Most people think they know tea. Let’s see if you can answer:
- What is tea?
- What are Oolong and Pu’er (or Pu-erh) teas?
- What’s the difference between Chinese, and Japanese green tea?
If you can’t answer these questions, chances are you’re not very familiar with loose-leaf tea. In fact, you likely don’t enjoy tea all that much. Even if you do, you mostly use tea bags.
Let me tell you this:
- After reading this guide to tea, you’ll know enough about tea to answer the above questions.
- You will feel confident buying tea and talking about it. No more fear of seeming ignorant.
- You will be inspired to try loose leaf tea. You’ll discover a whole new taste and your tea will never be the same.
I’ve been a beginner tea drinker a few years ago myself, I used to think that Oolong is some sort of a special ingredient!
Now I run a tea shop.
It is never too late to start learning about tea, and this beginner’s guide to tea is the perfect place to start.
What Is Tea?
Tea is a beverage resulting from steeping tea leaves in hot water. It is the second most popular drink in the world, after water.
Tea leaves come from a plant called Camellia Sinensis, which is native to some East Asian countries. There are hundreds of cultivars of the Camellia Sinensis plant, but they primarily belong to families var. Sinensis and var. Assamica originated in China and the Assam region of India respectively.
We like to call beverages made by steeping dried fruit or herbs – herbal teas, however, they’re more correctly called herbal infusions, tisanes, or simply hot drinks.
All teas, oolong, green, black, and others come from the same plant – Camellia Sinensis.
What Gives The Tea Its Taste?
Chemicals most responsible for the taste, aroma, and benefits of tea are polyphenols, mostly flavonoids. Additionally, caffeine and amino acids, such as L-theanine, contribute to its flavor. The ratios of those substances are different in each type of tea.
When the fresh tea leaves are plucked, they start oxidizing, kind of like an apple that’s been cut. Oxidation may be further encouraged by bruising tea leaves. It changes the chemical composition of tea, by converting polyphenols into new compounds – mainly theaflavins and thearubigins.
Oxidation is stopped by subjecting the tea leaves to heat by steaming, roasting, or baking.
The ratios of these chemicals also depend on the cultivar of the tea plant, soil, climate conditions, elevation, and time of the year that harvest takes place. This is why tea tastes differently depending on what region or even garden it comes from.
The Six Types Of Tea
Even though it comes from the same plant, tea can look and taste vastly different depending on how it is processed. There are six primary different types of tea.
Black tea is fully oxidized, giving it a strong and rich taste and a dark color. This is the most consumed class of tea in the West.
The British introduced the grading of black teas, by assigning letters based on the characteristics of the tea leaves, for instance, OP for Orange Pekoe, T for Tippy, or Golden – G.
However, don’t pay much attention to this classification when you see it, because they’re subject to each estate’s interpretation. Also, they merely describe the shape of the tea leaf – the taste can only be evaluated by *ehm..* tasting the infusion.
Black tea is primarily grown in the Assam and Darjeeling regions of India, and Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon).
Black teas are most likely to be found in tea bags. However, I encourage you to venture beyond the realm of your supermarket and look online for a loose-leaf alternative. Most of the black teas enjoyed by tea drinkers do come in loose-leaf form. I offer Earl Grey and English Breakfast in my tea shop, and it’s a great place to start.
Brisk and lively on the tongue, with notes of toasted caramel. A blend of broken Ceylon black teas creates a delicious and refreshing, amber-colored cup.
I ensure you – after trying a loose-leaf alternative to your black tea, your old tea will taste nothing more than hot water.
Green tea is non-oxidized which keeps the leaves green. The method used to prevent oxidation can dramatically alter the taste. Both China and Japan are famous for their green teas, but they both process it differently.
Chinese Green Teas
Chinese briefly wither their tea leaves and immediately pan-fire it to halt oxidation. It is then often rolled and twisted to make beautiful shapes. Sometimes the tea is pan-fired again before drying in a dryer. This can sometimes impart a slightly smoky or toasty flavor to the tea. Finally, the leaves are sorted for size and color.
The resulting tea is usually light and can have floral, vegetal, or grassy flavors.
One of the most famous Chinese teas. The pressed leaves unfold to create a golden-jade infusion with umami flavor, the aroma of toasted grass, and floral sweetness.
Notable Chinese green teas include Longjing (Dragon Well) and Zhu Cha (Gunpowder) tea.
