by David Savige
tea? If all you know about tea is Liptons and Celestial Seasonings,
then you dont know what youre missing. Theres 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. Its
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
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!
There are three main types of teagreen,
oolong and black, differentiated by the amount of oxidation the leaves
undergo during processing.
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
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.
whole leaf teas, I recommend against using a tea ball or egg, since
they dont 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 teabags weight of
tea per cup in this case. Its 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 its 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
If you dont 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. Dont 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.
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.
If fine teas are new to you and youre
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
This is a small list of some of the more popular
Special Teas at http://www.specialteas.com/
They have the best price that Ive 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. Its best to check their New
Arrivals to make sure youre 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 years vintage will be a little different,
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 Ive 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
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.
Its 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/
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