Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world after water. Tea originated in Southwest China and was first used as a medicinal drink. All tea derives from one plant, Camellia Sinensis.
The 6 main types of tea are White, Green, Oolong, Black and the lesser known Yellow and Pu-erh. These teas all differ in flavour, aroma and appearance due to their processing methods.
Teas like black and oolong are oxidised. This process exposes enzymes in the tea leaves to oxygen, which results in a darkening of the leaves. Other teas such as white and green are prevented from oxidising, resulting in a milder, more natural earthy flavour.
Herbal teas are not classified as ‘tea’ because they are blends of flowers, spices and herbs which usually don’t include leaves from Camellia Sinensis. These herbal infusions come under the category of ‘tisanes’.
Each of the six classes of tea contributes remarkable-tasting and distinctive-looking teas to the world’s bounty. We savor the flavour of delicious tea, but we also delight in looking at the leaves of beautiful, well-made tea. To us, the colours, textures, leaf shapes, and sizes of premium teas are a testament to the skills of artisan tea makers. Some classes of tea, such as black tea, are composed of thousands of teas from both large and small black tea-producing countries. Other classes, such as white and yellow tea, consist of only a few important teas produced in specific locations.
Types of Tea
Researchers have discovered that some white teas have the highest antioxidant content of any teas. White tea consists of tea leaves that are withered and dried; no firing, heating or rolling is applied. The leaves used for white tea are the downy, fuzzy top bud of an emerging leaf and the two emerged leaves next to it. These are harvested by hand each Spring. The flavour of white tea is exceptionally mild, with a light, almost honey-like sweetness, and a dilute finish. Brewed white tea is not white, but a pale yellow colour. Fans of brisk, bold black and oolong teas, or the more vegetal greens, might be disappointed by comparison, but white tea is universally revered by tea connoisseurs, who praise its subtle nuances. It should be brewed strong.
China was the first to produce white teas. Two prominent varieties are the long-leaf White Peony and Silver Needles; the latter is so-called because the dried leaves look like long, silver-grey needles. White teas can be produced from tea plants anywhere in the world, but it will be a long time before any country can compete with China in this elite category. White tea started to become popular in the Western hemisphere during the late 1990s.
Green tea is mainly produced in China, Japan, Korea and parts of Southeast Asia, and harvested each year between March and late May. Green tea was largely consumed only in Asia until the last couple of decades, but it is now exceptionally popular in Europe and North America, with imports into these regions growing each year. Skilled application of steam, heat from processing ovens, sunlight and other techniques halt the vast majority of oxidation within the freshly plucked leaves, leaving the tea full of antioxidants and the fresh, clean flavour intact.
For many years, green tea was thought to contain less caffeine than black tea, but recent analytical testing indicates caffeine levels in green tea (and white tea as well) can be comparable and even exceed the amount found in comparable servings of strong black tea. Conversely, the reduced processing applied to produce green tea in comparison to black tea results in prolific levels of antioxidants. Among the better-known green teas are Chinese Dragonwell (Long Jin), Japanese sencha and various scented jasmine teas, including the novel jasmine pearls. These are tightly rolled little balls of green tea delicately laced with jasmine scent.
Partially oxidised (25%-75%). Oolongs oxidisation percentage is between green and black and has characteristics of both. More full bodied than green. Often have light floral aromas (like orchids) and pale yellow/green/golden in colour.
Many people have heard of oolong tea, but few people can define it. Oolong teas can be either partially oxidized, a lighter processing style that makes it resemble a green tea, or heavily oxidized, giving them the taste, look and feel of a black tea. Oolong originated in China and spread to Taiwan. The special processing used to make Oolong is considered a high-art form. Mastery of this skill takes many years to perfect. Oolong teas undergo more individual steps in processing than any other tea type, including withering, oxidizing, special leaf bruising, rolling, more oxidation (in some types) and repeated firing or roasting to lock in aromas and flavours.
Oolong teas have amazing complexity in flavour, aroma and appearance. Leaf colour and brewed tea liquor run the spectrum from dark-coffee brown to amber-orange, golden-yellow, and beyond. China’s Eastern Beauty and Wuyi Oolong teas are two types that are revered by connoisseurs and collectors, much like fine wines. The high mountain Taiwanese Oolongs such as Jade Oolong and Ali Shan are bought, sold and collected like exotic single-malt whiskeys and rare artwork Global demand is increasing but, with limited production, prices are rising.
