If you’re new to loose leaf tea, you’ll want to check out this article. You’ll learn all about the different kinds of tea available, and the best ways to steep them
Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to share this article from Tegan at Amoda Tea!
I’ve been a tea lover for years, but I only became interested in loose leaf tea a few years ago. At first, I would burn my delicate teas because I didn’t understand how water temperature affected the flavours of some teas. I also didn’t know about the various kinds of tea that are available! So, I asked Tegan to write a tea-primer of sorts, for those of you who might be new to loose leaf tea. I hope you enjoy this article!
What is Tea?
Tea is the oldest beverage in the world and an essential drink in cultures all across the globe. Each tea you sip is unique, even though it comes from the same plant. This is from a combination of differences in terroir from region to region (just like wine), the season the leaves are plucked, changing climate conditions, the farmer’s technique in processing the leaf and the many ways we steep them!
Technically, “tea” is made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis bush. All true tea comes from this bush – black, oolong, green, white, yellow, pu-erh… all the tea styles start from Camellia Sinensis leaves.
What about rooibos and herbal teas?
Herbal teas, and the popular rooibos tea, are actually not “tea” in the strictest sense, but I personally, and many others, refer to almost any infusion in water as tea. I don’t see the point here in complicating things with technicalities!
If all true tea comes from the same plant, then the difference in the final tea must come from the manufacturing. This is true – the manufacturing process is specific to each class of tea. There are six different types of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, pu-erh. You don’t see yellow tea much in North America, so we won’t cover that one here.
Think of the teas along a spectrum of oxidation.
Oxidation is the exposure of the tea leaves to oxygen in the air, which causes browning of the leaves. This is similar to how an apple browns after you cut it.
Green tea is not oxidized at all and white tea is lightly oxidized. Black and pu-erh teas are on the opposite end of the oxidization spectrum and have darker brown leaves, infusions, and produce a deeper, more hardy flavour. Oolong covers a range of oxidation in the middle of the spectrum.
After the initial drying stage, leaves destined for green tea are heated to kill the enzyme responsible for oxidization. In China, the heating is done primarily by pan-firing or roasting. In Japan, they steam the leaves. These different methods plays a big part in why Chinese green teas taste and look so much different from Japanese green teas.
How green tea tastes: Generally speaking, Chinese green teas have a wider range of flavours and sometimes a smokiness. They’re also more of a yellow-green colour. Japanese green teas are more “fresh” tasting with vegetal, grass and seaweed notes. They’re a more true green colour in the cup and tend to be more delicate than Chinese green teas. You should visit your local tea supplier and get a Chinese green and a Japanese green and compare them at home.
White tea undergoes the least amount of processing. Only the tender young spring buds are used. The buds are allowed to wither then dry to prevent much oxidation of the leaf.
How white tea tastes: Because of the minimal processing, white tea is the most gentle and delicate in both look and flavour. White tea offers a light and refreshing cup with light steamed vegetal flavours and sometimes light toasted bread.
Oolongs are the most complicated teas to manufacture! Oolong teas are made from large tea leaves. The appearance (form, shape, colour) of finished oolong teas can range from light green to brown, long & twisted or rolled into tight little balls. There’s so much personalization and intricacy that goes into Oolong manufacture that they tend to have the widest array of flavours and aromas. Some taste and smell of stone fruits, honey, floral (orchid is common), sandalwood and more.
You might hear oolong tea referred to as “semi-oxidized” loose leaf tea. Oolongs tend to be more oxidized than white teas, but less than black. The range is anywhere from 35% to 80% oxidation level.
How oolong tea tastes: Your cup of oolong will vary in flavour depending on the amount of oxidation. It may be sweet, creamy and soft (high mountain Taiwan), or roasty toasty (Chinese Wuyi).
Black teas go through a long manufacturing process. They are withered (dried) after plucking, which is an incredibly important step in creating a solid foundation for further processing. After withering, black teas are rolled to release enzymes from the leaf and then they are fully oxidized.
Some of the most famous black teas come from single regions and are named that way – Assam and Darjeeling in India and Keemun and Yunnan in China, for example. Of course, we commonly see black tea as blends such as English Breakfast and Afternoon blends. You might also see black tea as “broken leaf” and “full leaf”. Broken leaf teas allow for faster and fuller extraction and more caffeine, so you’ll see them more often in breakfast blends meant for the addition of milk and sugar.
How black tea tastes: Again, there’s a big variation in how black teas taste, but they are generally richer, stronger and darker than the previous teas, with a bit more caffeine. Chinese black teas tend to have smoky notes and sometimes some chocolate and sweetness. Indian teas can be heartier and bolder, with the exception of Darjeeling, which is lighter and refreshing. Best to get out there and just start comparing them!
There are two types of pu-erh tea: Sheng pu’er (“raw” or “green”), which is not oxidized. Shou pu’er (“cooked” or “black”), which is oxidized. Sheng pu-erh is the most prized. It is an investment – bought young and set aside to age. Shou pu-erh is less expensive, but still delicious, and the type that you would normally buy to drink right away. Like any other tea, there are varying quality levels. Pu-erh tea is the one type of loose leaf tea that is truly fermented. Microflora and bacterial activity takes place on the leaf, actually fermenting the tea.
How pu-erh tea tastes: Pu-erh teas are dark, earthy and hearty.
- A steeper cup, stainless steel infuser basket or biodegradable unbleached (brown) tea filters
- A perfect tea spoon
Repeat after me: “I will not buy a tea ball!”
How to Steep Loose Leaf Tea
Generally, use 1 tsp of tea per 8oz cup (250mL) of water. If the tea is quite bulky, like white teas, use 2 teaspoons.
Suggested Water Temperatures:
White or green teas, well below boiling (76° C – 85°C / 170° – 185° F).
Oolongs , below boiling (85°C – 98°C / 185° – 210° F).
Black teas, just off a full boil.
Pu-erhs, full rolling boil (100°C / 212° F).
Suggested Steeping Times:
White tea 3-5 minutes
Green tea 1-3 minutes
Oolong tea 3-5 minutes
Black tea 3-5 minutes
Pu-erh tea 2-5 minutes
Re-steeping your leaves:
Many teas can be infused a few times. This is especially true for oolongs and pu-erhs, but try it out with all your teas. With each subsequent steep of the same cup of leaves, lengthen the steeping time. What this means is, don’t throw away your loose leaf tea leaves after your first cup! Try steeping a second and a third infusion. More bang for your buck.
About Amoda Tea:
Amoda simplifies the way tea lovers discover, sample and shop the world’s best tasting teas. The owners of the company seek out the best independent tea shops across North America, and find the most exciting loose leaf tea to deliver right to your door. In one online destination, Amoda connects the tea lover, or tea newbie, with all of the best expressions of amazing, all-natural flavoured and pure teas. Amoda’s signature product is the Tea Tasting Box, a subscription box offering tea drinkers a way to sample and discover premium teas from small tea makers. The company also has their own line of pure matcha teas and smoothie blends. To learn more about Amoda Tea, visit www.amodatea.com or visit the company’s page on Facebook.
This is not a sponsored post, and I have not been paid to publish this article.
Tegan wrote this article upon my request, and was not compensated financially.
All images were provided by Tegan at Amoda Tea, and are published with permission.
This post contains Amazon affiliate links.
Updated Oct. 2017