Tea purists will tell you that drinking tea without sweeteners is the best way to enjoy your morning brew. They believe that adding sugar or a sugar alternative to your tea disrupts the delicate balance of your tea’s natural notes.
As George Orwell, the author of 1984, put it, “How can you call yourself a true tea lover if you destroy the flavor of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”
The truth of the matter is, however, that many tea drinkers do sweeten their tea. And there is something to be said for sweet tea!
Sweetening tea with a well-paired sweetener can bring out particular flavors in certain teas. It can also help smooth out the astringency and bitterness that is present in some green, black, and Pu’erh teas.
If you enjoy a sweet, hot mug of tea, try experimenting with different sweeteners! After enough trial and error, you will figure out which sweeteners you think taste best with which tea varieties.
What are the best sweeteners for tea?
There is a wide range of cane sugar varieties that make great tea sweeteners. Honey is crowd favorite. Other great sweeteners include maple syrup, agave nectar, coconut sugar, and molasses. For those who want a low-calorie option, try stevia. You can also sweeten tea using fruit juice.
White cane sugar
The sweetener that is most commonly used in tea is white table sugar.
Conventional white cane sugar, also known as refined sugar, is made by re-melting organic cane sugar that has already been crystallized once. This melted sugar is then refined to remove any remaining molasses and is then re-crystallized.
White sugar is traditionally used to sweeten English breakfast teas in Great Britain, and Chai Masala in India. White sugar is a neutral sweetener that has little to no flavor profile of its own.
Using white sugar in your tea adds sweetness to it without substantially altering the flavor of a beverage. Refined white sugar has the advantage that it is cheap and easy to come by.
There are a number of different varieties of brown sugar.
Demerara sugar is an unrefined brown sugar. It is often called “raw” sugar. Demerara is a pale golden sugar. It is made by washing the molasses off the surface of the sugar crystals but retaining the molasses inside each crystal.
Demerara has a smooth yet distinctly tangy flavor. It tastes mildly of molasses and adds a slightly malty edge to your tea.
Demerara should not be used in teas that have too delicate a flavor profile, such as white tea. However, it makes a great complement to an earthy, fermented Pu’erh tea, particularly when combined with fresh dairy milk.
Muscovado sugar is a delicious, unrefined brown sugar that contains chunky pieces and notes of caramel.
Muscovado is also known as Barbados sugar, because that is where it originated. It is only partially centrifuged. It has a sticky texture and is moist and dark in color. It has notes of burned sugar, which means it also tastes great in smokier teas.
Use Muscovado to sweeten Lapsang Souchong, Formosa Gunpowder black tea, Russian Caravan tea, or Red Robe oolong tea.
Honey is a popular choice as a tea sweetener.
Drinking tea with honey and milk is one of the best ways to drink black tea. This is especially true of fruity, aromatic black teas, like the Assam variety.
Assam is in India and is one of the areas most famous for producing black tea.
Honey also tastes great in green tea with floral flavor profile, such as Sencha, or with a fruity white tea, such as White Peony or Silver Needle.
Honey also nicely complements nuttier teas, such as a green Genmaicha, Red Robe oolong tea, or ripe Pu’erh tea.
In many places, the sweetener people use in their hot beverages is informed as much by what is locally available as by the taste and health benefits of the sweetener.
Globalization and centuries of trade have made most ingredients available in most places, but there are still areas of the world where people intuitively use native ingredients.
This is certainly the case in North America. Canada and the northeastern United States have a long tradition of tapping Maple trees to collect syrup
Maple syrup contains a boatload of vital nutrients. It has a lower glycemic index than sugar and is higher in antioxidants than honey.
It has a delicate but distinct flavor. Adding Maple to your tea will give your tea a nutty, burnt, caramel-like flavor.
Maple syrup is best with a milky black tea or a ripe pu’erh tea.
Agave nectar is another regional ingredient that has recently skyrocketed in popularity on a global scale.
The agave plant is native to the Southern U.S.A. and Latin America. The sap of the plant is boiled and made into the agave sweetener.
Incidentally, agave is also fermented to make tequila! In Mexico, agave syrup is also often used to make cocktails.
Agave syrup is high in sugar and has a slightly thinner consistency than honey. It has a neutral taste and can therefore be added to most drinks without really impacting their flavor.
This makes it a good sweetener to match the taste of white tea, which is complex but subtle.
Coconut sugar is a naturally occurring sugar produced using coconut palm sap. It has been being used in Indonesia and other parts of southeast Asia for decades.
Coconut sugar has an earthy, caramel essence. It has a slightly sandy texture and pairs well with smoky black tea or ripe Pu’erh tea.
Because Pu’erh has such a strong flavor profile, choosing a sweetener to pair with it can be almost as difficult as choosing foods that pair well with Pu’erh tea.
However, coconut sugar is a great contender, because its nutty taste will meet the intensity of fermented Pu’erh.
Blackstrap molasses has a licorice-like, iron-rich flavor. Tea with blackstrap molasses is certainly not for everyone, because it has a fairly overpowering taste. Truth be told, it tastes a lot like liquid molasses.
Consuming blackstrap molasses has some serious health benefits, because it is rich in essential minerals.
Adding molasses to Darjeeling tea can make for a delicious, rich, milky afternoon pick-me-up.
If you want to avoid adding refined sugar into your tea and want to make your green tea taste better, try adding a glug of fruit juice into it.
Especially when you are serving your teas iced, adding in fruit juice makes for a delicious summer drink.
Peach juice blends delightfully with Pu’erh and green tea.
Try adding in cantaloupe or green grape juice to your white tea for a refreshing iced summer drink.
Stevia is a great low-calorie sweetener. It comes from the Stevia plant that is native to Paraguay and Brazil.
Stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, so a little goes a long way! Stevia has a neutral flavor so makes a great sweetener for any tea variety.