Tea 101

I've had tea on my mind lately. Probably because we just got in our first shipment of tea for the new coffee shop in Richmond. We are still not going to be ready to open until the summer, but we are starting to train with the teas we will be offering in the shop. I've had a few too many cups of coffee and tea and so I thought I would tackle an ambitious blog on everything you want to know about tea.

Most of you know me as the coffee guy, but before that, I was that crazy tea guy. You know the one who only uses loose tea and prefers tiny Chinese brewing vessels. And has to show you his recently brewed tea leaf, because it is so beautiful! Yeah, I was that guy. So I am pretty excited that I get to work with tea again, even though my focus is now coffee. In fact, if you read this blog and want to learn more, put Saturday May 21 on your calendar. I will be teaching an introductory tea class at the University Branch Library in Sugar Land at 2 pm.

Introductory rant

So, first things first, what is tea, and what is not tea? There is a bit of confusion in the US because we use the term "herbal tea." Traditionalists have been trying to make the term, "herbal tisane" the canonical phrase, but so far "herbal tea" has stuck. True tea must be made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. This plant, native to southern China has been consumed for thousands of years, first as a medicinal herb, then as a cultural status symbol, and finally what it is today (which is closer to its origins), a health beverage.

Tea comes in lots of different types, but they all come from the same plant. Most people are familiar with black tea, green tea, and maybe white tea; less common in America is oolong tea and pu-erh tea. First of all, I want to get something straight. Contrary to popular belief all teas have about the same level of health benefits, so if green tea is not your jam, drink black tea and rest assured you are still getting all those great antioxidants. Also, all tea (except of aged pu-erh tea has about the same level of caffeine). The difference is in the temperature of the water. Green tea is traditionally brewed at a lower temperature, and shorter time, so less caffeine is extracted. Also, while tea has caffeine it also has calming substances that mellow out the caffeine a bit, unlike coffee.

I will next describe the different types of tea. One note, I am specifically talking about loose tea in all these examples. You can find some equivalents in bag form, but they will never be as good as loose tea. More info later in the brewing guide.

Types of tea 

White tea: This is the least processed type of tea. After the tea is picked it is withered and sun dried. Very little else happens to white tea. It has a flavor that is reminiscent of a great black tea, but much smoother and often with a fruity note. White tea is traditionally produced in the Fujian province of China. Some well know white teas include Bai Mu Dan, and Silver Needle. These two teas a produced from the same plant often and the Silver Needle tea is usually just the tea buds whereas Bai Mu Dan is from the lower leaves. As you can imagine, the buds are far less plentiful and so your average Silver Needle tea will be much more expensive than a Bai Mu Dan.

Green tea: Two very different types of green tea are produced, I will classify them as Chinese green tea and Japanese green tea, though there is some crossover in each country. Green tea is non-oxidized, meaning that the oxidation process is stopped soon after picking. This is why green tea maintains its bright green color. 

Chinese green tea: This is produced using pan firing and is best for early spring teas. The flavor is strongly vegetal and sometimes floral or nutty. These teas can come in either strips or balls depending on the processing method.

Japanese green tea: This is produced using a steaming process to stop oxidation. Common varieties include Sencha, Gyokuro, and Matcha. Matcha is a specially shade-grown green tea that has been stone ground into a powder. Japanese green teas are far more grassy than Chinese green teas and often have interesting notes of seaweed or floral elements. Sencha and Gyokuro look a lot like grass clippings in their dry form.

Oolong tea: This tea is partially oxidized and is often produced from more mature leaf growth. The best oolong teas are highly complex and aromatic and can be re-brewed many times. Oolong teas range from slightly oxidized green oolongs to darker oolongs that are much closer to black tea in oxidation level. Green oolongs often have a fabulous gardenia or orchid aroma. In fact, I am currently drinking a Taiwanese oolong called Four Seasons Spring that smells just like a fresh gardenia blossom. Darker oolongs are often fruity, nutty, and very complex. Of all the classes of tea, I find oolongs to be the most interesting and fun to drink.

Black tea: This tea is fully oxidized. It was not very common until the western world developed a taste for a nice cuppa. Black tea is often brisk with notes of malt, dried fruit, spices. Black teas from India tend to be more intense than black teas from China (though the Darjeeling region in India is an exception). All of the types of tea I have mentioned previously should be enjoyed on their own, but black tea is often enjoyed with milk and sugar.

Pu-erh tea: This tea is a green tea that is fermented and aged. If you have been to a Dim Sum restaurant, you might have had Pu-erh tea as it is the traditional accompaniment. This tea looks black in color and can come loose or in a compressed tea brick. Like oolongs, the best Pu-erh teas a amazingly complex and can be re-brewed many times. Pu-erh tea is often smooth and earthy, with a cocoa or even mushroom finish.

Brewing guide 

This is a guide for brewing loose tea. You first of all need a good brewing vessel. There are many loose teapots out there, but all you really need is a small vessel that is easy to pour out of (like a pyrex measuring cup) and a fine mesh strainer. You want to give the tea as much room to expand in the vessel as possible, so those little metal tea balls are not so great. We will be selling a tea brewer made by Rishi tea at the shop (we will also be using it to prepare tea for orders). It is basically just a mug with a spout and a metal mesh lid. The strainer looks a lot like a French press filter. You add your tea and water, put on the lid and set the timer. When it is finished you pour your tea into a mug, and the tea leaves stay in the brewer. Simple and easy to use and clean.

The hardest thing is just knowing the right recipe for the tea you are brewing. Here is a quick guide to western style brewing. I list the amount of tea in grams because it is really hard to give a good volumetric estimate. Some strip-style teas are very light whereas rolled teas can be very dense. A tablespoon of the latter might be twice as heavy as the former. So, I highly recommend getting a kitchen scale if you are to enjoy great tea. Or better yet a gram scale for accuracy. I found my current gram scale on the side of the road in my neighborhood (I know, kinda sketchy, but free is free!). This list is for 8-oz (1 cup) of water.

White tea: 4 grams of tea, 170-180 F water temp, 4-5 minutes brew time
Green tea: 3 grams of tea, 170-180 F water temp, 3-4 minutes brew time
Oolong tea: 6 grams of tea, 190-200 F water temp, 3-4 minutes brew time
Black tea: 4 grams of tea, 200-210 F water temp, 4-5 minutes brew time
Pu-erh tea: 4 grams of tea, boiling water, 4-5 minutes brew time

This is a good starting point for any tea. There is also Asian-style brewing which involves a much higher tea to water ratio and many short steepings, but this is best saved for another blog entry. 


Bryan HibbardComment