Good Question: Help Me Learn About Tea

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Here’s a good question from Haley, who would like to learn a little more about tea. She writes:

For Christmas, I received a beautiful Simplex copper teapot. Problem; I don’t know anything about tea, other than I like lemon and sometimes honey. But now I’m inspired to learn and I need your help! For all of you experts, are there any special books or tea kits you would you recommend for a beginner? Any advice on where to begin would be much appreciated.

Haley, congratulations on your beautiful new kettle! It’s wonderful that you want to use it as inspiration to learn more about tea.

Tea is a vast subject with a great deal of history and beauty – there are many connoisseurs and artisans who spend years learning the precise rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony, or the delicate flavors of Chinese tea varieties. But you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy tea. Here’s a whirlwind look at a few major sorts of tea:

• Black tea: Black tea is made from tea leaves that have been dried and oxidized. This gives them a darker flavor and also intensifies the caffeine. You’ll find black tea in many different blends and flavors, but the underlying notes are deep, robust, and often tannic. Black tea is drunk all over the world, but especially in England, India, and some parts of Africa.

• Green tea: Green tea is made from the same plants as black tea, but it undergoes less oxidation so it has a more delicate flavor. Green tea is more frequently found in Asia and Asian restaurants.

• Herbal teas: Herbal teas are not actually tea; they are made from various herbs and spices and they are more properly called tisanes.

That is a very rough sketch of major types of tea; we didn’t mention rooibois, white tea, jasmine tea, or any others of a wide range of available teas.

The principal thing you should know about enjoying a good cup of tea is that every different sort of tea needs to be steeped in hot water for a certain amount of time, and at a certain temperature. Green and white teas are rather delicate; if you steep them in boiling water you’ll get bitter, undrinkable stuff. Black teas and herbal teas, however, should be made with boiling water, although herbal teas often need to be steeped for much longer to extract maximum flavor. That is the primary thing we would tell a tea newbie: watch for the correct steeping time and temperature, and make sure you follow them when experimenting with teas.

Other than that, we say, have fun! Buy a tea sampler and drink your way through. If you like lemon and honey, try an herbal tea pack, and also make sure you try this Flu Season Ginger Honey Lemon Tonic. (It’s our winter staple.) see if you like your teas strong or weak, sweet or milky. Try a few good brands of black and green tea, buying them in small bags at your local tea-shop (or Whole Foods) so you can try a few kinds without committing to a whole box.

We are linking to our archived series of posts from the Tea Lady, too, to give you some more ideas. And finally, the Adagio Tea website and forum are great places to find advice and a friendly crowd of tea-drinkers.

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