100% oxidised. Most heavily processed (rolling, fermenting, oxidising, firing). Black tea originated in ancient China, though this country is predominantly a green tea producer and consumer (along with white, oolong and others). Sri Lanka, India, Africa and South America are now the world’s top black tea-producing countries. In Sri Lanka and India, the people consume black teas almost exclusively. In much of Asia, black tea is known as ‘red tea ‘, based on the colour of the brewed infusion — reddish-golden, darker yellow, orange and sometimes even rather black. Precision oxidation of freshly picked tea leaves cures the leaves to these coppery-red, black and brown colours, but many other factors may also be involved.
Classic black teas from India are the legendary Assams, which are hearty, bold and strong, and Darjeelings, unique among black teas with their muscatel grape-like finish, with a dry, fruity snap. Sri Lanka is famous for its high-mountain black teas that are also hearty, bold and strong, yet many have a wonderful, sublime sweetness or ‘top notes’ (the flavours perceived first). Kenyan black teas are used worldwide as base teas to add strength, colour and body, while other, more complex teas are often added for their top-note attributes. South American black varieties are strong and astringent, and have little complexity; they are popular in mass-market retail and food service teas, usually in blends. Chinese black teas, in numerous styles and flavours, run the gamut from the ultra-rich, bold, almost syrupy Keemuns to peppery Yunnan teas and countless others.
Black teas make up all of the world’s classic breakfast teas, and most of those served at high tea and afternoon tea services. Black teas generally respond nicely to a small splash of milk, with the exception of Darjeeling and higher-end Chinese black teas such as Yunnan. The ever-popular spiced chai tea is made from black tea and spices, simmered or steeped together, with sugar and milk often added in Western versions of this classic Indian tea beverage.
Yellow tea takes its name from its straw colored liquor. The production process is similar to green tea, but with a unique additional step called men huan, or “sealing yellow.”
After very early spring buds or tips are pan-fired, they are wrapped in special cloth, a step that is repeated several times over a period of up to three days, gently oxidizing the leaves before the final slow charcoal drying. This smothering process pulls the aromas back into the buds and creates a more aromatic and mature tea, free of the “grassy” taste and astringency found in many green teas.
The rarest of the six classes of tea, yellow tea is only produced in China, in the high mountains of Hunan, Zhejiang and Sichuan provinces. Jun Shan, rumored to have been the favorite tea of Chairman Mao, is only grown on the mist-covered mountain of Jun Shan Island, a 1 km wide island that produces a mere 500 kilograms of tea per year. Pickers gather only the bud by breaking it from its stem with a twist. It takes 60,000 of these carefully harvested buds to yield just one kilogram of Jun Shan Yin Zhen. Because its production is difficult and time-intensive, yellow tea has primarily been consumed by locals. As the demand for easier-to-make green tea has increased in the West, many have abandoned the production of yellow tea in favor of green, and knowledge of the yellow tea-making process is being lost in China. Today, there are few tea masters alive with the skills required to make yellow tea.
Originating in China’s Yunnan province, pu-erh dates back more than 2,000 years. This somewhat rare form of tea is the stuff of legend, lore mystery and even counterfeiting Tea experts rarely concur on how exactly Pu-erh is processed, but we do know Sheng Pu-erh is greenish and raw leaf, whereas Shu Pu-erh is made from a ripened leaf (or black tea). Both are processed by hand, compressed into round discs, and aged in darkness for months, or even decades. Some suggest this strange tea is inoculated with local microorganisms that boost ripening and health benefits; caves where it is aged may be where it absorbs health-supportive prebiotic and probiotic pathogens.
The aged Pu-erh cakes sell in cycles worldwide with collectors driving prices high one year, while the next year’s prices drop, much as with coffee, oil and other commodities. The flavour is most certainly an acquired taste. It resembles no other beverages, something like an aged blue cheese with a woodsy, mossy component. Some health and wellness practitioners recommend Pu-erh for weight management and control of high cholesterol, and there is limited, but promising science behind these potential health benefits.
Timeline For Tea
Caffeine content aside, all teas can be enjoyed virtually anytime, yet a few seem ideally suited for certain times of the day or evening.
MORNING The stronger, single origin black teas from Assam, Ceylon and China, as well as English and Irish breakfast blends, can help make greeting the day a little easier. These are sometimes best with a splash of milk.
LUNCH/EARLY AFTERNOON Try mellower green teas (sencha, jasmine, matcha, Mao Feng) and oolong teas (Ali Shan, Bai Hao), which better suit the pace of a day already in gear.
DINNER/EARLY EVENING Oolongs, whites (Silver Needle, White Peony), and decaffeinated tea go well with dinner. For heartier meals, pu-erh is a tea of choice (it is reputed to help cut cholesterol and the bloat of fatty foods). White tea (served with fruit), or a limited-edition first flush tea (spring harvest) can dress up a fancier meal occasion.
BEDTIME Most people look for something with no caffeine at the end of the waking day. Herbal or fruit teas are caffeine-free and provide a soothing alternative.
