Food & Drink

Butterfly Pea Tea Is the Secret Behind All Your Favorite Colorful Drinks

Watch it magically change colors.

With a name as delicate as its flavor, butterfly pea tea has taken the world by storm. The unique color-morphing beverage -- which can transform from deep indigo to sapphire to translucent powder blue, depending on how long (and how much) tea you steep -- is found at Starbucks’ franchises in Southeast Asia, in boba beverages, shaken up in various colorful cocktails, and used as a natural food dye for savory dishes and sweets alike. But what exactly is this vibrantly blue and purple tea -- and why is it everywhere?

The answer lies within the flower clitoria ternatea  -- which is more commonly known as the butterfly pea flower, Asian pigeonwings, or dok anchan in Thailand where it natively grows. Thais believe that the humble dok anchan has a multitude of healing powers, including improvement of eyesight, hair growth, and the ability to strengthen the immune system. Some of these widely held beliefs are backed by science; one study suggests that butterfly pea flowers has antiasthmatic qualities. Another finds that the flower is full of helpful antioxidants and can decrease oxidative stress. But beyond coloring hair and finding its place in the world of natural medicine, butterfly pea tea has also seeped its way into the food and drink world.

John Mark Reyes, the owner of Dingle Berries -- a coffee and tea shop in Rosemead, California that sells boba and other sweet treats -- first became interested in butterfly pea tea after seeing the ingredient on cocktail menus. “We wanted a tea version,” he said. “Although the color is one of the many reasons why shops use it, it’s also vegan and naturally decaffeinated. It has a distinct flavor that is almost fragile.” At Dingle Berries, Reyes uses organic butterfly pea tea and a precise steeping method to ensure that his drinks preserve butterfly pea tea’s natural, light flavor -- which tastes like a very subdued version of green tea. “It almost has an earthy flavor, so it’s a great base to start if you’re mixing with other flavors. If you get the method and ratio when mixing it with other flavors, it’s uniquely pleasant.”

Currently, Reyes uses the ingredient in three of his menu items, with the most popular being the #LiquidDream: a butterfly pea tea-based drink mixed with rose extract and topped with pink cheesecake foam. Adding boba or tapioca to this drink makes for a specially indulgent treat.

The beautiful blue flower also finds its way in food dishes. At Farmhouse Kitchen, a Thai restaurant with locations in San Francisco, Oakland, and Portland, Chef Kasem Saengsawang utilizes butterfly pea tea as a dye for his culinary creations. “At Farmhouse Kitchen, we are representing unseen Thai cuisine,” Saengsawang shared. This includes, of course, the use of a native Thai ingredient, butterfly pea flower. “We use dok anchan for our rice at the restaurant and also for a rice salad as well. The way we [make] blue rice is [by boiling the] butterfly pea flower with water to get the blue liquid out and then [steaming it] with jasmine rice.” Saengsawang admits that “it doesn’t change much of the flavor” but “it gives such an incredible [shade] of blue.” It’s worth noting that achieving an eye-catching blue in the culinary world -- naturally -- is not an easy feat. But butterfly pea tea, when heavily concentrated, can do the trick.

Stefan Dorn, the owner and founder of Bluechai, a Germany-based tea vendor that carries butterfly pea tea, first became interested in the ingredient after a trip through Southeast Asia. “Traditional applications of the butterfly pea flower have been mainly in food coloring, such as coloring rice blue or making refreshing, iced blue teas with the flower,” he explained. “The blue flower basically allows any chef to finally include a natural blue food dye in their color palette -- complementing other natural food dyes such as turmeric, hibiscus, charcoal, beet root or barley grass powders.”

Due to the alluring color of butterfly pea tea, Dorn has described his product as an “Instagram hit,” sharing that the month-to-month growth of his sales have been up 55% for all butterfly pea products within the past 12 months. The growth has been so promising that Dorn is now working to develop a new product that centers butterfly pea tea: blue gin. “We’re working with numerous gin distilleries in the US and UK that infuse their gin with butterfly pea flowers, thereby creating an amazing blue gin,” he said.

"It has a distinct flavor that is almost fragile."

It’s unsurprising that Dorn would pursue the expansion of his shop by partnering with distilleries. After all, butterfly pea flowers fare well in cocktails, and may be why the ingredient rose to prominence in the US in the first place. Butterfly pea cocktails -- often described as galaxy cocktails or mood rings -- have the ability to delight consumers with its color-changing properties.

It’s all basic science: butterfly pea tea’s PH balance is delicate, and the introduction of acid like lemon juice can change the drink from a deep indigo, to a rich, royal purple, to even bright magenta-pink. Butterfly pea tea can be layered with lemonade and, when poured slowly, can emerge as a two-toned beverage that people can't help but to Instagram.

At Citroën, a cocktail bar and bistro located in Brooklyn, butterfly pea tea finds it way in two drinks. “We use it in a cocktail called the ‘Disco Nap,’” Dawn Eldrige, the general manager and beverage director of Citroën, revealed. The drink uses Modagor gin infused with butterfly pea flowers and “when layered with citrus it reacts with the PH change and morphs into a beautiful fuchsia color.” In addition to the Disco Nap, Citroën also serves up their interpretation of an Arnold Palmer using butterfly pea tea. “These drinks are wildly popular with our guests for a host of reasons: it’s a stunning drink, catches the eye, and it's also very enjoyable to drink,” Eldrige added.

As butterfly pea tea continues to become more and more popular, access to the tea has increased. Amazon now carries the tea, as does popular tea brand DavidsTea in a blend dubbed the "Magic Potion." The tea arrives both as a dried flower to steep, or ground into a powder for decorative purposes and to make dyeing food easier. Though the price point isn’t as cheap as what you can find in Southeast Asia -- and can run you up to $15 for an 80 gram pack -- you don’t have to fly all the way to Thailand to get your tea fix.

It will be interesting to witness what new culinary creations innovators in the food sphere come up with. Will the eye-catching blue dye extracted from butterfly pea flowers lend itself to indigo cheese pizzas, ultra-violet lemon cakes, or perhaps blue breads and pastries? If you haven’t had the tea, it’s only a matter of time before it seeps its way into your cocktails, your food, and your Instagram feed.

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Kat Thompson is a staff food writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.