How are herbal teas made? Chinese herbalist and Herbal tea creator at Tong Kuai Herbal Tea, Marie Hopkinson uncovers some of the time honoured secrets of herbal tea making.

Herbs have been used for thousands of years as medicine and food; used purposefully as an ingredient for a specific health reason and for culinary enhancement – ie. Flavour.

A good example of a food commonly used in these two ways is ginger. It’s use as a medicine in Chinese medicine goes back as long as the medicine has been around, at 2500 years. Ginger is found in a flavouring in many Asian cuisine dishes, and used in oriental medicine systems as a cold and flu treatment, usually the fresh ginger root is made up as a tea. Ginger tea is also enjoyed as a flavoursome herbal tea drink, regardless of its health properties, its warm nature is generally pleasant and soothing to the body.

So herbal teas are about both the ingredients used being somewhat purposeful as well as their taste pleasurable. Actually when we are un-paking herbal teas it might be worth noting that a herbal tea isn’t really technically a tea at all. Tea is a drink made from Camellia Sensis – the tea plant, from which 95% of all green and black teas are made of. When any other plants are infused in water it’s really a herbal infusion, but over the years the word herbal tea has grown popular as a way to describe this drink.

How are herbal infusions or herbal teas made?

  1.  Taste

Herbs are chosen for both purpose and pleasure. As a herbal tea creator, and trained Chinese herbalist, I know of many many herbs that could be useful for their purpose, but their taste as a beverage…not so pleasurable. These herbs are more left to the medicine side of herbalism.

In Chinese medicine philosophy, we recognise five flavours – salty, sweet, pungent, bitter and sour. Each flavour has specific actions in the body. For instance, bitter is the flavour that descends. If you eat too much bitter, you might get loose bowel movements – that’s the effect of too much bitter descending. Bitter is used in food enjoyment, dining out after a big meal you might order a bitter digestive as a drink to help aid your body digest all that food, and stop feeling bloated. Coffee is another great example of the bitter flavour.

Most palates wont like to consume something that is all bitter, although coffee’s flavour is primarily bitter. The vast varieties of coffee styles will show you one flavour may be enjoyed in a number of ways. There are the short black with no sugar – these people love the bitter flavour at it’s true nature. Adding milk or sugar to coffee will add sweet flavour, and the more milk added the more dispersed the bitter flavour will be in the overall drink.

Just like the example of the number of ways to enjoy the coffee bitter flavour, herbal teas can be appleied in this way. Usually we don’t add milk to herbal teas, although this dosent mean it can’t be done, but a balanced herbal tea should be enjoyable on it’s own without the added need of milk (or sugar in my opinion). 

Sweet flavours are often pleasurable but in a tea, although many people prefer a more savoury taste of slightly sour, pungent or bitter.

Sweet flavoured herbs are often dried fruits. In Chiense medicine Shan Zha (hawthorne berry) is commonly used in cooking and teas as a sweet flavoured healthy food. Red dates (Da Zao) are another very popular fruit used in herbal teas in China. Da Zao are incredibly sweet. If you boil them, or infuse the tea over a little heat over a long time they will turn the tea into a very, sweet syrup.

Sweet is a calming flavour. Too much sweet is not good for you but a little sweet is relaxing and calming. Sweet in tea should come from the flavours of the herbs used not added sugar or stevia or sweeteners of an artificial nature. Although it’s common to see herbal teas served with rock sugar in China, this is not necessary if the tea is made with balance the flavours of the ingredients should be pleasant enough to be appreciated by themselves.  Sugar and Honey are used in herbal medicine to add sustenance to a depleted person, and sugar or honey is added to a ginger tea purposefully for instance to help the pungent warm nature take effect as part of the cold and flu remedy.  Generally, for most westerners, we don’t need to be sipping on more sugar that is already in our diet. If you do want to add a sweet flavour, Honey is a much better addition to herbal teas than artificial sweeteners or sugar.

The sweet flavour isn’t for everyone, in my experience the most popular types of herbal tea flavours are cool pungent. Minty, zesty and refreshing – herbs like peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm are admired herbs for this flavour.

Warming pungent like rosemary, lemongrass, cinnamon, ginger are all popular in teas especially for evening and cold weather times. In many of my herbal tea blends I combine warm and cool herbs or pungent and sweet, pungent, bitter and sweet etc so the overall flavour and nature of the tea is both purposeful and palatable.

  1. Balance

The tea itself should have a balance – one flavour by itself may be tolerable but not pleasurable in itself, but when combined with herbs of other flavours the taste can be divine.

The flavour of herbs tells us what it does in the body, whether it goes up or down, spreading outwoods , or gathering up in an astringing nature.

Balance is achieved by the proportions of these flavours for their purpose but also for the overall tea’s taste to achieve a drink that is pleasurable to drink.

The process of blending a herbal tea is often by trial and error. Deciding on two or three ingredients and then making two or three blends of different proportions of these ingredients, until an acceptable flavour is achieved. Usually I test the tea blends several times on myself, trying with other people and then on a mass scale at a tea expo, or in my own retail shop when I have a lot of customers on the weekend, we do free tea tastings and get customer feedback on which blends they like.

You can experiment at home with dried herbs but also fresh herbs from your herb garden can be used as an indicator of the flavour. Usually dried herbs are many times stronger than fresh herbs, so if you like the flavour of a tea from your herb garden you can buy dried herbs of the same variety and make up your own herbal teas as how you like them.

 A good herbal tea has a flavour you remember, and want to drink again.


Written by

Marie Hopkinson M IntlHlth(Curtin), CertIVTAA, ADTCM(Aust)CTCM(China) 

Marie can be contacted by:

© Marie Hopkinson, all rights reserved. Permission for All Organix to publish article on website granted, provided Authourship details and website is retained as printed above.

Leave a comment