Text and Photograph by Bruce Richardson (elmwoodinn.com)
Americans have never had more choices when it comes to drinking outstanding specialty teas. I regularly visit tearooms in every part of the country that offer 50 to 150 teas. Restaurants, tearooms, and retail shops everywhere are stocking a mind-spinning array of teas of every variety—blacks, greens, whites, oolongs, tisanes, and herbals.
With so many selections from which to choose, how does the tea novice sort through all the infusion confusion and begin a tea collection at home? The following suggestions will help ensure that your tea experiences at home are superb.
- Develop a relationship with one or more tea suppliers. Just like parents who want to talk about their children, tea merchants are eager to tell you the pedigrees of their teas. We yearn to share brewing techniques, water temperatures, and tasting notes with you. After all, we have sought out these beautiful teas, and we want to make sure they go to good homes. Tea merchants have tea prejudices just like anyone else. Some are proficient in black teas, while others spend their lives dedicated to Chinese and Taiwanese teas. You may need to source your teas from more than one local shop or online merchant.
- Be sure the tea is fresh. Ask your merchant how long he has held the tea. If it has been on the shelf more than nine months, leave it for someone else. Buy in small quantities, and buy often.
- Store your tea at home in an airtight container away from heat, moisture, light, and odors. Don't store tea in the freezer, and store only green teas in the refrigerator.
- Stock your kitchen with tea-making equipage. Teakettles and teapots are not the same. This may sound too basic; however, I mention it because new tea drinkers often don't realize they need both utensils. A microwave does not replace a teakettle! You can control the temperature of water only with a stove-top or an electric kettle. Dry tea goes into the teapot, and heated water is added to begin the brewing process.
- Begin a collection of teapots. Don't restrict your search to just English or traditional Western teapots. Small Asian iron and clay pots are very collectible and make great decorative items when not in use. They hold heat well and are the pots of choice for making green, oolong, and white teas. Chinese guywans or Korean chat-chans are individual cups for drinking tea while reading or meditating.
- Consider using an infuser basket or a disposable hemp sack when placing tea in the pot. Tea leaves need to expand to extract the most flavor. Tea balls tend to restrict the necessary expansion. Once the water hits them, the leaves want to return to the size they were when they were growing on the tea bush. The leaves unfurl, and the hot water pulls the greatest amount of solids from the tea. This gives a rich, full-bodied cup of tea in a shorter period. Oolongs, greens, and whites often benefit from being placed in the pot to float freely; extra water can be added for multiple infusions. Remember, it’s always good to place a small amount of hot water in the teapot to warm it before the infusion takes place. Be sure to discard that water before adding the infusion water.
- Water temperature is key to brewing great tea. When it comes to water temperature, just remember the blacker the tea, the hotter the water. General temperatures are as follows: white tea,165°; green tea,175°; oolongs,190°; black teas and herbals, 212°.
The Well-Stocked Tea Caddy
What are the basic teas that should be found in every kitchen cupboard? Here are nine choices that cover all the tea families and most every tea preference.
Assam: Dark and malty, these Indian teas from the Assam region are great for breakfast and hold up well to the addition of milk. Look for a tippy grade if you want a lighter tea. Good for all-day consumption.
Darjeeling: The northernmost Indian state of Darjeeling grows one of the most prized teas in the world. Look for top grade first flush or second flush (flush means new growth). This tea brews copper red liquor with distinctive muscatel overtones. It is the perfect afternoon tea because it can accompany any food.
Ceylon: Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) is the largest exporter of tea in the world. They produce exceptional teas with full body. Some of todays best Ceylon teas have high bud content. Ask for a tippy grade for a memorable drinking experience.
Ti Kwan Yin: This is one of the best-known oolongs (sometimes known as Iron Goddess of Mercy). Taiwan (Formosa) has the best reputation—and highest prices—for this category. These earthy teas are best made in an iron or clay teapot.
Lung Ching: This classic green tea is from the Chinese village of Dragon Well. Its flat leaves and buds produce emerald liquor that is light and delicious with sweetness akin to newly mown hay.
Sencha: In Japanese culture, Sencha is the prevalent tea. The first harvest (ichiban-cha), now mechanically harvested, has a softer, more delicate character than the second harvest.
Silver Needle: This is the highest-quality white tea made from the unopened buds of the best tea bushes. It brews delicate liquor with a honey-sweet aroma. Now produced in China, India, and Sri Lanka, it is one of the world's most expensive teas. Be sure to share it with friends who will appreciate its distinct characteristics!
Rooibos (or red bush): Rooibos is an herbal tisane that is completely caffeine-free because it contains no tea leaves. Made from the leaves of a bush grown only in South Africa, it is high in antioxidants and vitamins. For added flavor, look for blends made with lemongrass or spices.
Strawberry-Kiwi: For those who cannot tolerate caffeine, this tisane is an all-fruit infusion. It has an appealing color and an aroma that make it the perfect drink for children’s tea parties or late-night refreshment.
How much will all these teas cost? Your investment could be less than $100. How much is the experience of serving exceptional tea worth to you? The conversations and friendships encouraged over a cup of tea are sure to be priceless.
Bruce Richardson is the owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and the author of The New Tea Companion.