What better way to test out a new brand of British tea than to pit it against a long-time favorite and champion of British blends.

There is definitely a place in the industry for tea bag teas. To those who say that tea bag tea is disgusting and undrinkable, we say – expand your palate. If you were a wine drinker and only drank expensive bottles every night then you would never really know if you have it good. Drinking ordinary table wine allows you to really
appreciate a great top-class wine. It’s the same way with tea. There are plenty of drinkable teas out there packaged up in tea bags and drinking them will help you appreciate the subtle qualities of a good oolong, or a fresh Darjeeling. Here, in America, when it comes to standard, blended brands, we are limited. However, in Britain, the blended brands are plentiful.

We are taking the old and trusted PG Tips, and pitting it against a new underdog brand, Make Mine a Builder’s. In the process, we are going to learn a little something about tea from our British friends across the pond. Namely, that blended tea brands are more sophisticated and complex than many people realize.

PG Tips

PG Tips is manufactured by Unilever UK. While Unilever has many brands it’s known to be the largest multinational tea company in the world. PG Tips was initially introduced in the 1930’s under a different name; the PG Tips name was adopted in the early 1950’s. PG is a popular English Breakfast-style
Make Mine a Builder’s

Builder’s was put together by the marketing firm Elmwood Designs in 2007. The founder’s attended Interbuild, a large annual conference for builders and contractors were they held a tea tasting. The goal was to bring back the Great British Cuppa. The blend they came away with was branded Make Mine a Builder’s.

What is the big deal with blended teas?

Unlike the speciality tea market where loose leaf is king, and variety is sought after, the blended and bagged tea market seems to be entirely different. In speciality tea, part of the point is for drinkers to search out and enjoy variety. This is not the case with blended teas. These mass produced teas, are all about one thing–consistency. From cup to cup, each one needs to be the same. Brands are build on the reliability of their quality. A single batch of either of these teas can contain as many as 35 different single-estate teas. As tea varies from crop to crop and between estates, tea blenders for single-blend brands strive to ensure that every cup provides the same taste, flavor, color and body. The intricate task of blending these teas is an ongoing project that must be done with virtually every shipment that arrives at the factory. The process of making these blends is not simple, or easy, there is no chemical analysis of flavor and color. These blends are based on the knowledge of expert tea tasters who slurp their way through dozens of teas searching for those which will bring the qualities to the cup that signify each blend.

The Method

We brewed our tea, one bag each, in 10-ounce mugs. This was no more complex than dropping in a tea bag and filling up with freshly boiled water. Each was allowed to steep for about 25 seconds. Note: Make Mine a Builder’s recommends 20 seconds and PG Tips recommends 1-2 minutes. Because we are also trying to establish quickness and convenience we kept the times short. We also squeezed the bag after taking it out. Both teas were tasted neat; that is, without milk and sugar, which is a typical way of drining British tea.

pg tips bags
What we saw: The bags

PG Tips uses bags that are sealed at the ends but in perpendicular directions from each other. This makes for a nice pyramid-type teabag that is becoming popular in America. Looking at the teabags, there is clearly plenty of space for the tea leaves to expand as it absorbs water. Builder’s uses flat, round tea bags to hold their tea. These are the same in size and shape as another popular brand of British bagged tea, Typhoo. Typical of British teabags, there are no strings, staples or labels. This is something that has not quite caught on yet in America. On the manufacturing side, it’s said that it reduces waste and materials needed for packaging. On the consumer side, staples and glue are unattractive in tea.

The loose tea

We really wanted to see what was inside the bags, so we cut them open and poured them out. Piled next to each other, the differences were clearly visible. If we were to judge the potential flavor of a tea based simply on seeing the dry leaves – then this is a good place to start. The PG Tips tea seemed coarser than the Builder’s, which had a finer appearance. Both teas resembled coffee grounds in size. In hand, they felt very light and dry. The finely chopped up tea that you see here is sometimes referred to as dust or fannings. It is often the leftover tea, sifted out as it is sorted at the tea factory. Sometimes, larger leaf is intentionally ground or chopped to produce this fine texture.

What is special about this? It is the size of each particle of tea which allows for the quick brewing times. With all these tiny pieces, there is a huge amount of surface area and the small size allows for each piece to absorb its maximum amount of water faster. So, it takes far less time to extract the tea liquid from this than it does from whole leaf tea. With whole leaves, it takes longer for the water to penetrate and draw out the color and flavors. If you were to brew these teas for 3-4 minutes like you would a whole leaf tea, it would result in a cup that is bitter, sharp and practically undrinkable. Maybe all those people who hate bagged teas are just doing it wrong…

The cup

As could be predicted from the loose tea, PG Tips resulted in a darker cup than Make Mine a Builder’s. Experienced tea drinkers with a diverse palate would be right in saying that PG Tips is the stronger of the two. PG Tips also has a slightly more vegetal and astringic flavor to it. There is more bite to the PG than there is to the Builder’s. The Builder’s cup was smoother and even sweeter than the PG Tips. To that end we found both teas refreshing and pleasing in the mouth, but Make Mine a Builder’s was more so. Perhaps because of the less harsh flavors that we found in it. The differences are subtle, but the mildness that we found in the Builder’s brand made it more drinkable.

In the end, we promoted Make Mine a Builder’s to the mug. In standard English tradition, we poured in some milk and a spoonful of sugar, grabbed some chocolate chip cookies and snapped this photograph before we plunged in to gulp it down. Note to urban, upscale tea cafés: stop trying to invent the Tea Latté. The British invented that sweet, milky beverage long ago.

Our staff found this review fun to do. We didn’t have high expectations of the teas, but were pleasantly surprised. Though these might be considered to be common teas, it turned out to be a pretty good mug. Then again, 50 million tea-slurping Brits can’t be wrong.