Well, first of all, there are two … well actually THREE … different terms that I even have trouble keeping separated. First is blending. Blending is not only the act of combining different teas, but also blending fruits, nuts, herbs, spices and the like with teas … like a masala chai blend for example. Chai blends are not usually flavored – that is, altered by the addition of flavoring oil – but they are blended heavily with spices.
Blending in itself is a pretty easy process, but, depending upon what you’re blending it may have little effect on the overall flavor. For example, if you’re trying to make a strawberry tea, and you’re blending a black tea with dried strawberries, the overall flavor is going to be black tea. The strawberry flavor will be weak, at best. Other blending components, such as spices and herbs, have more of an impact because they do produce a strong flavor when infused.
Then there is flavoring. Flavoring is the act of adding flavoring oils to the tea leaves. These oils are intensely flavored extracts that are absorbed by the teas. When you get a caramel tea, for example, the caramel flavor is not going to come from the addition of caramel chips … these are added primarily for the purposes of appearance. Or going back to my strawberry example, you might add freeze dried strawberries to the black tea, plus add strawberry oil to the tea leaves and allow the oil to be absorbed to create a strawberry flavored tea.
The act of flavoring is more difficult, but you have to start with good oils. Then there is how to flavor them. Some tea artists use a direct method by applying the oils directly to the tea leaves, some tea artists may use a more indirect method by applying the oils to a piece of cheesecloth (for example) and putting the cheesecloth in with the tea to allow the tea to absorb the oils. In my own experience, I have found that some flavors work better using the direct method, while others work better by the indirect method.
The third and final term is scenting. Scenting is almost like the indirect method I mentioned above, but it is generally accomplished at an earlier stage of tea development and generally done before the teas are made available to the tea purveyors (be they wholesale or retail). This is the best way to create a jasmine tea, for example. Jasmine oils do not create as pleasing a jasmine flavor … generally when you find a “soapy” or overly-perfume-y tasting jasmine tea, this is the result of flavoring with oils instead of using the layered scenting process at the early stages of tea processing.
To answer Peter’s bottom lime question … it can be learned. It can be done at home… but I certainly would not compare it to knitting (but then, I never learned how to knit). My practices are primarily self taught, having done a lot of research in my early years. It wasn’t until after I had embarked on my that I actually attended a class … and at this class that I attended, the act of blending but not flavoring was taught, so I felt a little cheated out of the cost of tuition.
The biggest piece of advice I could give someone who actually wanted to learn how to flavor (or even blend) is to give it a try, and don’t give up if you don’t succeed the first time… the reason it took me over a year to create a blend (a few of my blends took at least that long), is because my first attempt was not quite what I wanted, so I kept trying until I was satisfied with what I created.