Caffeine Levels in Tea and Coffee
|Brewed Beverage||Serving Size||Caffeine Content Range|
|Black Tea||237mL (8oz)||25-60mg|
|Black Tea, decaffeinated||237mL (8oz)||0-12mg|
|Green Tea||237mL (8oz)||25-50mg|
|Brewed Coffee (drip style)||237 mL (8oz)||95-200mg|
IS CAFFEINE A CONCERN?
lf yes, head for herbal teas or decaffeinated teas (these contain only residual caffeine traces).
DO YOU LIKE TO START THE DAY WITH A FULL-BODIED, BRISK TEA?
If yes, try a single origin Assam, Ceylon or Chinese Keemun. Alternatively, try a blend of black teas such as provided in English or Irish breakfast teas.
DO YOU PREFER A LIGHTER CUP OF BLACK OR OOLONG TEA WITH EXCEPTIONAL CHARACTER?
If yes, try a single estate origin Darjeeling, or a milder Ceylon or Indian Nilgiri tea.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO EXPLORE THE WORLD OF GREEN TEA, BUT ARE NOT SURE WHERE TO START?
Try a medium-priced Japanese sencha (Japan’s number-one green tea offering) or a Chinese green Mao Feng (the most popular green tea in China). Remember to brew lightly at first. Green tea laced with lemongrass, ginger or peppermint adds nice variety to the green tea mix.
IS A SCENTED OR FLAVOURED TEA OF INTEREST?
Whether as a gift, or to add variety to your own exploration, seek out a jasmine green or perhaps a naturally flavoured fruit tea (passion fruit, mango or citrus) with a base of black tea.
Storing and keeping tea as fresh as possible for both daily use and the longer term is quite simple and only involves a few basic policies and procedures. As so often occurs with spices, coffee and many other provisions, well-meaning consumers purchase quality tea but then improperly store it, with negative outcomes that could easily be avoided. One would not dare buy a fine wine, uncork it and leave it uncorked for days or weeks-exposed to air and odour and then expect the same delicious freshness as when it was first opened. Tea is the same. It simply cannot be left out or open, exposed to the atmospheric elements of a kitchen or pantry, and then be expected to perform well in the teapot and cup.
The chief enemies of stored tea are moisture, heat, light and aromas. Moisture, primarily from humidity, can vary in threat level depending on your geographic location and time of year, and is countered with standard moisture-proof containers; glass, stainless steel plastic or ceramic with tight-sealing lids. The danger from moisture is compounded with tea because it is hygroscopic, rapidly absorbing moisture from the air. In most kitchens, moist air also carries with it a melange of aromas that will come to rest on your tea. When infused into the cup, this is rarely a pleasant experience. Highly flavoured or scented teas, especially Lapsang Souchong should be very carefully stored apart from other teas, as their signature aromas can also generate smells that will easily contaminate other, more delicate teas.
Heat degrades tea by speeding up the deterioration of its key flavour and nutritional constituents. Normal room temperature may be suitable for tea in many geographic zones and regulated indoor living conditions, but anything over 27C is unsuitable for prolonged storage. In most kitchens, the biggest heat threat comes from ovens and stovetops; store tea away from these appliances.
Light is also a threat, from either sunlight or artificial sources, but the latter is by far the most dangerous. As with heat, various containers will provide appropriate protection, including those made from opaque glass, stainless steel, plastic and ceramics. Kitchens are a primary source of odours in the home, and these emanations (even if they smell good, as from cooking, spices or brewing coffee) are not a friend to tea. Tightly sealed containers are once again the solution.
Loose tea should be transferred from the packaging in which it was shipped or purchased to an appropriate container. The lids for tea containers must fit snugly. Some people drop the entire package their tea arrives in directly into a designated caddy. These tea containers provide the best protection when stored in a cupboard away from everything else and never next to spices, coffee or food.
Never store tea in the freezer or refrigerator. While low temperatures are considered by some to prolong freshness in tea (and other dried commodities), this potential advantage is offset by the high moisture content inside, not to mention multiple sources of odours. Moisture and odours will individually or together ruin tea, often even when it is apparently stored safely inside sealed containers. Only high-end teas stored under the guidance of tea masters are kept in cold conditions and these are housed in specially sealed packages under strictly controlled conditions.
When tea is past its prime it simply goes flat. There is little flavour, minimal aroma and perhaps a lighter colour in the brewed infusion. Old tea leaves are also brittle. These results come from the evaporation of the essential volatile oils within the tea leaves. Despite the flatness, however, ‘dead’ tea is not dangerous. Over time, a few teas may ripen and improve, including some Pu-erh, Keemun and darker oolongs.
White Tea is best consumed within a year.