Japanese Green Teas
Japanese skip withering their green tea and use steam to soften the tea leaves, halt oxidation and start developing their flavor. Steamed tea acquires an intensely green color, which can be the main visual differentiator between Japanese and Chinese green teas.
The tea then undergoes an automated process of rolling, shaping, and drying. Japanese don’t normally sort their tea leaves, which results in thick and brothy green tea. Some bushes are shaded a few weeks before harvest, which creates a rich and sweet tea without any bitterness.
Japanese green tea is known for its savory, umami notes. It can have a grassy, vegetal, bittersweet taste.
Light and sweet flavor. The roasted rice give an amazing fragrance and nutty taste. It brews into a bright yellow, brothy cup. The puffed rice look like popcorn!
Somewhere in the middle between green tea and black tea, lies Oolong tea. Its oxidation levels can range anywhere from as little as 10 percent to as much as 80 percent. Achieving this is not an easy feat, however.
The process alternates between rolling and shaking to begin oxidation, and pan firing to slow it down. This creates many layers of flavor that oolongs are known for. For some oolongs, the process ends here, but others are left to rest on bamboo trays for a few hours to continue oxidizing.
Some oolongs go through an extra step. The tea leaves are put in a canvas bag, which is then shaped into a ball and rolled for a while. The leaves would then be taken out of the bag, heated in a tumbler, and returned to the bag to repeat the process all over again – up to thirty times. This leaves the tea shaped in little pearls – it’s known as jade oolong, and you can get it from my tea shop at vistontea.com.
The process ends with a final drying by pan firing or baking in low temperatures to stop oxidation. Baking the oolong imparts even deeper flavors and toasty notes – they’re known as amber oolongs. Some oolongs may be baked every year to draw out the moisture, and they’re known as aged oolongs.
This laborious process requires deep expertise. It’s overseen by a tea master who decides when to move on to the next production step just by the aroma of tea! No wonder it’s such a highly prized tea.
Oolongs can taste more closely to either green tea or black tea, depending on their oxidation levels. They tend to have a mild, floral, fruity taste and a thick but smooth texture.
Fruity and sweet flavor reminiscent of peach blossoms. Tightly rolled balls unfurl in your teapot to create a golden-green, buttery-smooth, mildly sweet infusion.
The most famous oolong teas are made in China and Taiwan. Taiwan even holds large competitions which can bring fame and financial reward to the tea master. I encourage you to try oolong as your first tea beyond the green-tea-black-tea safe zone. And the best way to do that is to simply get it from my tea shop.
Dark Tea (Pu-Erh)
Pu-erh (or Pu’er) tea is a fermented tea that has a growing cult following in the west. It originated in Yunnan province in China, but similar tea is being produced in Hunan. Both are called hei cha – “dark tea” or “black tea” in Chinese. Pu-erh is more popular, and it’s common to refer to this kind of tea as a whole as pu-erh tea.
Pu-erh is initially processed similarly to green tea, but afterwards the leaves are allowed to undergo microbial fermentation and some oxidation. This fermentation is a meticulously controlled process, which is usually kept secret by tea producers.
There are two kinds of pu-erh tea – Sheng pu-erh (raw pu-erh) and Shou pu-erh (ripe pu-erh).
Sheng pu-erh may very well be the first kind of tea that people used to drink. It’s speculated that it could be over 10,000 years old. Because of that, it will not come as a surprise that producing a good Sheng pu-erh takes time.
Sheng pu-erh is stored in a controlled setting for at least 2-3 years, sometimes decades before being sold! With proper storage, they will age and keep developing their flavors. Pu-erhs will sometimes have a strong aroma, that I can best describe as a damp towel.
Due to the rising demand for pu-erh tea, producers looked for ways to speed up the aging process. Thus, Shou pu-erh was developed.
It is made the same way, but the fermentation process is more involved. Rather than let the tea naturally ferment, the tea leaves are moistened, then put in a large pile in a warm and humid place. It is then turned to encourage fermentation, without letting the leaves decompose.
This process can take several months and produces a similar result to naturally aged teas. However, Shou pu-erh has a more earthy taste than Sheng pu-erh, which won’t develop much over time.
If you’ve been on your tea journey for a while you likely have seen tea pressed into disks and wondered what’s the deal. After the initial fermentation, pu-erh teas are sometimes pressed into various shapes such as disks, bowls, bricks, or coins, before being sold.
