by David Savige


Why tea? If all you know about tea is Lipton’s and Celestial Seasonings, then you don’t know what you’re missing. There’s a fascinating variety of finely made teas from around the world available now that are fun to try, and they make the supermarket tea bags seem dull and two dimensional by comparison. Most mass-produced, commercial tea is made from cheap grades of tea, such as dust and tiny pieces, so that it will steep quickly, and produce a pleasant, if somewhat generic brew that will accept milk, sugar, or lemon. Fine quality teas consist of whole or larger parts of leaves, have greater depth and complexity of flavor, and a smoother quality. Many of these teas, particularly those from Asia, have enough interesting flavors on their own to stand alone without the addition of milk or sugar. The difference is something like comparing fast food to a meal at a fine restaurant.

There are some very high quality teas being produced at estates in China, Taiwan, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, as well as in some other countries, that are both enjoyable and affordable. It’s interesting to see that while there are a great variety of teas, formed into different shapes and sizes, they actually all come from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. Different flavors result from different varietals, differences in processing, different soils, climate, and elevation.

It might surprise you to know that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world (especially outside the U.S.) next to water. Also, tea is good for you. There have been numerous studies that show that tea consumption helps to prevent cancer and heart disease, so drink up!

Different Types of Tea
There are three main types of tea—green, oolong and black, differentiated by the amount of oxidation the leaves undergo during processing.

Black teas (also referred to as “red” teas by the Chinese) are fully oxidized, meaning that once the leaves are picked and allowed to soften, they are rolled or crushed. This action breaks the fibers and releases the juices and chemicals within the leaves to react to oxygen, turning the leaves from green to a coppery red. They are then baked or “fired” to dry them out, which prepares them for packing, storing and shipping.

Examples of black teas include the rich and spicy Yunnan, and the wine-like and slightly smoky Keemun, sometimes called the “Burgundy” of teas, from China; Darjeeling, sometimes called the “Champagne” of teas, with flavors reminiscent of muscatel and wood, and the robust, malty Assam from India; and the lighter, “fruity-biscuity” Ceylon from Sri Lanka.

Oolong (“black dragon” in Chinese) teas are partially oxidized, with different degrees of oxidation yielding different flavors. After picking, the leaves are shaken in baskets to bruise and oxidize only the edges of the leaves, leaving the inner part of the leaf green and intact. They are left as whole leaves, then rolled into a ball-like shape and fired to dry. These teas are generally found in Taiwan and the Fujian Province of China. There are several varieties in this category, including the delicate and refreshing Baozhong, the orchid and nectar-likehigh mountain oolong, the pungent and woody Tieguanyin, and the slightly malty-sweet floral Baihao.

Green teas are not oxidized, but are formed into different shapes either by pan firing by hand (China) or by steaming (Japan). They are then sorted by size and quality into different grades, the higher grades having a fuller and more complex flavor, and often are able to be steeped more times than the lower grades. China produces the greatest number of these, including the chestnutty Long Ching (Dragon Well), the fruity and fragrant Pi Lo Chun (Green Snail Spring-- much better than it sounds, one of my favorites), the mild, lightly sweet Chun Mei (Precious Eyebrows), and the strong and smoky gunpowder, among hundreds of others.

Japan is the other major producer, offering Sencha (the most common, slightly spinachy), Genmaicha (tea with roasted rice), Matcha (powdered, used in the Japanese tea ceremony), and for the special occasion, Gyokuro.

There is a fourth and less common type of tea called White tea, which consists of tea buds. It is lightly oxidized has a delicate, slightly nutty taste. The finest example is called Yinzhen, or Silver Needles, referring to the long shape of the downy buds.

Equipment and Preparation
For whole leaf teas, I recommend against using a tea ball or egg, since they don’t allow much room for the leaves to expand. Some leaves expand up to four or five times their dry size, and need to have full contact with the water to steep out all their flavor. Better results can be had with a small mesh basket called a Teeli infuser, made in two sizes to fit either a cup or a teapot. If you just steep loose leaves in a teapot, most of them will stay behind when you pour, but you may want to use a small strainer to catch the few leaves that do come through. Chatsford and Bodum make teapots with built-in strainers that are useful for larger amounts of tea. I regularly use something called a gaiwan, a small ceramic covered cup that is made to hold back leaves with the lid tilted when pouring.An additional strainer for the teacup is useful for this method as well, since the smaller particles still seep through. These and other equipment are available at major tea vendors.

Generally one teaspoon of leaves per cup is recommended, though some larger leaf teas are either too long or large to measure with a teaspoon. You can estimate about a teabag’s weight of tea per cup in this case. It’s not necessary to be exact, but obviously more leaves will yield more flavor.

