My friend Anya is way more into wine than tea, so it took some cajoling to get her to travel an hour and a half away from home to our small tasting room where we settled in for a three-hour tasting of teas from all over India.
“I want you to see the amazing teas I keep blabbing at you about,” I told her, and good sport that she was, she acquiesced. A bribe of dumplings beforehand probably helped.
So there we were, hunched over tiny stools under fluorescent lights, while the staff prepared five teas for us to try. The first tea left Anya cold, and I watched her say the same “oh that’s…interesting” dismissal I’ve heard so many times before. Then we moved on to the Darjeeling oolong.
She took a sip and her eyes went wide and she almost yelled at me, “How does this taste like riesling? Is that peach skin? Black walnut?”
I knew she was hooked, because she was picking up on something tea lovers have known all along: The same vocabulary we use for coffee, spirits, and wine—tannins and fruit undertones and terroir—are all just as applicable to tea. In that black walnut-peach skin moment, she understood that tea is something worth paying attention to, not just a hot drink for when you’re under the weather.
Every year I’m left in the lurch wondering when tea will get its due. Delicious, ubiquitous, nourishing, gently stimulating, and rich with history and lore, to say nothing of glossy tools to drop money on, tea has everything you could want in an obsession-worthy drink. Perhaps the problem is writing a trend piece on what’s already the world’s most popular beverage after water.
Or perhaps it’s that tea can’t shake its image in the West as the drink of grandmothers and British people in rain boots. Coffee gets a siphon pot. Tea gets a cozy.
It’s time to ditch that rep.
So if all you know about tea is the English Breakfast tea bags growing stale in your cupboard, I’d like to convince you to dig deeper and see just why tea is so deserving of our respect and appreciation.
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT TEA:
CAMELLIA SINENSIS VS. HERBAL TEA
All tea comes from a single plant: a gnarly, shlubby-looking bush with the scientific name Camellia sinensis. Whether a tea is black, green, or oolong, all are different varieties or treatments of the same plant.
Herbal teas, namely teas made from, you know, herbs like mint and chamomile, aren’t, strictly speaking, tea. They have a name all their own—tisane. I don’t have anything against herbal tea, but in my mind they’re a whole different category of drink, and there’s plenty to Camellia sinensis all on its own.
FLAVORED TEA VS. FLAVORFUL TEA
I’m going to ask for another leap of faith: Skip the flavored tea. Or at least don’t begin your tea education with it.
Now lots of people love their Earl Grey or a particular chai blend, but drinking flavored tea by default is like saying it’s best to drink coffee with a shot of hazelnut syrup, or that white wine’s only worthwhile if diluted with ice cubes, or that the only way to have bourbon is mixed into a Manhattan. On a philosophical level, it also suggests that unflavored tea lacks flavor, which isn’t the case at all.
I’d argue the opposite, particularly in regards to East Asian styles that are designed to be drunk straight, not with milk. The world’s supply of tea is vast, but its supply of amazing-tasting tea is rather small. That eye-opening tea worth seeking out like a $500 bottle of Bordeaux? It’s not getting flavored. Rather, if a factory or after-market vendor is adding extra flavors to a tea, it’s probably because that tea needs a flavor boost.
So here’s how you can get started with tasting these gorgeous loose leaf teas:
- LOOK at the beautiful unbroken leaves
- SMELL the essential oils and fuller flavours
- MEASURE one TSP for a mug and half a TSP for a china cup
- BREW green teas for 2 minutes, black teas for 2-3 minutes and Whites for less than 2mins.
ENJOY a handcrafted, very special and delicious cup
Getting started with loose leaf tea can seem like a daunting task. The good news is that a few basic tools are all you really need to make a great cuppa at home. Before you consider your equipment, make sure to use freshly boiled spring or filtered water. Microwaving your water can make the taste flat and bland because it rapidly removes oxygen from the water.
Control The Temperature
Black teas and pu-erh can usually be made with boiling water but for other teas you’ll need to control the temperature. Variable temperature tea kettles are widely available but you can also do things the old fashioned way. Many tea retailers sell thermometers that are specifically made for tea but any kitchen thermometer will do the trick as well.
Hold Your Leaves
In addition to temperature you’ll also need to be careful about how long the tea leaves are allowed to steep. There are a lot of different tools available to hold your tea leaves while brewing. When shopping there are two important things to keep in mind, avoiding plastic and making sure that your leaves have room to expand.
If the tea can’t stretch its legs, you’ll be missing out on flavor.
Plastic pieces that come into contact with the tea should be avoided because they can add unpleasant tastes. Metal is also much easier to keep clean over time. Traditionally styled tea balls can be too restricting for all but the tiniest of leaves. Basket style infusers are usually my go to when I’m only brewing one cup. Making your own tea bags will do in a pinch, especially while traveling, with easy to fill tea filters.
Sip in Style
This is your chance to really show off your personality. Whether its a pretty vintage teacup or a big mug displaying your love for Dr. Who, what you sip your brew out of is entirely up to you. Some tea drinkers prefer glass or plain white porcelain so that they can better appreciate the color of their tea. Thicker walled cups will keep your tea hot for longer so they work well for multi-tasking.
Simple, isn’t it?