Green Tea is best consumed within a year but still tastes great after 1.5 years.
Black and Oolong Tea is best consumed within 2 years but still tastes great after 3 years.
Pu-erh Tea is best consumed within a year but can develop new flavours for 5 years.
How much Tea to use per cup
A standard cup has a capacity of 180 to 240 mL. Traditional teacups, including those with matching saucers, are usually smaller, holding 120 to 180 millilitres. For most teas enjoyed in the West, one teaspoon of tea (2 to 3 grams) per cup of water provides the proper amount.
For many longer-leaf teas, more common in the Eastern hemisphere, the weight is more commonly 3 to 4 grams of tea per cup of water. Tea quantities are therefore smaller for traditional teacups than for mugs.
Smaller leaf styles and many black teas may only require one level teaspoon per cup, whereas longer-leafed teas benefit from a more rounded teaspoonful.
Tightly curled balls of tea, such as some oolongs, jasmine pearls and gunpowder greens, also only need a level teaspoon or even less per cup. These varieties unfurl during brewing; as the leaves expand, much of their flavour is released.
Smoky or very dense (small leaf) teas, and many flavoured teas, may only require one teaspoon per two cups.
How much tea to use in teapots
Teapots vary in size; a standard size is 960 millilitres. So, an average pot of tea may require four to six teaspoons of tea (8 to 12 grams). Some traditional Chinese teapots may only hold 150 to 180 mL and may require less or more tea depending on the type used.
Carefully measure your water quantities for either teapots or cups and keep the quantities consistent, Vary the amount of tea rather than the water to establish the ratio that is ideal for you. Larger infusers require less tea because their larger volumes allow more water to circulate with the tea.
Proper water temperature is another important part of the tea and a flashy kettle, carefully measure the amount of tea per serving and choose an appropriate source of water, but then pay scant attention to water temperatures.
How much tea to use and how long to steep it are relatively subjective decisions, though some core guidelines are helpful. However, proper water temperatures in the broader tea categories – black, green and oolong are objective and apply universally. The process of applying water at the right temperature allows just the right amount of aromatic compounds, tannins, astringent polyphenols (antioxidants) and amino acids to be flushed from the leaves and grace your teapot or cup with sensory and cerebral satisfaction.
Once water has reached the temperature of a full boil, most of the oxygen in the water is released. Oxygen plays a key role in bringing out the taste of tea by helping the aromatic compounds, mostly the volatile oils in the leaves transfer to a gaseous state, which also yields scent, a sensory agent closely allied with taste.
The goal when boiling water for black and most oolong teas is to let the kettle reach a boil and then immediately pour it over the tea leaves never allowing the kettle to continue boiling for more than a few seconds. A prolonged period of boiling eventually ‘flattens’ the water through distillation. Water that boils too long tends to be dull and lifeless, something to be avoided.
Water that has been allowed to cool too long will also inhibit optimum tea brewing. But for highly scented and flavoured teas, such as black, green and oolong categories, tastier brews may be produced if slightly cooler water is used than for their unflavoured, unscented counterparts.
At sea level, water boils at 100°C; as altitudes increase it boils at lower temperatures. For example, at 305 m. The boiling point is 99°C, and at 610 m it boils at 98°C. When brewing tea, aim for the desired temperature.
BLACK TEAS At 90 to 100°C, water should reach, or nearly reach, a full boil, then be immediately stopped and poured over the tea leaves. Do not let the kettle boil furiously; overheated water is not ideal for black teas. But, water that is too cool will not extract all of the oils and other elements that produce a robust, strong cup of tea. Pouring from a kettle that has boiled for a few minutes or using water that is simply not warm enough will produce weak, tepid black tea.
OOLONG TEAS These complex teas run the gamut from lightly oxidized (like strong green teas) to almost fully oxidized (closer to a black tea profile) and flexibility is needed when targeting water temperatures. Cooler water for lighter oolongs is recommended; temperature should not exceed 82 to 85°C, and hotter water (close to boiling) for darker (black to dark-green) oolong teas.
GREEN TEAS Water that has barely reached a full boil and then cooled a couple of minutes is ideal for green teas, which are quite sensitive to extreme water temperatures. Using water that is too hot to brew green teas results in bitter tea. The target is 71C to 85°C. Some ultra-delicate first flush Japanese and Chinese green teas may taste better with even cooler water: 65 to 71°C.
WHITE TEAS Some tea connoisseurs suggest that white teas should be brewed with water temperatures in the same range as that used green teas. But, white teas do not get bitter when exposed to extremely hot water, as green teas often do, and hotter water can be used target range is 85 to 93°C.
YELLOW TEAS Yellow teas can follow a similar rule of thumb to most green teas as it can get quite bitter if brewed at a high temperature. Between 76C – 86C is ideal.