One of the more important aspects of tea preparation is water temperature, especially for green teas. Most Chinese greens will steep best at 170 to 180 degrees, and Japanese teas, often being more delicate, are better at 160 degrees or lower. Brewing green teas too hot will result in a harsh and bitter flavor. Temperature often determines the character of a tea, and sometimes it takes some trial and error to discover the best temperature for a given tea. Fortunately, many tea vendors list a suggested temperature and steeping time for each tea they sell. If not, try around two minutes for green teas, and three to five for blacks, which are steeped with boiling water. For oolongs, try two to four minutes with water just below boiling. The greener the oolong (Baozhong especially, Tong Ting, Jade or High Mountain), the lower the temperature should be. The browner oolongs (Tieguanyin, Bai Hao, etc.) can take higher temperatures. Taste the tea as it steeps to see if it’s gone long enough-- if it tastes good and well balanced, pour and enjoy. If it has steeped too long and is too strong, just add more hot water to dilute it to a normal strength.

If you don’t have a thermometer handy, boiling water poured into a room temperature ceramic cup will cool to 180 degrees in about a minute, 170 degrees in a little over three minutes, and 160 degrees in 6 minutes. Don’t worry; absolute precision is not required, since most good teas will taste just fine at a variety of temperatures. If it tastes dull or muted, try a higher temperature.

Green, white and oolong teas can be steeped at least two or three times, especially if you start with a generous amount of leaf. This is common practice in China, and is one of the characteristics that make tea an economical beverage.

Obviously the better the water used, the better the tea will taste. Spring water is usually recommended, though filtered water is fine, too. Avoid distilled water, since the minerals are needed to obtain the best flavor.

One very commonly used technique in steeping tea is a quick rinse of the dry leaves prior to actually steeping them. If using a basket infuser, the leaves are dipped into the hot water for a few seconds, then that water is tossed out. The wet leaves are then steeped as normal. If using a teapot or gaiwan, the water is poured off immediately, and then fresh water is poured on again for steeping. This rinse helps to remove harshness of flavor, and opens up the leaves to release aroma and flavor. The aroma from the rinsed leaves is often wonderfully fragrant. Rinsing is generally used for greens and oolongs, and can also help Darjeelings, Assams, and Ceylon teas.

As far as storing tea, it should be kept away from humidity, light, and other strong odors as much as possible to retain freshness of flavor and aroma. Vacuum sealing is ideal, but not necessary. Any airtight, opaque container will do fine, though be sure that it doesn't already have any residual odor from whatever was in there before, since the tea will absorb it and lose some of its original taste. While tea leaves can be frozen if they are tightly sealed, they should not be refrigerated, since condensation may develop.

Where to Get Them
If fine teas are new to you and you’re wondering what to try, the best way is to order a number of different samples to see what you like best.

Each sample bag will make at least a few different cups of tea, which will give you a chance to try different water temperatures and steeping times.

All but one of the major tea retailers that I know of have websites, with the URLs listed below. The one exception is Silk Road Teas, run by David Lee Hoffman, a tea expert who actually travels to China every year to work with the tea farmers there to help improve their methods. Consequently, his tea selection is one of the best available.

Silk Road Teas
P.O. Box 287
Lagunitas CA 94938
(415) 488-9017, Fax (415) 488-9015

Online Retailers
This is a small list of some of the more popular current retailers.

Special Teas at http://www.specialteas.com/ They have the best price that I’ve found on the Teeli infuser. They also have customer reviews of individual teas. Very good variety and customer service.

Upton Tea Imports at http://www.uptontea.com They have a large variety of Darjeelings and Assams, and a good selection of every other kind of tea. It’s best to check their “New Arrivals” to make sure you’re getting fresh tea, and when reading customer reviews and comments, check the date of the reviews-- some are a year or more old, and thus refer to a lot of tea they no longer have. Each year’s vintage will be a little different, like wines.

Holy Mountain Trading Co. at http://www.holymtn.com/tea/teas.htm While their shipping price is a little higher than some at $6.00, they have a good variety, and the few teas I’ve tried from them have all been good.

Imperial Tea Court at http://www.imperialtea.com/ A good variety of excellent teas, but tends pricey.

Gray and Seddon at http://gray-seddon-tea.com/index.shtml An Australian retailer with a good variety, plenty of information, teapots and other porcelain, and one of the best selections of Japanese green teas.

The Oolong Tea Store at http://www.oolong-tea.com/ Offers many of the high mountain oolongs from Taiwan, and a sampler of five different teas for $5.01. The quality is good.

Capital Tea at http://www.capitaltea.com/CapitalTea/captea.nsf/Public/Home Located in Toronto, so remember to convert the listed (Canadian) price to US dollars if you live in the US.

Web Resources
It’s especially helpful to read reviews when deciding which tea to try--the following sites are helpful.

We Review Teas, many teas reviewed from the major retailers at http://www.normbrero.com/cgi-bin/viewTea.cgi

The Teamail Newsgroup at Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/teamail/
rec.food.drink.tea
newsgroup and faq at http://www.faqs.org/faqs/drink/tea/faq/

Other interesting links:
TeaMuse, part of Adagio Teas, with articles and realplayer clips at http://www.adagio.com/newsletter/

Tea and Sympathy at http://pages.ripco.net/~c4ha2na9/tea/index.html A list of links to various tea sites, including a fairly comprehensive list of online vendors

World Tea News, http://www.teas.com/ Tea Related Web Resources at
http://hjem.get2net.dk/bnielsen/teaurls.html A big list of links to other tea sites

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