A Tea Primer


I know there is a lot of information here. I hope you don’t get lost in it. Remember that really it’s hard to make a bad cup of tea if you start with good water and good leaves. I’ve given lots of extra steps that you can experiment to make a sublime cup. But a great cup awaits you with a few steps if you are in a hurry. There are even decent bagged teas now.

I will start with a little background info.

Tea is harvested from a tree called Camellia Sinensis which can grow as tall as an oak, but is trimmed to 6’ so that the pickers can easily grasp only the top two leaf layers off each tree (the most tender leaves). Just as vintners use different grapes to make different types of wines, so too do tea plantations have different soils, harvesting periods and leaf treatments to create one of the four different types of tea.

Green tea: Popular throughout Southeast Asia. Green tea can range in color from yellow, to green, to red. Green tea represents the minimalist approach. The leaves are picked, rolled and dried. Green teas have an herbaceous grassy flavor. Almost all the great greens come from China.

Black tea: This is the tea Americans think of when they think of tea. The leaves are first dried like a green, but then fired in a wok or other device until they turn black. Black teas have a dark earthy flavor to them. Most of the great blacks come from India, though a few of note come from China too. While most teas take sugar or nothing at all, black teas are good with honey. Some like the Ceylon take honey and lemon, while others like (my favorite) Darjeeling take milk.

Oolong tea: This is simply a tea that has been fired like a black tea but not as long. Oolongs have a wonderful smokiness to them. Most of the great Oolongs come from Japan. This tea is surprisingly good iced with orange and sugar.

White tea: This is technically an offshoot of green tea. Most teas have not only the leaves but also some buds off the tree that give it an even more delicate flavor. White tea is made exclusively with these buds. Most good whites will sell for over 100 dollars a pound and after buying an ounce for myself, I can say I enjoyed it, especially for the aroma, but I wouldn’t pay that much for it again now that my curiosity has been satisfied.

Herbal tea: Any plant which is dried and consumed by steeping it in hot water and drinking the results can be called an herbal tea even if it contains no tea at all. Not to say some of them aren’t very tasty.

Tea | Water temp | Steep time | AdditionsGreen | Just as it begins to boil | 3 minutes Uncovered | Don’t add a thingBlack | Full boil | 5 minutes covered | Sugar or Honey Milk or LemonOolong | Full boil | 3 minutes covered | Sugar, Lemon, OrangeWhite | Under the boil | 2 minutes uncovered | Don’t add a thingHerbal | Full boil | Can steep forever unless it contains tea | Sugar for delicate, Honey for rooty herbals

Water: Bottled, Freshly drawn filtered water, or if you like your tap water let it run for ten seconds first. It will taste fresher that way.

Vessel: Any will do, but you might want to use ceramic or glass for very delicate teas as I sometimes taste the metal a bit when brewing herbals or greens.

Let the tea steep in a large pot free of obstructions. The tea leaves should unfurl and often will dance around the pot, this is called the “agony of the leaves”. When it has steeped to your liking strain it into another vessel for a moment (I use the pot I boiled the water in). Rinse teapot with hot water, add any additions then pour the tea back in the teapot and serve. It helps a good deal if you warmed up everything else ahead of time with hot water from the tap. Pour the water out before serving.

If you are in a hurry you can use a pot with a pull out strainer, or the Chinese style pots with a strainer in the spout. It will be tasty but a step short of greatness.

Bags: If you need the convenience of the bag go with a good brand like Tazo or better yet an herbal. Above all, resist the urge to squeeze the bag when you are finished steeping as a good portion of the bitterness comes when you squeeze the water out of the small leaves (though this is not a problem with herbals).

Iced tea: When selecting a tea go with a good one but not a great one. A lot of the more subtle aromas and flavors will be masked by the coldness. Add about 50% more leaves to the pot than you normally would. Brew it normally, then add cold water and ice. Alternatively you can make a weaker version and use ice cubes made wih tea.

Another problem is sweetness. Sugar will simply not dissolve in cold tea. There are two ways to solve the problem. A: Add the sugar while it is still hot. B: Create syrup by heating one part water and two parts sugar long enough to dissolve the sugar. You can add lemon and mint to this. Just add however much syrup to your ice tea as you desire.

Tea grading nomenclature: Teas are graded based on how intact the leaves are, how they are rolled and by the presence of and quality of the buds.

This would at first seem useful but unfortunately they still use the grading system first proposed by Twinings. Here are some examples: Pekoe (also just a P can appear on the label). Orange Pekoe (OP). Then there’s Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) and dozens more. The best rule of the thumb is that the more letters there are the better the tea. A large part of this grading is done by stacking strainers with increasingly smaller holes on top of each other. The best leaves of course stay on the top while the tea put in bags are the smallest pieces (the fannings). Some tea companies like Lipton just use the dust left over.

Tea bags: The reason tea bags are inferior to using a good quality loose leaf teas are two-fold. First a large intact leaf simply holds more of the tea essence than does a fanning. While you can pull some good flavor out of the fanning it is harder to do so without pulling some bitterness out of the leaves. And if the tea manufacturer uses tea dust it is impossible to get a good cup.

In an effort to make tea drinking easier there have been numerous inventions to allow steeping and serving in the same pot. I will give you one suggestion. But you can go with any. The two things you need to look for is A: will my leaves be cramped together too much and not get a chance to experience “true agony” (full flavor), and B: Will my leaves be sitting in the tea I am drinking (adding bitterness to the flavor after a while). If you answer yes to either of these pick something else.

I believe Bodum has the best solution. Just google it.

The Assam, Shin Cha, and Bistro Nuevo lines are the best ones. In each one there is a basket that sits suspended inside the teapot that may be removed whenever you feel your tea has steeped enough..

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Sweeteners: As a rule delicate teas use sugar if any sweeteners at all. (I generally only sweeten blacks and oolongs). Honey I only use with black tea since it would trample the delicate flavors or herbals and greens.

Try black tea with milk and honey at least once.

Steeping: Most fine quality teas can give you a good cup for several steepings. Most east Asians prefer the second steeping. I’ve found that if a tea keeps brewing too bitter for me I will add enough boiling water to dampen the leaves and then strain them before adding the remainder of the water.

Caffeine: Black teas have about ½ the caffeine of coffee and greens have about ½ that much. Drinking the second steeping will dramatically reduce the caffeine.

As for tea: www.leaves.com is the place I use almost exclusively. Richard Gauzakas the owner has been very responsive to all my inquiries and it’s obvious by their product that they know their tea.

Here are some suggestions:

Sweet Fennel Mint: is good and minty. Fennel has a licorice like taste but more subtle and sweet than pungent. I don’t like licorice but I love this tea.

Lemon Ginger Green: An excellent combo. And leaves.com is the only place that makes these “mixed teas” (as I call them) taste good. This is the tea you liked so much.

London Red Currant: Black tea mixed with lots of Currant juice. The aroma on this will blow your mind.

If you are a purist and want straight black or green:

I feel all of their Darjeelings are good especially the Makibari estate. Darjeeling is a certain type of black and is considered one of the best. If you aren’t ready for milk in your tea then go with one of the Ceylon teas as they go well with lemon.

Dragon Well is a great choice for a green. Also Roasted Rice and green tea is really good.

Well that’s about it for now. I will leave as I began…with a quote from a dead Asian.


  1. My great friend Dustin Matthews created this primer for me.

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