PU-ERH TEAS Pu-erh tea is special. There are numerous factors when it comes to ideal temperatures for Pu-erh. Is it a young tea? Aim for 76C-86C. Has it been aged for a while? Aim for fresh off the boil at 90C-100C. Due to the many nuances involved, it’s up to the discretion of the tea drinker.
Once water has reached the proper temperature and been poured over the tea leaves, you are ready to time the brewing cycle. The length of the brewing cycle depends upon the type of tea
and personal preference. The use of a timer is highly recommended. Repeated studies have documented how consumers use tea bags, and the results demonstrate that people consistently underestimate how much time has passed. Many people remove tea bags from the cup in as little as 30 to 90 seconds, even when the recommended steeping time is 3 to 4 minutes. In fact, many people steep their tea according to colour, not time, removing the tea leaves whether it is in tea bags or in an infuser as soon as the water darkens. Inevitably, under-brewed tea is weak and not satisfying; over-brewed tea is often bitter and too astringent. Timing is an important part of the successful tea-preparation matrix. Even expert tea brewers often over or underestimate the amount of time that has passed as tea brews.
Whatever type of timer is used, from a traditional hourglass sand timer to a modern digital device, tea drinkers will quickly appreciate the substantial impact steeping time has when preparing tea. As with the guidelines for the ideal amount of tea to use per serving, the length of a brewing cycle for a teapot or individual cup of tea follows general rules, but personal preference has a role to play as well.
Some research indicates that once past 3 minutes of steeping time, the maximum levels of soluble matter (flavour and aroma compounds) nave been extracted from the leaves, After 3 minutes, only additional tannins are released, increasing the strength of the brew, but not necessarily in a desirable manner when it comes to taste. In general, longer brew times are desirable for black teas and some oolongs, but never for green teas. Some tea drinkers believe that most of the caffeine content in tea can be dissipated by rinsing the tea leaves with hot water- and discarding this rinse water- before brewing for a prescribed length of time.
Although most of the caffeine remains, this method does remove enough caffeine to benefit people who are overly sensitive. As a result of the rinse, some flavour and aroma is also lost along with caffeine.
In general, Chinese teas are a little more forgiving than their Japanese counterparts when steeped. That is, they tend not to be as astringent or bitter when brewed for long periods. This is partially due to the way in which the oxidative process is halted during processing certain teas.
Chinese teas often use pan- or oven-firing methods during processing, compared to Japanese teas, in which steam treatments are more common. The difference affects how the teas respond to brewing times. Overall, Japanese teas – largely green tea types-require shorter steeping times than green teas from other regions.
BLACK TEA 3 to 6 minutes. If adding milk after the leaves have been removed for a breakfast tea, strong Assam or Ceylon tea, a longer steep time of 4 to 6 minutes helps the tea ‘stand up’ boldly and briskly so that the flavour shines through even if condiments are added.
OOLONG TEA 3 to 5 minutes
GREEN TEA I.5 to 3 minutes
WHITE TEA 4 to 6 minutes
PU-ERH TEA 2 to 4 minutes
YELLOW TEA 1.5 to 3 minutes
When using high-quality, longer-leaf teas, the tea leaves will often yield a second, third or even more brews from the original batch of leaves. The reuse of some tea leaves pays splendid dividends in terms of thriftiness, with minimal diminishment of flavour. However, subsequent brews of the same tea leaves require longer steeping times for each additional brew. Smaller-leaf styles and tea bags generally require ie. steeping time.
Turbulence & Brewing
Under optimum conditions, tea leaves will expand two to five times their original size when immersed in hot water. When tea leaves cannot expand naturally during brewing, the end result is compromised. Most people who use loose tea for brewing rely on small ‘tea balls’ (also called tea eggs’) infusers that contain the tea while it is immersed in hot water. Most of these infusers are not large enough to allow the tea leaves to expand properly. Dunking these popular tea- brewing contraptions in and out of a cup or teapot can improve the results, but only slightly.
Traditionally the natural expansion of tea leaves during brewing is known as the agony of the leaves. It is a fascinating process to watch, specially in glass teapots and mugs, and is essential to the character of the final brew because of the tannins released and the volatile oils unleashed. Simultaneously, the water changes colour. This wondrous alchemy transmutes the dried leaves of a simple plant into a dynamic liquid refreshment with exceedingly diverse properties. The full expansion of tea leaves during brewing is essential, and this process can benefit from an action called turbulence.
Turbulence is the intentional movement of the tea leaves during the brewing process and can greatly enhance the final quality of the tea. This is a fascinating part of the tea-brewing process that is largely ignored, even by tea experts. However, laboratory evidence supports the value of turbulence in improving properties of brewed tea.
