TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

March 21, 2011

Ramblings: New to tea

A cup of teaHelp! I’m a newcomer to the world of loose leaf tea. I’ve been drinking tea made with teabags and I’m ready to move on. What are your suggestions? Where do I start?

All tea lovers had to start somewhere, and it helps to have a little guidance as you start your journey through the many choices of high-quality loose leaf teas that are available.

Where to begin? One suggestion is to start within your “comfort zone:” look for teas of similar types to the commercial teas you’ve been drinking, and then branch out.

For example, if you drink iced teas made with black tea, try hot black teas. If you prefer fruit-flavoured iced teas, try hot fruit-flavoured teas. Do you sweeten your iced tea? Try sweetening your hot teas.

Loose leaf teaBut don’t stop (or even linger) there. Next you’ll want to sample unsweetened and unflavoured hot teas.

If you’re drinking black tea made from commercial teabags, look for similar teas in loose leaf form. If you drink green tea from teabags, step up to a light green loose leaf tea that’s friendly to the palate.

But, you ask, how to choose from the seemingly endless variety of loose leaf teas on the market? Many drinkers of black tea find that the flavour and aroma of Ceylon teas most closely approximate the teas they are comfortable drinking. Or sample an English or Irish breakfast blend — these mixtures of mostly India teas produce a heartier cup that stands up to milk, lemon, or sweetener. The taste and aroma of a loose leaf tea will invariably be superior to that of commercial teabag teas, while at the same time there is some familiarity when you choose loose leaf tea that’s a variety similar to your teabag tea.

Teacup and tea leavesThere are two teas recommended for new drinkers of loose leaf green tea. One is genmaicha, a Japanese blend of light green tea and roasted rice. The warm toasty flavour and aroma generally appeal to newly-developing tea palates. Another “newbie-friendly” green tea is Gunpowder Green, which may be sourced from Taiwan or China. The dry leaf is rolled up in a tight ball that opens into a full leaf when hot water is added. The gentle flavour and aroma won’t overpower your palate, and you’ll enjoy the visuals too.

These recommended “beginner” teas are widely available and reasonably priced.

When you’re ready to move on from these “comfort” teas, go ahead and try more exotic black teas, oolong teas, other green teas, and white teas. Maybe even a pouchong or a pu-erh. Try one type, see if it appeals to you, then try another. Continue drinking the teas you like. Move on as quickly or as slowly as you like when sampling new teas. There’s no rush, and there will always be good teas available when you’re ready for them.

How do you find high-quality teas? If you are lucky enough to have a good tea room or tea shop nearby, stop in and talk to the people who work there. Ask for their recommendations. See if you can taste samples before you buy. (For a comprehensive list of tea rooms and tea shops see TeaGuide Worldwide Tea Directory).

You can also shop online. A list of links to some of the best tea vendors’ websites can be found on our Favourite Links page.

Don’t be shy about calling tea companies on the telephone. Good tea merchants will always be willing to chat with you about what types of teas you might enjoy so they can steer you in the right direction.

Whenever possible, start by ordering sampler packages. Sample sizes are a good choice because they allow you to try a number of teas before making a big monetary investment. When you find the teas you like, order them in larger sizes. And if you don’t care for a particular tea, you won’t feel guilty about not using the remaining leaves if you haven’t spent much money. Most tea sellers offer sample sizes at very low prices, so you can choose several. Some merchants even offer sampler-sized “variety packages” of their teas at reasonable prices.

When you talk to tea sellers, either in person or by telephone, be sure to ask them for their suggestions on how to prepare the teas you purchase. Although everyone’s taste is different, they should be able to give you a few guidelines and thereby save you from too much trial and error — which often results in simply giving up in frustration.

Tea leaves in a dishIf a vendor says “use three teaspoonsful and steep for 2-1/2 minutes in water just under a full boil,” remember it’s a recommendation, a jumping-off point, not engraved in stone. Start with their suggestion, then if necessary adjust the “recipe” to suit your own taste. Add more leaf to the pot, or maybe use less; increase or decrease steeping time or water temperature according to your individual preference.

Use your teas up as quickly as possible, especially sample sizes that may not be packed in airtight containers. Nothing turns a potential tea lover off teas as quickly as a pot of stale tea. Keep in mind the four “enemies” of tea: light, heat, moisture, and time. Store your tea in a cool, dark spot in an opaque airtight and watertight container such as a tea tin or in the airtight package it was in when you bought it. Keep teas far away from the stove or other heat sources. And don’t store tea near spices or other aromatics; tea is very absorbent, and will pick up flavours and aromas.

