Tender and Fragrant
Tea is Adored by Monks and Poets.
Prepared in White Jade Dishes Couched in Softest Red Silk,
the Topaz-hued Leaves Growing in the Fields are Yours in a Trice;
Ready to Accompany You to Enjoy the Bright Moon of Night and to Greet the Rosy Clouds of Early Dawn.
Never in Ancient or Modern Times Has One Ever Been Tired of Taking it --
Never Can it Be Praised Too Much in the Presence of Those Who Love to Be Drinking!
English translation by Ms. An Yu-bin, Shandong Province, PR China
First off, a 'top ten' of good tea tips:
1. Good tea is not to be found in supermarkets. Tea from supermarkets tastes plain and bitter. High quality teas are sweet, complex and fragrant.
2. Good tea is almost never sold in tea-bags - instead, it comes in loose leaf form - dry leaves in a packet or a tin that you scoop out with a spoon and put in your tea pot.
3. Best teas are found in specialized tea stores; in most places the easiest way is to order tea from online stores - see bottom of this story for links.
4. Despite coming from the same plant, different tea harvests vary greatly in taste - ranging from very mellow flower or fruit taste to extremely powerful earthy taste. Some teas differ as much as coffee differs from wine - in taste.
5. There are five types of tea: black, green, white, oolong and pu-erh.
6. Tea can be naturally decaffeinated without loss of flavor by infusing it, pouring the water off and infusing it a second time. Only teas of high quality can be infused up to seven times without loss of flavor. Second infusion may have 30-50% of caffeine, 3rd, 30-50% of that, and so forth.
7. Green and white teas are never infused with boiling water. Highest quality, and tenderest teas are infused with barely warm water; lower quality ones with hotter water. Blacks and Pu-Erhs are infused with boiling water. For oolongs you should use water that's slightly colder than boiling.
8. The most practical all-around implement for tea making is a ceramic teapot with a removable infuser basket with a handle. It's easy to clean and keeps the tea hot for a long time: when covered with a small blanket, it keeps fairly warm for ~3 hours for me. Infuser basket allows you to take out the leaves so that tea won't get over-infused - bitter and metallic in taste.
9. There is a funky way of preparing tea called Gong-Fu. You have to fill a gaiwan - special lidded cup - with tea leaves, 1/3 volume, and infuse it for 10 seconds; increasing to 5-10 seconds with successive infusions. Gong-fu to tea is what Espresso is to coffee. It only works for darker Oolongs, blacks and pu-erh teas.
10. Tea is 4-5 thousand years old. It's the most popular beverage out there - although most of the tea drank is of low quality. High quality teas can be fairly pricy - up to $200 per pound, but many good teas are less than $20 for a pound - ~ 10 cents per cup.
11. (bonus tip) The best first teas to try is Keemun. Coming from a good vendor, tea from this province is almost certain to taste great - sweet, fruity and sometimes smoky; and if you infuse it for too long or not long enough, it will still taste good unlike some other teas.
12. (another bonus tip) Tap water can sometimes be unsuitable to make good tasting tea. Try using filtered or spring water. Don't use hot tap water - it may have high levels of lead in it. If you filter water, use it right away or it may yield a flat-tasting cup due to de-oxygenizing- this is important!
Types of tea
China's two best known black teas are Keemun and Yunnan. Keemun has rich, fruity taste. It's perfect for a newbie to try: it won't disappoint even if you overbrew it or underbrew and even if you buy a cheaper variety. Yunnan is silky and also a good first try. It's hard to mess it up.
Pu Erh is an unusual tea which taste can be given as "earthy". Imagine yourself in a wet, dark forest after midnight. You come over an old rotted log and see there's a bit of rain water gathered in its crevices. You scoop it up and gulp it down. It tastes just like Pu-Erh! It may sound like nobody in their right mind would go for it, but it's surprisingly refreshing and even tasty. If you like forest and close your eyes, it just might take you there. Of green and black pu-erhs, green is most disagreeable.
