If you thought drinking a cup of tea was a fool’s game, it’s time to think again (though the bag-in-the-bin stuff still is and always will be my favorite morning restorative). So move over, Lipton’s; here comes Pu-erh, Wulong, Qimen, Lapsang and Oolong.
The Brits first put the kettle on for tea in the mid-17th century and, thanks to the extortionate tax on it, that initial sip was well and truly reserved for the rich. However, a century on, tea managed to cross the social divide of Britain’s class-ridden society, as workers cast aside their morning draught of beer for the aromatic leaf. Which is probably when the milk in first/last and pinkie-wafting social affectations started.
Americans showed what they thought of Britain’s taxes at the Boston Tea Party in 1773—a protest against the Tea Act, under the revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation.” It may be the only case in which tea launched a war (rather than helped us get through one). Thereafter, coffee would become America’s brew of choice, eventually colonizing the world with skinny mochas, Frappuccinos, et al.
But drinking tea is back. With over 1,500 teas available to buy, choosing one may seem complicated. But with a few basics to hand, it’s actually quite straightforward.
Despite hundreds of products labeled as tea, to be the ‘real thing’ tea leaves must come from the Camelia Sinensis (the tea plant), which looks rather like a privet hedge.
Black, green and white
There are three types of tea; black, green and white. Black varieties are created from heavily fermented, oxidised leaves and are the most popular for everyday drinking. White are the tips of the unopened leaves, which are dried with no fermentation or oxidisation, resulting in a light, delicate and expensive infusion. Green lies somewhere between the two.
All three have roughly the same levels of caffeine, but the unfermented white tea has higher levels of antioxidants and nutrients, thus making it the healthy alternative drink (but with a kick).
And the trendy Oolongs and Pu-erh’s? Oolong sits somewhere between black and green. It has a much shorter oxidization, giving a light, fresh-tasting brew with the sophisticated flavors of black.
The super-hip, must-have Pu-erh – which comes from the Yunnan in China – is the only tea which gets better as it ages. And the promise that it aids weight loss (it apparently speeds up your metabolism) makes it very popular.
To further confuse matters, growing conditions and location all affect the resulting concoction: the soil, altitude and climate; the ways the leaves are harvested; how they’re fermented, roasted and blended.
How to choose your tea
So, what to drink? Starting on ‘proper’ tea is not unlike the initial foray into the world of the grape. Likewise, you can either immerse yourself in the gradations, nuances, snobbism and rituals, or you can simply imbibe. The best way to learn about the different styles is to get out there and, as tea is a social drink, do it with others. There are enough tearooms around to find somewhere with a good list.
If you want to know how the tea in your cup gets from the plantation to your cup, or be able to tell the difference between an Oolong and a white, perhaps a tea masterclass with renowned tea expert Jane Pettigrew will fit the bill.
However, should a Second Flush Assam or Keemun Mao Feng take your fancy, join an online tea club such as Tea Horse and figure your way through it at home. It’s far less harmful to your liver than joining a wine club, and a lot cheaper too.
Choosing your leaf
There are four main players, India (including Sri Lanka) and Africa are famous for their black teas, Japan for its green and China for all four. Many other countries produce them in less significant quantities, including a delicious tea here in the UK at Tregothnan in Cornwall.
Darjeeling from northern India is light and delicate, perfect for afternoon teas.
Assam, from north-east India, produces a strong, malty tea.
Ceylon Tea is aromatic with a slightly sharp taste.
Lapsang Souchong, perhaps the most famous of China teas, has a smoky aroma and flavor.
Yunnan is a black tea with rich, earthy flavors, similar to Assam, and makes a great breakfast tea. Also the home to Pu-erh tea.
Light, delicate and slightly sweet white teas are renowned in China, with four main varieties: Silver Needle (Baihao Yinzhen), White Peony (Bai Mudan), Long Life Eyebrow (Shou Mei), and Tribute Eyebrow (Gong Mei).
Sencha is the most commonly drunk tea in Japan. It’s a pale yellow infusion with a light delicate flavor.
To make the tea
Warm the pot: a quick swirl of hot water means the cold doesn’t shock the tea.
Use a china teapot. Why? Because it’s lovely.
One spoonful per person and one for the pot; the trusted measure still rules.
Use freshly boiled water (not reboiled) for good oxygen levels.
Stir it, then give it three to four minutes for optimum infusion.
Add milk first or last – each to their own, but George Orwell, in his famous essay on making the perfect cup of tea, recommended last.
Use tea bags or loose leaf. The purist will insist that only loose leaf will do. However, mass produced tea aside, there are some really good bags out there, roomy enough to allow the tea to swirl in the hot water (important for releasing the flavors).
Elaine trained as a chef at the Ritz-Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie in Paris, set up an international cookery school, and ran her own restaurant in Yorkshire. She was food and wine editor at Yorkshire Life Magazine, has written for Waitrose Food Illustrated and Olive, initiated the annual Food and Wine awards, chairs the Regional Food Awards and is editor of the New York Times’ About British Food website. She has written two books, The Great Book of Yorkshire Pudding and The Great Book of Rhubarb, and is a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Follow Elaine on Twitter.