Traditionally, tea leaves are placed into a teapot for later straining and decanting into a serving vessel, or individual cups. In most cases, the leaves are left to steep and unfurl on their own after hot water has been added; the addition of the water by itself adds some movement to the leaves. The results are universally acceptable; after all, this is how tea has been made for centuries. However, improvement is possible.
Designers of modern tea-brewing equipment have introduced new high-tech equipment that incorporates turbulence into the brewing process through controlled, automated agitation. A little movement when brewing tea leaves optimizes the transfer of the desirable elements from the leaves into the brew.
You can employ some of the same action on your own, however, without relying on new brewing devices. When using a teapot, stir the tea leaves gently a few times after adding hot water. If the teapot has a built-in infuser basket, do the same by stirring the leaves inside the infuser, or if the infuser is a separate unit, dunk or spin it a few times while it is immersed. If an infuser basket is used with an individual teacup, do the same by gently lifting the infuser in and out of the cup a few times as tea begins to steep. In any use of infusers, use devices that are large enough to permit the full expansion of the tea leaves.
In smaller, ornate tea cups and pots, a small spoon or a chopstick can be used to stir the leaves a bit during brewing. Gentle movements are all that is needed; the turbulence desired does not require brisk or energetic action. You may be surprised at how rich, full and solid your tea brews are with some occasional, friendly agitation and movement of the tea leaves. An added bonus is slightly faster brewing times-even if this is not the main goal. Aside from better-tasting tea, the agitation of tea also helps release more of the healthy polyphenols, antioxidants and minerals from the leaves.
‘Old school’ tea lovers and practitioners of classic tea-brewing methods may scoff at the thought of agitating the leaves during the agony of brewing leaves, as this is not part of the long-running tradition associated with this beverage. But new generations of tea fans seek every possible edge to enhance their tea-brewing experience, and a little turbulence may provide one such advantage.
Many serious tea experts consider the addition of anything besides tea leaves and water to their beloved brews an abomination. This is especially the case in Asia, where green tea dominates, less so in the Western world, where there is a long history of adding condiments to black tea. The addition of sweeteners, citrus and milk to black teas started because poorer tea grades were often astringently bitter, and these condiments made the tea more palatable and offset overly intense flavours. The tradition of adding these extras to black teas first took hold in much of Great Britain and Europe; by the late 1800s and early 1900s, black tea was routinely served with sugar, cream or milk, and occasionally, a wedge of lemon.
MILK & CREAM
The hard-and-fast rule with dairy-based additives is that they are only suitable for use in black tea. Stronger Indian (Assam and breakfast blends) and Ceylon teas may also work with these additives, but rarely do Chinese black or oolong teas unless these are part of hearty, brisk breakfast-style tea blends. Darjeeling – the ‘champagne’ of teas, and also a black tea- should never be doused with milk or cream.
Proteins found in milk and cream bind with select tannins (the bitter constituents found naturally in tea leaves), making them somewhat less pungent and astringent. The resulting brew is smoother, with a softer taste. Milk, and especially cream, also contributes to mouthfeel, the term used to describe textural feel of the liquid on the tongue and palate, generating a silkier sensation.
Science, but not all public opinion, declares that when using milk in tea, the milk should be added to the cup first, before the tea is added. In the reverse (the milk is added to the hot tea) the proteins in the milk can be partially deactivated, reducing their ability to smooth out the astringency in the tea. Some suggest that by adding the milk first, there can be a tendency to add too much – an argument for adding the milk last. This disagreement has continued for more than a century. While the science supports the ‘milk first, tea second’ approach, both techniques are acceptable; it’s truly a matter of personal preference.
Common white table sugar granulated or in cubes is often served with black tea, especially in afternoon and high tea services. Like milk, sugar was first used to help reduce the bitterness in low-quality black teas from India and Ceylon, but the practice, once established, continued even when high-quality teas were widely available, due to the increasing affordability and availability of sugar.
Sugar is a common ingredient in chai tea served in India, and now popular in the West. Chai is a blend of black tea, spices and sugar. Sugar is also an ever-constant sweetener in Moroccan green mint tea, where it is used in heavy quantities, often many teaspoons per serving.
With chai the exception, a fine black tea from any origin simply does not need sugar to improve or enhance its natural flavour; sweeteners obscure the true quality of the tea. Green teas, increasingly part of the Western beverage menu, are also best enjoyed without sweeteners. The exception for both green and black teas is iced tea, especially in ready-to-drink forms, where sugar or other sweeteners are standard.