Don’t feel that you have to like every tea, or that there’s something wrong if you don’t like a tea that someone else recommends. Taste is a very personal issue. Whatever tea you enjoy is the right tea for you. Drink your teas English style with milk and sugar; Asian style with no additions; Russian style with jam mixed into the cup; or invent your own style!

Chatsford teapotThe equipment you use to prepare your teas is just as important as the tea itself. Be sure to get yourself at least one good clay-based teapot — china, porcelain, or stoneware — preferably with a built-in filtering system. The most common complaint among newcomers to loose leaf tea is that it’s such a nuisance to clean out the teapot, and this type of teapot will make both steeping and cleaning much easier. After the tea is steeped, you simply lift the filter out of the teapot, dump the leaves in the garbage (or the garden), and rinse it off. There are a number of teapot styles available that come with built-in filter baskets. I personally prefer Chatsford teapots because the filter baskets are large enough for the tea leaves to move around in the water and infuse properly, but you may prefer Bee House, Stump, or some other type of teapot with a filter basket. The photo above shows a Chatsford teapot; that red thing sticking out under the lid on the right is the handle for the filter basket. Teapot, lid, and filter all fit together perfectly.

Avoid dangly infusers!You can also purchase reusable tea filter baskets that fit into the teapots you already own. Many types of tea filter baskets are dishwasher safe. Most tea vendors stock a variety of teapots and filters.

Avoid those cute little dangly infusers on the end of a chain or shaped like a spoon. These are too small for loose leaf teas. Tea needs room to swirl around in the water in order to steep properly. Save these devices for herbal infusions or to hold a bouquet garni for cooking purposes.

Never prepare tea in any type of plastic teapot or mug unless you’re absolutely desperate; plastic does not hold heat well enough to maintain the temperature required to steep tea. And depending on the type of plastic, it may leach out into your tea, causing an odd, “off” taste (or worse). Porcelain, china, and stoneware are the best materials for teapots. Steel, silver, glass, and ceramic teapots are lower on the list. If you want to serve tea from your beautiful silver tea set, steep the tea in another teapot, then decant into the silver pot.

If possible, invest in at least two clay-based teapots of different sizes — perhaps a two-cup and a four-cup to start — and use each one when you want to prepare at least the specific quantity of tea it holds. Don’t use a four-cup teapot, for example, to prepare only two cups of tea; the extra air in the teapot cools the water down too quickly so the tea doesn’t steep properly. Always choose the right size teapot and fill it up. You can always make more, and you can always ice any leftovers. (Or add it to your cooking — we’ll be posting more recipes here for cooking and baking with tea.)

Popover tea cozyAnd don’t forget a nice, thick tea cozy that will keep your teapot — and your tea — warm. Choose a cozy that matches your teapot, your linens, or your mood. A good cozy will keep your tea hot for at least a half hour — plenty of time to finish the potful. But never use a cozy while there are tea leaves in the pot, because they’ll cook and stew, getting very bitter. Steep the tea, then remove all tea leaves before placing the cozy on your teapot.

Or keep your tea hot with a tea light teapot warmer. These devices, made of decorative metal, china, or glass, hold the teapot over a tea light candle, and cast a lovely glow on your tea table. The flame is just enough to keep your tea hot without singeing the bottom of the teapot. Be sure to remove the empty teapot from the warmer so it doesn’t crack. And do be mindful of the open flame around children and pets.

Asian teapot on trayAs you get more comfortable with different types of teas, you may want to try all kinds of interesting teapots and teacups: Japanese tetsubin or kyusu; Chinese Yixing; gaiwan or ceibei. Maybe a glass teapot, a samovar, or a Russian tea glass. And all different types of teas — not only from India, Taiwan, Japan, and China, but also from Nepal, Republic of Georgia, Kenya, Vietnam, or Korea. Be warned that you may find yourself spending a lot of time (and money!) shopping for new teas and “tea things.”

Once you get “into” fine loose leaf tea you will discover that there is an almost unlimited variety of teas and many, many ways to prepare and drink them. Your journey has just begun, and it will last a lifetime. Enjoy it!

If you have more questions about tea, or would like to chat about tea with other tea lovers, we invite you to join us at Teamail™ This posting is an update of an article originally published in Tea Digest.

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