India's two foremost tea districts are Assam and Darjeeling, and the two underdogs are Nilgiri and Sikkim. Assam is known for its malty taste; a good, expensive assam is a treat, but I had less luck with cheaper assams. Darjeeling is the most expensive black tea, sweet and astringent; sensitive to variations in brewing time. As little as half a minute can turn a great cup sour. Beware. Sikkim is somewhere in the middle between these two in taste. Most of Nilgiri crops are of lower quality, but some harvests are well worth the price.
Ceylon is the old name of Sri Lanka. Their tea still carries the old name; ceylon tea taste is best known in the west out of all teas; it's brisk and strong. I'm not a big fan but this may be one of the best teas to wake you up in the morning - and it stands up good to milk.
Lapsang souchong is a tea from Taiwan. It's notable for its smoky flavor. Beware: you may get an impression it's no more than a few pieces of tar posing as tea. Some like it this way, though; I for one think I get enough tar in my lungs living in New York. To be fair, though, I only tried one variety, and it was quite too much for me. Russian Caravan blend is the other smoky tea kind, thankfully much less so than lapsang souchong.
White tea is made from buds and very young leaves. It is pale green in color, but less so than green tea. It has a mellow, gentle flavor.
Green tea is often vegetal in taste. It's not oxygenized like the black tea.
Oolong is slightly oxygenized then dried, it's somewhere between greens and blacks.
Black tea is fully oxygenized, resulting in strong taste.
Infusion time is 2-3 minutes for white and green, 3-5 for black, 4-7 for oolong, 5-7 for pu-erhs, and 1-2 for darjeelings. Note that darjeelings are very sensitive to infusion time, slight over-infusion can make it too bitter, the same is true for greens to a lesser degree; blacks vary, and pu-erh can be infused for hours and it'll still taste good - or no worse, at any rate. By the way, darjeeling is a black tea, but it's different from other blacks in this regard.
Tea fans usually prefer strait, pure tea without any additions. Tea flavor can be so complex and tasty that any other, stronger flavor will simply "cover it up". More often than not, additives are used to hide the particular tea's poor taste. All this said, there are some exceptions when a great tea is carefully accented with a number of natural flavors. The most popular ones are jasmine, bergamot oil (Earl Grey) and Rose. Milk is often added to strong black teas. Honey and lemon juice may be added to black and oolong teas. Whites and Greens are drunk without any additions: their taste is too gentle.
Indians (of Asia) make a beverage with tea, milk and varied spices. This mix is called "masala chai".
One of the most versatile and amazing pieces of tea-ware is a gaiwan. Gaiwan is a small cup with a saucer and a lid. It can be used both as a teapot and a cup. In addition, you can use it for Gong Fu method of preparation (see above in tips).
Yixing teapots usually are tiny pots made of special type of porous clay. They are exclusively used for Gong Fu method and after a long time they get 'seasoned' with the tea so you can brew tea using plain water, with no leaves. Tea fans recommend using separate pot for each type of tea, e.g. one for oolongs, one for blacks and one for pu-erh.
Tetsubin iron teapots are often used for Japanese green teas. These hold heat better than any other pot.
Jenaer - a German company - makes pretty glass pots. Unfortunately, these get dirty quickly - with all the tea tannins - and are very hard to clean, especially the infuser holes. Great for showing off but not the best every day workhorse.
If you want your tea to keep its taste, you must keep it away from light and in airtight container. Even then, it'll lose some of its flavor in 2-3 months. If you need longer storage, pack it tightly in a freezer bag and refrigerate it in a freezer.
If you are on a beach or camping out somewhere, with no fire, you can try making sun tea. Simply put a cup with tea leaves and water under direct sunlight for an hour or two. I tried this without any problems, but I have to note that this may be dangerous because bacteria that may be in water are put in perfect conditions for multiplying. You may try this same method without the sun: it'll simply take longer.
If you'd rather not mail order, the best tea available in supermarkets is twining's looseleaf tea in tins. It's not terribly complex but it'll give you a decent strong cup, perfect with milk.
I took some material for my story from this FAQ:
I'm not associated with these companies in any other way than being a satisfied customer:
In Pursuit of Tea