Surprisingly, all tea leaves come from the same basic plant, Camellia sinensis, a type of evergreen shrub. Tea plants grow in China, India, Sri Lanka, and some locations in Africa and South America. Tea leaves are picked fresh from the bush and then dried and rolled. Different tea flavors are based on how long they’ve been fermented and from a blending of additives such as essential oils or herbs and spices.
The highest quality tea comes from the whole leaves or those damaged least in rolling. The dust of the leaves left in the rolling process tend to go into the lowest grade teas. Thus, while they all come from the same plant, there are thousands of variations of tea.
There are four main types of teas: green (unfermented), white (barely fermented), oolong (partially fermented), and black (fully fermented).
Of course, there are many variations of the basic types of tea based on growing area, climate, use of young leaves or older ones, blending, and so on.
Among black teas you will find Pekoe teas, Assam, Darjeeling (considered the connoisseur’s choice), Nilgiri, Ceylon, and Keemun. These are typically dark, rich and hearty teas, good hot or iced.
The pride of oolong teas is Formosa Oolong. It is outstanding, and expensive, as teas go. Pouchong teas and Pu Erh also belong to this category. Oolong teas are often used in blending, because they tend to enhance the flavors of the other teas, even cheaper ones.
Green teas include Gunpowder (very mild), Hyson, Imperial, Chun Mees, Sow Mees, and Matcha. They make a distinctive pale grey-green color tea which can be a little bitter, if allowed to steep too long. For brewing, the tea leaves are sometimes rolled into tiny balls resembling lead shot.
White teas like Silver Needles and White Peony are very fine and rare. They are a light color with a very delicate flavor.
Blended teas include old favorites like Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Black Currant, Lady Londonberry, Lapsang Souchong, Russian Caravan, Jasmine, and Chai.
All types of tea can be blended with other teas or with oils, herbs, spices, fruit and other tastes to form a brand new tea flavor. But it takes finesse and practice to get it right, so most people opt for tried-and-true commercially blended teas. Blended black and oolong teas are by far the most popular in the West, but green tea is gaining in popularity because of its healthful properties.
In the end, your choice of tea is a simple matter of taste, anyway. Serve what you like. Like the perfect pot of coffee, brewing the perfect pot of tea takes practice, but here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind:
- Your tea will only be as good as your water. It is best to use filtered or spring water only. If you must use tap water, take water during the day time from a tap and leave it out overnight. Once the water has come to the boil, take off the lid of the pot, turn the heat down to low and continue to heat for 5 minutes. This gets rid of any unpleasant smells the water may have,
- Wait until the water is near boiling, then pour a little into the teapot and swirl it around. This warms the pot so that it is at an optimum temperature for holding the tea. Empty the pot.
- For black, oolong and herbal teas, you will want the water at a full rolling boil, but for green and white teas, you will want to bring it to a boil and remove it from the heat to let it cool a minute of two before using.
- To the warmed teapot add one slightly rounded teaspoon of a tea per cup plus one teaspoon for the pot. You may strain the tea leaves when you pour, or you may place the tea in a tea ball or diffuser and pour the hot water over it. You might also use one tea bag in the pot for each cup.
- When the water in the kettle has reached a rolling boil, pour it in the pot and allow the tea to steep for three to five minutes.
- Remove bags or leaves from the pot and serve the tea in teacups with saucers.
If you’d rather let your guests try teas individually, just provide a teapot with hot water, and let them choose their own leaves or teabags from a selection you provide.
Enjoy your cup of tea!