The color of tea
June 4, 2012 10:26 PM   Subscribe

Do larger tea companies put dyes in their teas or concentrate their ingredients to make a brew look more, uh, tea-y?

I just brewed a pot of chamomile tea this evening by actually steeping the flowers in hot water (like loose leaf teas are brewed). It tastes great (as in smooth and light and just how good chamomile tea should taste), but I noticed that it was almost clear, with only a slight hint of yellow. Now I'm definitely used to chamomile from a tea bag, which produces a much darker yellow tea when brewed, and I'm wondering if tea companies put any dyes or other additives (natural or otherwise) in their teas, or if they concentrate their ingredients in some way to darken the color of a cup. (I've also noticed this with green tea, although I just figured that the stuff I had was on the lighter side.)

I'm not looking for speculation as to why they'd do such a thing, but rather for actual data. And I'm sure a company could put a concentrated form of an herb or tea in a bag and still be able to legally call it "rose hips" or what have you.

(I've tried Googling this and I can't find anything except for cute recipes on how to dye your cozies to make them look like Grandma's vintage set, or maybe I just can't get my Google-fu going today.)
posted by tenstairs to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Partial answer: It might depend on the actual flowers -- some varieties may have more color in them, or use different parts of the plant. Could also depend on the 'lot', if you're using raw unprocessed plant.
posted by Heretical at 10:47 PM on June 4, 2012

As tea dries, tannins are released and the leaves darken. This is likely what accounts for dried teas appearing darker than one that you made with fresh leaves.
posted by Nightman at 10:48 PM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

You steeped a fresh cut flower? Your store bought teas are going to have dried material, which changes it. As the material oxidizes it can change color and flavor.

For example, white, green, oolong, and black teas all come from the same source. The difference is in when the leaf is picked, and how it's processed afterwards. You can let it oxidize/wilt/whither, bruise it, dry and roll or break it up. While they're all the same leaf from the same plant, no one would say white tea tastes like black!
posted by sbutler at 10:49 PM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: There is tea dust in manufactured bags, that's where some of the extra color comes from.
posted by rhizome at 11:09 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The "herbal" teas could have a lot of ingredients beyond the headline selling points.
posted by vidur at 11:14 PM on June 4, 2012

Lots of tea dust makes tea appear to brew more quickly and intensely, while at the same time not giving the same tea-y essence, IMHO. It's probably due to poor quality or age.

Herbal teas can use other ingredients for color even if they're not using food dyes. I have a packet of a raspberry tea that uses hibiscus as a major ingredient, and hibiscus when brewed is very very pink. Check the ingredients list on your box. If they're playing by the rules they should be listed - though vidur's link suggests they're not always playing by the rules.

Dried plants versus fresh plants do give different colors too, though.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:50 PM on June 4, 2012

Response by poster: I'm sorry for the confusion, I used whole, dried chamomile flowers. Even so, I don't think chamomile flowers oxidize as such.

Rhizome, what is tea dust other than just the bits of the tea leaves or herb whatevers that just flaked off in the bag?

Thanks, vidur, this quote from your link sums it up nicely, although it doesn't seem to go deeper than noting that green tea and other plant bits get in herbal tea sometimes (and vice versa):
"The finding of unlisted chamomile (M. recutita) or tea plant (C. sinensis) in multiple products suggests the possibility of addition or substitution to improve taste, appearance, or for economic reasons."
Mushi, I'll check ingredients lists next time I'm in the grocery store (my current tea collection isn't in english and I'm out of my bagged chamomile, hence the whole stuff).
posted by tenstairs at 12:06 AM on June 5, 2012

Best answer: That's exactly what the tea dust is, but it's small enough to work its way through the pores of a wet teabag. There's more particulates in the tea this way, hence the stronger colors.
posted by rhizome at 12:20 AM on June 5, 2012

Best answer: Rhizome's right—tea bags use lower quality fannings (small particles of broken tea leaf that pass through the mesh and give strong flavour and colour) in addition to actual leaves. The smaller fannings are called tea dust.
posted by hot soup girl at 4:26 AM on June 5, 2012

Purchased herbal teabags do contain a finer crushed/powdered plant matter, which means more flavoring/coloring power per unit volume and per unit weight. But if you're saying your tea tastes exactly as strong as normal and just looks paler, I'm not sure the amount or fineness of the botanicals would change that ratio.

I can see why a tea manufacturer would want their tea to look yellow/brown instead of almost clear, since people's perception of the flavor of foods can be strongly influenced by appearance. So maybe there's an intentional oxidation process that adds a bit of brown to the color? It's also possible that the chamomile grown on farms that dry flowers for tea is a varietal that has been bred to be a better tea flower (stronger flavor or color) than chamomile growing wild in the backyard, but that's just wild speculation.
posted by aimedwander at 7:26 AM on June 5, 2012

tenstairs: ". Even so, I don't think chamomile flowers oxidize as such."

Yes, all organic material oxidizes.

Also, the particular treatment of the dried leaves matters. If I put whole-leaf green tea in my cup, I can refill it with hot water 2-3 times. A bag will make one (large) cup, and be essentially dead. Bagged tea is broken, so the oily flavorings can escape more easily.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:59 AM on June 5, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers everyone! The tea dust/fannings getting through the bag is something I hadn't thought of before but makes perfect sense.

As for the oxidation of the flowers, I meant that chamomile isn't oxidized in order to release tannins as in true tea production. It's just picked and then dried like most other herbal teas (except for rooibos and honeybush, which are intentionally oxidized herbals).
posted by tenstairs at 11:40 AM on June 5, 2012

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