A small dash of citrus is another holdout from the cultural antiquity of tea. As with sugar, citrus and other condiments have been traditional accompaniments, masking the less-desirable properties of poor-quality teas. Citrus added to tea dramatically alters aroma and flavour, in most cases not desirably; even the natural colour of brewed tea is negatively impacted. If citrus is added to tea when the milk has already been added, it will likely curdle, creating a horrific effect: off-putting flavour, confusing aromas and cloudiness. If your preference is to add a splash of lemon or orange to your tea, add it after the tea is in the cup, and then, gingerly.
Interestingly, the world’s most popular flavoured and scented tea, Earl Grey, is essentially black tea with bergamot. Bergamot is a member of the citrus family and, in the case of Earl Grey. The addition of bergamot makes it an absolute delight for millions of people around the world who enjoy it daily.
Honey is commonplace in kitchens around the world. It has long been used to sweeten black tea and even green tea on occasion. Honey has a surprisingly strong impact on tea flavour, and not always a positive one. It tends to dissipate, dominating the heady, aromatic notes of the better black teas; a simple white sugar has less impact and is a little more desirable if a sweetener must be used. If you do prefer honey, seek out mild clover honey and steer clear of the strong, dark varieties, which simply overwhelm even the strongest black teas.
Stevia is a common plant native to South America and Mexico. It is a non-caloric sweetener, 100 to 250 times sweeter than sucrose (common table sugar). There is a plentiful body of science-based
research that has fully documented stevia’s safety, and it is rapidly becoming the non-sugar favourite in major commercial brands of colas and sport beverages. Compared to sugar, stevia in its natural form has a curious, slightly hay-like flavour; some people detect a liquorice-like taste. Powdered, refined extracts of stevia have a taste closer to sugar, and, to date, this natural sweetener has attracted none of the controversy linked to chemical sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin. For those seeking an alternative to sugar for their tea or chai blend, stevia may be a welcome option.
ARTIFICIAL, NON-CALORIC SWEETENERS
The use of aspartame, saccharin and other artificial sweeteners has been a major consumer trend in Europe and the United States for decades. These sugar substitutes are mostly manufactured using chemical processes and non-natural ingredients; some, like sorbitol and xylitol, can be found in nature, but are produced commercially using synthetic sources. Just as with coffee and colas, consumers may choose these as alternatives to sugar for their tea, but they should be avoided because they distort the flavour of the tea. Diabetics and those with health-driven reasons for reducing calories may have no other practical alternative than stevia.
When someone describes the taste of a tea, there are many, many factors that are influencing that description. As we’ve learnt, some of them include:
Water Composition. The minerals and impurities present within the water used to make tea can have just as much of an impact on flavor as the tea leaves themselves. Having good water is extremely important for making good tea.
Water Temperature. The same tea brewed with both boiling water and much cooler water can produce dramatically different flavors.
Steep Time. How long tea is steeped can be the difference between an amazing tea and a terrible tea. Some flavors may not be noticeable when tea isn’t steeped long enough, and some teas may get extremely bitter when steeped for too long.
Leaf Ratio. The amount of leaves you use in relation to how big your vessel is can produce noticeable differences in the taste of a tea. Tea brewed gongfu style may taste totally different than tea brewed western style.
Storage. This is especially important for pu’er tea. The storage conditions of your tea, including both access to airflow and humidity, can radically alter the taste of your tea. Some pu’er will taste noticeably different after just a few days in different storage.
While these may be some of the main factors that may alter the taste of a tea, they don’t take into account the person drinking it!
Even if we assume a reasonable amount of consistency with the factors above, there are many more that we have much less control over. They include:
Food & Drink. Everything that you taste before your tea session (including the toothpaste from brushing your teeth) has the ability to affect your taste buds if you don’t wait long enough before drinking tea.
Diet. Yes, your overall diet will affect your taste buds which will affect your perception of taste. Eat a lot of sugary foods? You might be less sensitive to sweetness in tea. Even a vegetarian or vegan diet may affect how you perceive flavour as well.
Experience. How many different things have you smelled and tasted? If you’ve never smelled a honeysuckle before, you’ll be unable to make that connection. Our associations are limited by our personal experiences.
Brains & Biology. Every human body is unique. Not only are our tongues and taste buds unique, but our brains may interpret tastes differently as well. Even if we could somehow control every other factor, at the end of the day our brains will all make different interpretations of the signals our tongues send them.
So at the end of the day, these tasting notes are actually quite specific to whoever wrote them. With this in mind we can finally understand what tasting notes really mean.
Because of all the variables and factors that play into how we perceive taste, there are some very specific things we can and can’t conclude from our tasting notes about peach and honeysuckle:
- It doesn’t mean this tea tastes exactly like peach or honeysuckle.
- It doesn’t mean this tea tastes 50% like peach and 50% like honeysuckle.
