A Coffee Lover's Guide to Tea
I have nothing against Starbucks. In fact I like Starbucks. I often purchase espresso-based drinks there. But I must tell you, they don't know teas as well as they know coffee. Other national chains do better with tea. Peet's has a wonderful tea collection, so does Quartermaine's. But if you think that "Thunderbolt Darjeeling" put out by Republic of Tea or the green "Zen" tea put out by TAZO is equivalent to Jamaican Blue Mountain you are wrong. I think that the coffee lover needs to have a basic understanding of tea. It only makes sense, you should broaden your horizons and challenge your taste buds. Besides, don't you thrive on caffeine? Let me go through some basic information. I'll use a lot of coffee analogies so that you coffee connoisseurs can follow along.
A Breakdown Of Tea Grades, By Analogy
- Lipton's = Folgers
- Twinning = Canned Cafe du Monde
- Republic of Tea = Starbucks House Blend
- Speciality loose leaf = Speciality whole bean
French Press coffee drinkers understand the benefits of steeping. The action of steeping coffee in the French Press allows more of the flavors of the coffee to mature. Similarly, tea connoisseurs drink loose-leaf tea made in a teapot, because the tea leaves have an opportunity to fully open. The full opening of the leaves creates a more full bodied taste experience. Sometimes a tea connoisseur may use an infuser or even a single-use, manual-feed tea bag, but rarely do we drink tea from pre-packaged tea bags. This is because the leaves don't have enough room to open, swell and fully develop in the pre-packaged tea bag. Thus the flavor doesn't have the opportunity to fully develop. Furthermore, in general, pre-packaged tea bags are a sign that the tea is of inferior quality (think Lipton's and make an analogy with Folgers). However, there is a time and a place for tea bags, so don't go overboard on this point. Occasionally, I'll have a cup of tea made from a tea bag for the sake of convenience.
Never make coffee with water that was previously boiled and never use coffee grounds more than once. Similarly, always use fresh cold water and bring it to a boil before pouring it on top of the tea leaves. Only use the tea leaves one time. Honestly, there are some very gross cheapskates out there who use tea bags more than once. One guy that I work with told me that he "gets about 3 or 4 uses out of the same tea bag." Then he told me that his brother once boiled some hot dogs and used the same water for tea! The story still gives me nightmares.
How Tea Is Made
There are only 3 different types of tea: black, oolong, and green. Everyone thinks that herbal tea is tea, but it really isn't tea, just like chicory grounds aren't really coffee. All tea comes from the tea plant; Latin names of the species are Camellia thea, Thea sinensis orCamellia sinesis. The plant has shiny green leaves and small white flowers. Like coffee plants, the plants can grow to 30 feet in the wild, but they tea trees are pruned to around 3 feet for cultivation. Actually, the tea tree's leaves and the coffee plant's leaves look somewhat similar, only the tea leaves are smaller.
Black tea undergoes a complete fermentation process. Leaves are picked, left to wither slightly, then they are rolled. Internal enzymes cause fermentation. Next the leaves are collected into containers and dried in the sun and/or "fired" by some method (mechanically or over a literal fire). The tea is then sorted and packaged.
Oolong teais semi-fermented tea, produced with larger leaves. The fermentation process is stopped by firing the tea earlier than black tea. The name Oolong comes from the region that first developed this type of tea in Formosa (modern-day Taiwan).
Green tea is produced by steaming the leaves right away, thus destroying the enzymes that would begin the fermentation process. The tea is then dried in the sun, fired, sorted and packaged.
Herbal teas aren't really teas. Instead, they are tisanes. In fact, most dictionary and encyclopedia entries will have a secondary or tertiary definition that says something like "a drink resembling tea" and then the dictionary will make reference to herbal teas. Personally, I think that is like someone saying that carob tastes like chocolate therefore let's call it chocolate. Actually, carob tastes like a healthy, pseudo version of chocolate but carob can never taste like Godiva chocolate. Similarly, herbal teas no matter how good-for-you they are, how little caffeine or how high quality, can never taste like Lapsang Souchong, Imperial Gunpowder or Earl Grey.
A Good Tea for High Tea
Which brings me back to my original rant. OK, so you like coffee and you want to learn to pick a good tea in case you are in England and have an audience with Camilla Parker Bowles at High Tea, or something.
To find a good tea, go to a specialty tea or coffee shop with a wide, loose-leaf tea selection. A good quality tea will cost about $6 or more for a quarter pound (up to $25). However, you'll find that a quarter pound of tea will last a lot longer than a quarter pound of coffee. Also, tea doesn't have nearly as many storage issues as coffee. You can store tea in a ceramic canister for a year without any fear of losing flavor.
If you like this kind of coffee, try this kind of tea
|Espresso||Imperial Gunpowder - tightly rolled full-potency green tea leaves explode with a complex flavor spectrum.|
Lapsang Souchong - a smoky tea that has a wonderful leather smell.
|Kenyan, Zimbabwe, Ethiopian Harrar||Earl Grey - a rich body (usually a Darjeeling base) with a penetrating taste and oil of bergamot.|
|Guatemalan, Sulawesi||Keemun (fancy or Lion Mountain) - a deep, mellow black China tea.|
|Tanzania Peaberry, Ethiopian Sidamo||Assam (Goldentip, or extra fancy) - a full-bodied malty tea.|
|Puerto Rican Yauco Selecto, Papua New Guinea||Formosa Oolong - pleasant smooth aftertaste|
China Gui Hua -black tea with pieces of dried kwei flowers.
|Sumatran||Jasmine blossom (fancy or Yin Hao) - a green tea with a floral scent and a pleasant aftertaste, Ti Kwan Yin - a fruity, oolong tea.|
|Brazilian, Kona||China Rose Petal - black tea with dried roses added.|
|White Peony||green tea with dried peonies added|
I've only listed varietals that are commonly available. I've had more unusual teas, but you might get frustrated trying to find them and give up the experiment. My suggestion is to stay away from most blends for a little while. If you do that, you'll begin to isolate flavor components and master the types of tea that you like. Also, I suggest that you try tea straight - no sugar, no milk. That way you'll be able to taste the complex flavors.
There you have it, I hope that you will give tea a try. I think that you will find that tea has as many levels of taste, body and aroma as coffee.
Published: July 1999, Last Modified: August 2012