix, by James Briscione, which teaches a methodology of food pairing based on aromas and the chemical composition of various ingredients. The author is a chef by trade and worked on a project with the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in combination with the IBM Watson supercomputer to create dishes using ingredient combinations that had rarely ever been seen before. Watson used an extensive database of the chemical makeup of ingredients and history of recipes available to create connections and chemical profiles. These “volatile compounds” found in food give them their own unique flavor. With Watson understanding the connection between these flavor compounds, it changed the way the chefs at ICE thought about pairing ingredients.
This combination of science and human flavor senses created flavor pairing combinations that made tastebuds do dances and stretched Chef James in a way he never imagined. He worked with ICE and Watson to map out a literal matrix to connect a main ingredient to other ingredients based on their aromas and chemical compounds. As he puts it, “The flavor matrix is an enhanced pie chart that looks a bit like an artist’s color wheel. Instead of showing how primary colors can be blended together, however, flavor matrixes show how aromas combine to give each ingredient its unique flavor. Each flavor matrix is essentially the aromatic fingerprint of the ingredient it depicts.”
After learning about the Flavor Matrix methodology for pairing ingredients, it became more clear why I thought to put certain flavors together while doing R&D with the trial and error method. Next we’ll get into the flavor profile of each type sweetener we currently use along with herbs.
Smoked Demerara Sugar
When I think about this sweetener, I think about it like a grill—it gives everything it touches a nice smokey flavor—hense the name. It’s best paired with stone fruits like peaches, plums, and cherries, but it also goes great with strawberries. I actually loved this sweetener so much that when I found it, I created a tea that paired perfectly with it. Since white tea is the mildest, it allowed the smokiness to shine through where other stronger teas might mask it. Shortly after, the Bourbon Smoked White was officially brewed. Wondering how to brew this particular tea? I recommend boiling 10-12 oz. of water to 185℉ and steeping the bag for 4 minutes.
Although this sweetener is a great alternative to regular, overly-processed options, it’s still very high in sugar, so use it sparingly to reap the benefits. Overall, this one is packed with goodness though—it contains antioxidants, fights inflammatory diseases, contains cancer-fighting properties, helps protect the skin, and supplies important vitamins and minerals to the body. The reduction and caramelization of maple draws out deep roasted notes and is best paired with berries, apples, and grapes, but some tropical fruits like pineapples and coconuts also mingle nicely with this one. Additionally, maple pairs strongly with aromas from cocoa, baked bread, cinnamon, and vanilla. You can find the granulated maple sweetener in our caffeinated Cocoa Berry Black tea, but learning how to brew it is key—brew 10-12 oz. of water to 205℉ and steep for 4-5 minutes max.
Did you know that there are over 300 different types of honey? In fact, they can all vary quite a bit depending on the bees and where they collected the nectar. As a general rule of thumb however, honey contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants while refined sugar does not. Throughout history, honey has been used in traditional medicine for its potential antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Its low moisture content, hydrogen peroxide, and acidity are not conducive for bacteria growth—some studies even suggest that honey can help coughs and upset stomachs as well. When learning how to brew tea with honey, keep in mind that floral and vegetal aromas are consistent in this sweetener, making it very versatile and on the stronger side. So, be cautious when pairing it with mild, nuanced teas so it doesn’t overpower your cup. We recommend pairing honey with citrus, berries, pomegranate, apricots, cherries, figs, and peaches, as well as cocoa, vanilla, and cinnamon. You can find this delicious, robust sweetener in our Creamy Honey Oolong and Jasmine Honey Green teas.
Coconut Palm Sugar
Just in case you’re not a fan of coconut flavors, I feel like I should preface by saying this—coconut palm sugar is an unrefined sugar from the nectar of coconut tree blossoms, and because it doesn’t come from the fruit, it does not taste like coconut. Actually, it tastes more like brown sugar, but it’s a bit more subtle, plus it’s a low-glycemic index sweetener. Because of its rich flavor and how it compliments cinnamon and sharper spices like chai, I chose to pair coconut palm sugar with our Cinnamon Oolong Chai tea. The sweetener is slightly musky and less sweet than sugar, so by using more, the flavor really comes through rather than just making the tea sweet just because. There is definitely a perfect balance here between sweetness and flavor when learning how to brew tea that’s just right.
Raw Organic Sugar
Last but certainly not least, we have a universal sweetener—raw, organic sugar. In general, sugar has a very plain sweetness to it, so when the flavor of the tea or herbs is critical to the blend and you don’t want to mess with the balance of flavor, cane sugar is the best option. Sometimes, to give blends more brightness, I use the sugar as a carrier for additional flavors like lemon or orange by using food-grade organic essential oils—you can try it for yourself in our Lemon Candied Ginger and Lavender Chamomile Kick teas. Or, opt for other robust flavor profiles that contain simple, unrefined raw organic sugar when you try our Strawberry Yaupon Hops, Peppermint Earl Grey, and Orange Spiced Green teas.
What About Sweetening Tea with Molasses, Agave, Stevia or others?
There are a few sweeteners I’ll be exploring in the future that you can play around with in your tea now. Molasses has me intrigued. The darkness of it alone draws me in. Generally, darker foods have more beneficial nutrients and this is certainly true of molasses. It’s like taking all the best things from a relationship and condensing it into an amazing first date you’ll never forget. Molasses comes from sugar cane and carries the minerals with it, so when raw sugar is processed and the refined sugar separates the molasses, all of the nutrients are stuffed into the black sticky syrup. You can learn about the differences in nutritional content between these and other sweeteners from a customer, friend, tea-lover and nutrition/dietetics student, Ashley on her blog called Tea and Things. There is also a continuation of her first article where she also dives into the nutritional value of maple, coconut palm sugar and a cane sugar called jaggery.
I’ve done research on agave, and know that I’m not a fan of how it is processed and what it means for the body, even before it’s granulated. The main deterrent is that agave has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup (yikes!). Here are 8 more reasons to avoid agave. Best to stay away from that one.
Sometimes customers ask if we have any blends with zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia, monk fruit, erythritol or xylitol. I’ll just say I’m not a fan of the flavor of pure stevia (most is processed and blended with other chemical sugar alcohols) or monk fruit and erythritol and xylitol are made from weird food by-products that have GMOs in them.
The idea with Embrew sweetened artisan tea bags is to help balance out the tea with a touch of natural sweetener and help those who have the tendency to over-sweeten be more modest with honey, maple and sugar in their tea. If you’re interested in trying pre-sweetened tea for yourself, explore our collection of herbal tea and caffeine-free tea bags. Or, step up your current brewing game by learning the secret to a perfect hot-brewed cup, and crack the code to re-steeping tea bags. Looking for a recommendation on an electric tea kettle? We’ve got you covered there, too—see which three are our favorites.