Loose-leaf Sheng Pu-erh with an earthy and slightly sweet taste, mild profile, and an intensive smell of fermented tea. Brews into a dark-colored, full-bodied, rich cup.
To me, pu-erh seems to have a world of its own. Everything from its presentation to its taste is fascinating. Also, it’s low in caffeine, which makes it a good option for those who are sensitive to it.
Not surprisingly, pu-erh tea can’t be found in your regular supermarket. However, I do recommend you try it – and there’s no better way to do that than ordering it online from my tea shop.
White tea originated in the mountains of Fujian province in China. It comes from the buds of Da Bai (large white) variety of tea bushes. The leaves are long, narrow, and whitish in appearance. Some producers from other countries argue that white tea isn’t defined by the bush and its location, but rather a process.
White tea is the least processed variety of tea. The freshly plucked buds are only briefly withered before gently drying them. This results in a very light, mellow tea with a hint of floral and fruity sweetness.
It is a type of very delicate tea with a subtle taste, so it is best suited to experienced tea lovers who want to take their time understanding and appreciate its flavor. Notable teas include Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle), Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrow), and Bai Mu Dan (White Peony).
This is the rarest, most exclusive tea, that’s hard to come across outside of China. It’s similar in appearance to green tea, however, the processing is different and quite interesting.
After plucking the buds in the early spring, they are subjected to the same processing as green tea until they’re pan-fired. Afterwards, the tea leaves are wrapped in cloth or thick paper and put in a dark place to slowly cool and oxidize. This process of firing and cooling is called piling and is repeated several times over 3-4 days.
Notable yellow teas include Jun Shan Yin Zhen (Gentleman Mountain Silver Needles), Meng Ding Huang Ya (Mengding Yellow Sprout), and Huoshan Huang Ya (Huo Mountain Yellow Sprout).
Why Should You Choose Loose-Leaf Tea Over Tea Bags?
Tea bags sure are convenient, but that’s where their advantages end. Nevertheless, over 90% of people primarily use tea bags to prepare their tea. If you’re one of them, may want to reconsider.
Problems With Tea Bags
- Most tea bags release plastic particles and other potentially toxic elements into your tea.
- They contain ground-up tea dust or tiny shreds of tea leaves instead of a whole leaf.
- Tea bags contain a mix of several teas from different regions and varying degrees of freshness, to achieve a unique and consistent, but stale and unsophisticated taste.
- They are hard to keep fresh. Individually packing them isn’t much better – they will have lost their freshness long before that.
- Because of the large surface area of tea dust, the tea goes bitter very quickly, most of the time, before it’s even steeped sufficiently. That may your reason for putting milk in tea.
- They are less economical. Only the really cheap tea bags can compare with the cost of buying loose-leaf tea.
- They offer little variety. You won’t find exotic teas such as Pu’er or Genmaicha. Even Japanese teas, such as Sencha or Gyokuro, don’t come in tea bags.
- Nobody will get excited if you bring them a teapot with a tea bag dangling inside of it.
All of these issues are solved by switching to loose-leaf tea. Are you sure you’re happy to make these sacrifices for a little bit more convenience tea bags offer?
There’s nothing wrong with liking a particular brand of tea bags. However, if you’re serious about getting into tea and enjoying the real deal, you should switch to loose-leaf tea.
Brewing Loose-Leaf Tea
Loose leaf tea generally follows the same basic brewing instructions:
- Heat up some water – black tea needs boiling water, and green tea needs hot water at around 80°C (let it cool for a few minutes).
- Add some tea to a brewing vessel of your liking.
- Pour boiling water on the tea leaves and let them steep for some time.
There are three main variables to keep in mind – the water temperature, the amount of tea leaves used, and steeping time. Generally – the more tea leaves you use, the less they need to steep, otherwise they get bitter.
How Much Tea To Use?
The amount of tea you should use depends on what vessel you’re using and how many people you intend to serve.
Brewing In A Teapot
A western kind of teapot should be filled with a teaspoon (~2 grams) of tea per person, plus an additional teaspoon of tea “for the teapot”. The same leaves can be infused several times, with a slight increase in steeping time. This is called the western method of brewing.
A quick tip: use 2 teapots – an ugly one for brewing, and a pretty one for serving. Strain out the tea into a pretty pot after the tea is done steeping. This ensures that if there’s some tea left in the teapot after the first round is served, it doesn’t get bitter by continuing to steep.
