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Loose Tea 101

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By Tony Gebely, Guest Blogger for Menuism.com

Photos by Tony Gebely and Alex Faraone

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What is tea?

All true teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant. White tea, green tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, black tea and pu-erh tea all come from this plant. This means that beverages made out of things like chamomile, mint and lemongrass are not really teas, they are called tisanes -- which is another word for an herbal or plant infusion.

You are probably wondering, if all of these teas come from the same plant, why are they so different? The differences between the types of tea rely on three main things -- terroir, cultivar and processing methods.

Terroir
Terroir refers to how the geography, geology and climate of a place influence the appearance and taste of a tea. A good analogy for terroir can be seen in the wine world, as many wines are named after the region in which the grapes are cultivated, and they exhibit characteristics that are specific to that growing region. The same cultivar of C. sinensis can be grown in two different regions of China and produce entirely different tastes of tea.

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Cultivar
Not all cultivars of C. sinensis are suitable for making a specific style of tea. A tea farmer will likely choose a specific varietal known for a desired characteristic to make a certain style of tea. For example, silver needle white tea, a tea made strictly from the buds of the tea plant, is often created from the Da Bai Hao cultivar of the plant which is known for producing large buds covered with white hairs.

Processing Method While terroir and cultivar greatly influence the taste and appearance of a tea type, it is the processing method that truly defines a type of tea. While there are exceptions to the following definitions, I find it is important to understand how each type of tea is processed in its simplest form. For each style of tea, different leaves are used, and once the leaves are plucked, processing begins... ready for a lot of information?
  • White tea is made of leaves that are simply plucked, allowed to wither in the shade for several days, then dried.
  • Green tea is made of leaves that are heated once, plucked to prevent oxidation and to preserve their green color (much like heating an apple prevents it from turning brown). The leaves are then shaped and dried.
  • Yellow tea is similar to green tea, except that it goes through a process called heaping before being dried wherein the leaves are laid out in piles and slightly heated until they turn yellow.
  • Oolong tea is allowed to oxidize slightly as the leaves go through several iterations of bruising and withering before being heated to halt oxidation, then shaped and dried.
  • Black tea leaves are first withered to allow for shaping and are then allowed to oxidize until they turn completely brown before being dried.
  • Pu-erh tea is the only type of tea that is truly fermented. The fresh leaves are first heated to prevent oxidation and preserve color, then withered and shaped, and from here they are bacterially fermented.

All of these processes greatly influence the creation and destruction of different chemicals within the leaves and leave us with the beautiful colors and flavors of the different types of tea we find on the market today.

How to Prepare Tea

As everyone's taste is a little bit different, there is no right or wrong way to steep tea. However, I'll offer you my guide to coaxing what I think are the best flavors out of tea leaves. Tea should not be bitter; if you've ever had to add cream or sugar to tea or if you've been served a bitter brew, it was not properly prepared. In fact, one or both of these things most likely happened: the water was too hot, or the tea was steeped for too long. If you are preparing tea for yourself and your tea comes out bitter, reduce the temperature and/or the steep time. Experimentation is key when learning to steep a new tea.

For white, green and yellow teas, you'll want to keep the water well under boiling. For whites, I recommend a steeping temperature between 150 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and for greens and yellows, between 170 and 180°F. Oolongs, black and pu-erh teas can handle higher temperatures; for oolong I recommend a steeping temperature between 190 and 195°F, black and pu-erh teas can be steeped at or just under boiling.

The steeping vessel is also another important consideration. The major concern here is leaf expansion; if the leaves do not have room to expand, you will lose flavor. There are heaps and heaps of gimmicky tea infusers on the market today, and most have very tiny spaces for the tea to infuse. Make sure your leaves can swim. You really don't even need an infuser; the best way to infuse tea is to let the tea leaves float freely in the water, then strain them into another vessel once the steeping time has passed. Once strained, the leaves can be set aside for the next steeping. Speaking of next steeping, don't forget to re-steep your tea. Using a series of short steeps is the best way to get the most out of your tea, and you'll get to experience the tea as it develops from steeping to steeping. Also, be sure that your water source is a good one. If your water tastes bad, your tea will taste bad. Here is a chart of steep times and water temperatures that you can use as a basis for your experimentation:

Tea Water Temperature 1st Steep 2nd Steep 3rd Steep 4th Steep
White 150-160ºF 1 min 1 min 1.5 min 1.75 min
Green 170-180ºF 1 min 1 min 1.5 min 1.75 min
Yellow 170-180ºF 1 min 1 min 1.5 min 1.75 min
Oolong 190-195ºF 30 sec 30 sec 45 sec 45 sec
Black 212ºF 1 min 1 min 1.5 min 1.5 min
Pu-erh 212ºF 30 sec 30 sec 45 sec 1 min

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When steeping, use 3 grams (approximately 1 tsp) of tea for each 6 ounces (approximately 0.75 cups) of water. If you want to get serious about tea, look into getting yourself a Yixing pot, or a gaiwan for steeping. Finally, store your tea in a place free from heat, light, air and odors and it should last several years.

How to Buy Tea

When shopping for tea, look for companies that offer information about where the tea is from, how it was processed, who grew it and most importantly, when the tea was harvested. Look for large, whole, uniform tea leaves free from broken pieces as you want the tea to steep uniformly. There are plenty of places out there for tea reviews -- the best sites are Steepster and RateTea.com.

Questions?
I'll be happy to answer any questions about tea via twitter.

Related Links from the Menuism Dining Blog:
• A Brief History of Indian Chai Tea
• All About Vodka
• A Craft Beer Glossary

Loose Tea 101 originally published on the Menuism Tea Blog.

Tony Gebely co-owns Chicago Tea Garden, where he works towards creating an accessible tea culture in the United States by selling teas that are free of flavors and additives and honoring the cultures that produced them. Tony also blogs at World of Tea.