- It doesn’t mean a smoothie made by putting peach and honeysuckle in a blender would taste even remotely like this tea.
- It doesn’t mean everyone who drinks this tea will immediately notice flavors of peach and honeysuckle.
- It does mean that whoever wrote it made a mental association between the flavors of the tea and the flavors of peaches and honeysuckle flowers.
When you first started drinking tea you may have been confused by the descriptions tea vendors would write for their teas – maybe you drank the very same tea and had no clue what they were talking about! Lychee and french toast? All you tasted is a weird gooey sourness and old grass! The truth is, there are an endless amount of variables that make it impossible for tea experiences between two people to be identical. Add that to the fact that vendors have a vested interest in making their tea sound as delicious and enticing as possible, and it’s easy to see where the confusion comes from.
Does that mean they are useless? Not at all.
When a vendor has a skilled palette, uses good water, makes the tea with reasonable brewing parameters, tastes the tea over the course of many weeks, and doesn’t exaggerate the flavours, the resulting description can actually be very useful.
You will find that like coffee, tea will have a ‘top’, ‘middle’ and ‘base’ note.
[Top] Volatile notes that often come with the first taste/smell
[Middle] More stable and balanced notes that emerge as you swirl the liquor around in your mouth
[Base] The aromas and flavours that linger after you swallow
When tasting tea you go through the different sensory sensations.
Below is a tasting wheel developed to help identify the different aromas and tastes.
Acidic: A sour and tart taste to the tea.
Aroma: The odor of the tea. A complex aroma is often described as a bouquet.
Astringent: A bold, pungent sensation due to the tannins in the tea that linger on the tongue.
Baggy: An undesirable taint sometimes found in inferior teas which have been stored in sacks.
Bakey: Another unpleasant characteristic noticeable in the liquors of teas which were heated to higher temperatures than mandated during processing.
Biscuity: A strong desirable trait which is used a lot to describe a good quality Assam tea.
Bite: Another desirable trait, this describes a tea which is very brisk and lively.
Body: The tactile aspect of tea’s weight, this could be light, medium, or full. It is also referred to as fullness.
Bright: A style and refreshing flavor of tea for the palate.
Burnt: An undesirable trait, which is a degree worse than ‘bakey’.
Character: The signature attributes of a tea. This could depend on its origin or flavor.
Clean: Flavor that’s pure, there is an absence of any off-tastes.
Coppery: A favorable attribute of tea liquor color, similar to a new penny.
Creaming Down: A high quality tea which turns cloudy. This is generally believed to be caused by the precipitation of tannins.
Finish: The final taste that lingers on your tongue after consuming the tea.
Flowery: A floral flavor or scent which is mostly associated with high-grade teas.
Malty: A sweet malt flavor in the tea which is characteristic of Assam black teas.
Muscatel: A flavor similar to that of grapes, a characteristic found in the liquors of the finest Darjeeling tea.
Smooth: A fine drinking tea that’s round-bodied.
Soft: A tea that is timid in flavor.
Thick: Tea that has substance, but not necessarily referring to the viscosity.
Vegetal: A characteristic of green tea, this refers to taste that might be grassy, herby or marine.
Woody: A term used to describe the flavor of tea, reminiscent of freshly cut timber.
Paring Tea With Food
White teas are subtle and sweet and can be enjoyed with sweet cakes (although to really appreciate delicate flavours best served alone).
For the different varieties of green teas come different accompaniments. For example, the vegetal notes on some artisanal greens pair well with soft cheese, while the grassy notes with Asian foods. Gunpowder tea goes well with barbecued meat, Jasmine is excellent with fresh fruit, and Matcha with dark chocolate or most seafood dishes.
Oolong (the most complex in flavour) is great served with pork, chicken, Asian-style spicy foods and sweet foods with caramel notes. Light oolongs or greens are great for cleansing the palate when eating spicy foods.
Black teas go well with red meats because of their high tannin levels.
Tea contains a variety of compounds and chemicals that contribute to its flavour profile and health benefits. The main compounds found in tea are polyphenols, catechins and antioxidants. Polyphenols make up the larger portion of the chemical structure, about 30% the weight of dry leaves, and are produced by the plant to fend off disease.
From these compounds come a large variety of health benefits. These benefits include regulated blood pressure, increased weight loss, boost to the immune system, etc.
This is why teas such as green and white carry the most health benefit when compared to blacks and oolongs as they have a similar amount of polyphenols to fresh leaves.
These teas, and especially herbal teas, contain high concentrations of vitamins and minerals adding to the overall benefit. For example, citrus and floral teas contain high volume vitamin C that may improve the appearance of skin and fight off the common cold and flu.
This is just a brief overview of the extensive list of benefits you gain from drinking tea.