Brewing In A Cup
Making a teapot of tea when you just want a single cup is usually impractical. To make a good cup of tea from loose leaves, you need to use a proper infuser. Don’t use the small ball-shaped, clamp-style infusers – they’re way too small to let the leaves unfold and infuse fully – get a cylindrical infuser.
To make tea using an infuser, simply plop it in a cup, add a teaspoon of tea, pour hot water on the leaves, and steep as you would in a teapot. Taking a strainer with you when traveling may be cumbersome, for that you can use drip coffee filters – they work great for tea as well!
A Quick tip: sometimes you will forget to take a strainer or filters when traveling. A sad day for sure… I found that you can brew tea in another cup or a cooking pot, then strain it out into a serving cup, by holding the leaves with a spoon or a lid. Get creative!
Eastern Brewing Style
You may have seen Chinese brewing tea in a small, lidded, cup-like vessel – it’s called a gaiwan. The Japanese may use a small teapot with a handle sticking out on the side – it’s called a kyusu.
What they have in common is that it’s not unusual to add quite a lot of tea in them – more than you would in a normal teapot. Normally, the steeping times are shorter, around 20-30 seconds. This is referred to as the eastern method of brewing tea.
I found that brewing pu-erh tea in a teapot or a cup is a bit complicated. I prefer to use a gaiwan to make it – it feels more natural with that kind of tea.
Brewing temperatures vary depending on the kind of tea you’re brewing. Using water that’s too hot for your type of tea will burn it and the tea will taste burnt, too cold and it will not infuse properly. Here’s a quick reference:
- Black tea – 100°C;
- Chinese green tea, Yellow tea – 80°C;
- Japanese green tea – 75°C;
- Oolong tea, White tea – 85°C;
- Pu-erh tea – 90°C;
- Herbal tea – 100°C;
These temperatures are just guidelines, feel free to experiment and find the perfect temperature for your particular tea.
Steeping times also depend on what tea you’re making, and the brewing method you’re using. If you’re using a teapot or a cup, this will serve as a reference for you:
- Black tea: 3-5 minutes. I like 4 minutes.
- Chinese green tea: 1-3 minutes. I like 2, but some people advocate for less.
- Japanese green tea: 0:30-1:30 minutes. I find that Japanese tea needs some experimenting, for instance, I prefer Genmaicha steeped for 2-3 minutes.
- Oolong tea, White tea: 3-5 minutes.
- Pu-erh tea: 3-6 minutes.
If you’re using the eastern method though, steeping times will require some experimenting. I suggest you start with 20-30 seconds and go from there. As always, these times are just guidelines, every person likes their tea differently.
Buying And Storing Loose-Leaf Tea
You will not find good loose-leaf tea in a supermarket. I will skip the nuances of purchasing tea, as I wrote an article on this topic already. But the main point is – buy loose-leaf tea online. You can find some decent tea on Amazon, but the best tea is found in specialized tea shops. An excellent starting point is my tea shop at vistontea.com.
To ensure your tea stays fresh for as long as possible, store it in a dark, cool place. Away from strong smells, unless you like your tea tasting of onions. An excellent place to store your tea is a kitchen cabinet. Just don’t store your tea in the fridge, because the moisture will condense on the tea, dampening it and ruining it.
The world of tea is incredibly big and vibrant. A lifetime wouldn’t be enough to try every tea available, this is why you need somebody to guide you – hopefully, this article will act as the starting point for your tea journey.
The first and the most important step in every tea journey is to start drinking loose-leaf tea. Tea bags will get you nowhere, and its marketing is based on overwhelming you with choice, reselling the same tasteless dust in fancy boxes. Go online to get some good tea, and if you need some help with that, read my article on buying tea next.
There are six different kinds of tea, all offering different tastes and experiences. Among them, you’ll surely find something that you will love. Start with what you’re comfortable with (for me it was loose-leaf earl grey), and let your curiosity lead you.
The last tip I will offer you is – ditch the sugar. Tea offers subtle, nuanced tastes, that are easily overshadowed by the sweetness of sugar. Some teas are actually sweet on their own, and you will not be able to taste the notes of chocolate or fruit in them if you keep adding sugar.
Give it two weeks of drinking tea without sugar, that’s how long it took me to adjust, and I guarantee – your tea will never taste the same again.
Let me know in the comments – what sparked your curiosity to learn more about tea?
Don’t stop here…
Now that you’re excited about loose-leaf tea, you should get some!
And the best place to start is my online tea shop.