Thanks to the proliferation of Starbucks, local coffee shops, and local coffee shops that sell Starbucks, you probably know the difference between a latte and a cappuccino. But when it comes to tea, you know thereís green tea and something called a Chai latte. So sit down, Iíll put the kettle on and let you steep yourself in tea knowledge.
Black: Black tea leaves sit out and are allowed to wither before processing. After they are sufficiently limp, they are rolled and allowed to sit somewhere humid for a few hours (this is when the leaves ferment and are no longer green). Last, the leaf is fired (usually by a large oven) to stop fermentation. Itís here that black tea achieves its identifiable smell. Liquid is usually a strong brown with varying degrees of transparency.
Oolong: In between black and green sits oolong. First leaves are sun dried and tossed about in a basket. After that, the drying stage occurs until the leaves begin to yellow (usually a couple hours). Oolong tea is only allowed a partial fermentation; they are fired sooner than black tea, which ends the fermentation earlier. Liquid is usually an orange to brown color.
Green: Fresh leaves dry and are fired before they can ferment at all. Usually roasted, they are sometimes steamed to dry completely after a short period in the sun. After one short roasting (under five minutes) the leaves are rolled into balls before being roasted again. A few hours after the second roasting the leaves are in their final state, ready for packing and shipping. Liquid varies from vibrant to pale yellow.
White: Tea leave buds are picked before opening and are allowed to wither. After drying, the curling buds turn a silver color. Liquid is usually a light yellow color.
Black, green, and oolong teas can all be blended, scented, and flavored. Plantation teas vary in taste from year to year because of environmental affects. Blending a variety of teas from different plantations creates a mixture for tea bags that has a more reliable flavor. Some of the most popular blends are listed below.
Earl Grey: Chinese or Chinese-Indian based tea leaves that have been tainted with oil from a bergamot (like an orange). Different brands use different amounts of bergamot and therein lies the largest difference in flavor variation. Too little bergamot makes Earl Grey lose its unique taste but too much can make it taste like itís been flavored with dish soap. Earl Grey works well for teatime with sweets or with foods like fish and strong cheeses.
English Breakfast: Indian based Ceylon and African teas mixed in different quantities depending on brand. As the name implies, this tea is recommended for breakfast. However, keep in mind that a typical British breakfast is usually heartier than a bowl of cereal and includes hot food like bacon and eggs.
Irish Breakfast: Assam based tea leaves blended with African leaves. Stronger than British breakfast tea, Irish breakfast is for those who desire a cup of tea that is more kin to coffee. Again ideal for hearty breakfasts or a hot lunch.
Afternoon Blend: China based Darjeeling and Ceylon leaves sometimes flavored lightly. This tea is usually a mellower companion to foods than breakfast varieties, which makes it ideal for lighter foods or a post meal conversation.
Flavored Tea: White, Green or Black tea that has been mixed with spices, fruit oil, or flowers just before packaging. One example is Jasmine tea: Chinese green oolong or black tea is intermixed with blooming jasmine flowers, set out for hours, and then re-fired to remove moisture. Some varieties of jasmine tea do not contain actual jasmine flowers. The blooming jasmine is instead set next to the tea leaves for a few hours. This can be repeated for three to seven days depending on the amount of jasmine flavor desired.
Tea can be purchased pre bagged or loose-leaf and there are boons and busts to both options. Tea bags let you conveniently brew one cup at a time with minimal effort. Afterwards, cleanup is also quicker and easier as there are no extra components to brewing. Conversely, it is also more convenient when brewing a large quantity of tea. While the smaller leaf parts used in tea bags usually impart a flavor stronger than loose leaf tea, the more subtle flavors are lost in the strength. Tea bags only have a shelf life of about six months; loose leaf tea can stay usable for just under 2 years.
However, most consumers of loose leaf tea rarely experience the benefit of shelf longevity; they drink tea more often and itís not hard to see why. For one, the difference in taste between bagged tea and loose leaf is comparable to a drip coffee brew against a French press (sorry to all the non coffee drinkers); the more complex flavors come out only when brewed loose leaf. There are many tools to help you make loose leaf tea without getting the leaf pieces stuck to your lip when drinking. The most common are the muslin infuser, teaball infuser, and spring handled infuser. A muslin infuser is a reusable cloth teabag with a drawstring. The metal equivalent is the teaball infuser; it can be mesh or metal with holes bored into it. After it is dropped into the boiling liquid, it can be removed with an attached chain. Spring handled and spoon infusers are again mesh or metal with holes, but instead of a chain they have a handle to remove the tea leaves after the brew reaches the right strength. Some teapots have an infuser and plunger built in for more seamless brewing. A cautionary note: infusers made for one cup of tea sometimes do not brew properly since the tea leaves do not have space to expand and suitably infuse. Remember the downside to a more complicated brew, besides the time required, is the cleanup afterwards.
The Basic Procedure: Your kettleís on the stove but donít slosh all that water into your pot just yet. Before adding all of your hot water to the teapot from the kettle, first swish some around your teapot to warm the interior surface. Then add one teaspoon loose-leaf tea to your infuser for every 8oz or so of water (or 1 bag per 8oz). Now pour in hot or boiling water depending on tea type: black and oolong teas require boiling water but white and green teas should only have hot water added. After a few minutes (this depends on your tastes as well as your tea) the leaves should be removed.
Water: Soft and filtered water works best because any impurity in the water (hard water contains calcium carbonate) comes through in the tea quality.
Teapots: Cast iron, pewter, and silver teapots are ideal for stronger teas and porcelain is more suitable for lighter and green teas. A Chinese Yixing (stoneware) teapot has been touted by tea devotees but should be reserved for use with only one type of tea since the porous body will absorb tea elements. Much like cast iron cookware, a fine teapot should never be washed with soap or dried by hand on the inside. If you really need to clean away deposits (you heavy tea drinker) use a baking soda and boiling water soak.
Milk: Milk in tea has traditionally been a British convention. It is not recommended in many cases; ideally limit milk use to stronger black teas. Pouring milk in first follows the tradition of British milk use in tea and also supposedly avoids scalding the milk. However, until you are sure of a milk to tea ratio that suites your taste, it may be better to add milk to the tea.
Sugar: Again supposedly British in origin, adding sugar to tea is purely a matter of personal preference. Tea enthusiasts will normally refuse sugar as they would milk to avoid impurities in tea taste, yet sweet tea in America as well as Britain has almost always been socially acceptable.
Iced Tea: Start with a Ceylon, Green or infused and mild black tea (usually most infusions work but itís probably best to stay away from strong black teas even when flavored). Brew tea at roughly double strength (i.e. 1 teaspoon or bag of tea for every 4 or so oz.), sweeten if desired, and put in the refrigerator until cool. Serve over a full cup of ice or dilute by half and serve over half cups of ice. Adding lemons or oranges either directly or on the edge of glasses can make your tea more flavorful as can fresh mint leaves.
Storing Tea: Tea, like coffee, should be stored in a fairly airtight container at about room temperature. Traditionally the Chinese have used jars and bottles, which the British at first used before turning to tea chests and caddys. Caddy, in its original translation, meant 1lb 5, but soon the term caddy and tea chest were used interchangeably. Sometimes a caddy would have different compartments for storing sugar and a variety of teas. Almost all were lockable in an era where tea commanded a much higher price than today. Various shapes, styles, and materials were used; from highly polished wooden boxes to rare tortoiseshell creations no material was too fine for holding tea. As tea devalued, locks were less common and the occurrence of cheaper varieties, including tins, was increasingly common.