Russell’s Brief, Opinionated Guide to Tea
Tea is a bush in the camellia family, specifically Camellia sinensis.
If you steep tea leaves in water, you get a slightly bitter, caffeinated beverage.
Table of Contents
A Very Brief History of Tea
This section is mostly taken from The True History of Tea.
The tea bush is native to what is today northeast India, north Mynamar, and southwest China. It was probably used as an herbal remedy or food item before written history. By the Han Dynasty (~1 CE) we have references to the consumption of a drink like modern tea. Over the next thousand years, it was spread throughout modern China, particularly by Buddhist monks that liked its stimulating-but-not-intoxicating properties. By the Tang Dynasty (~1000 CE), it was essentially the national drink of China. Around this time, tea-drinking culture was exported to Japan, where it flourished, and tea was also traded to Mongolia, Manchuria, and Tibet, where it became an important part of the “tea-and-horse” trade.
Fast forward six hundred years and we enter the early modern period of globalization. Tea was traded overland into the steppe, becoming important to the cultures of Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Morocco, among others. British and Dutch traders carried it overseas to most of the rest of the world. Notably, in the 1800s, the British started industrial-scale tea plantations in India and Sri Lanka, where it remains a major industry to this day.
Varieties of Tea
Tea leaves detached from tea plants turn out to be pretty fragile. In particular, as they’re left exposed to oxygen, they start to oxidize, causing chemical changes inside the leaf that radically changes the flavor profile of the final drink. In particular, catechins convert to theaflavins and thearubigins, among many other changes.
You can stop oxidation whenever you want, by flash-heating the leaves to denature the enzymes responsible; this is typically called kill-green. On the other hand, by ripping up the leaves and tumbling them, you can oxidize them even more than they would just being left out.
The most important categorization for tea is based on oxidation. If you stop oxidation almost immediately, you end up with green tea (or white tea, if you’re using particularly young buds). If you let the leaves mostly oxidize naturally, you end up with oolong tea. If you macerate and tumble the leaves for extra oxidation, you end up with black tea.
Within the broad categories of “green”, “oolong”, and “black” tea, there’s a bewildering array of tea varieties, typically based on growing region, growing conditions, specific subspecies of C. sinensis, and so on. So, for instance, for black tea, there’s Assam tea, and Ceylon tea, and Irish breakfast tea, which is a blend of Assam and Ceylon. Similarly, there’s Tieguanyin (“Iron Goddess”) oolong, as opposed to other types. The various subtypes taste significantly different if you have the palate for it, but for most beginners the green/oolong/black distinction is the most important.
Scented, Spiced, and Flavored Teas
Tea is often flavored with extra spices or flavorings in addition to tea. These are sometimes called “scented teas” for not-totally-clear reasons.
There’s a lot of flavored teas out there but some of the more common varieties include:
- Jasmine tea: Green tea with jasmine! Typically you get a big pot of it at dim sum.
- Genmaicha: Green tea that tastes like rice… because it’s cut with toasted rice grains. Apocryphally, genmaicha was invented by impoverished Japanese peasants trying to conserve precious tea leaves.
- Earl Grey: Black tea with oil of bergamot, which is a citrusy essential oil. If you add frothed milk and vanilla, you get a London Fog, which was invented in Vancouver.
- Masala chai: Indian black tea brewed with milk, often with added spices.
If you grow tea leaves in the shade, they get rather stressed out and produce more caffeine and theanine. If you then take those tea leaves and grind them into a powder, you get matcha, a very bitter, very caffeinated powder.
Matcha is the center of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, but in the last decade or so has become trendy in its own right, both in milk-based matcha lattes and as a baking ingredient. That said, if you’ve only ever had mass-market matcha, do try ceremonial-grade matcha at some point — it’s fairly expensive but very good.
There’s a few other varieties of tea not covered above that pop up from time to time. One of these is lapsang souchong, which is black tea smoked over a pinewood fire, and another is pu’erh, a (very strong) tea that is allowed to both oxidize and ferment.
You can apply the same steeping-some-leaves idea to other plants. These result in herbal teas like chamomile or rooibos, most of which are naturally non-caffeinated. Some purists don’t like that these don’t have tea in them, so they call them tisanes instead.
Preparation of Tea
Tea is pretty easy to prepare. All you really need is:
- Tea leaves
- A source of hot water — I prefer freshly-boiled water from a kettle
- A mug
- (if using loose-leaf tea) A tea infuser
- (optional) Creamer and sweetener, usually milk and sugar
Just put the tea leaves in the boiling water and wait 1-3 minutes for green tea or 3-5 minutes for black tea — I’ve found timing is useful, because oversteeping by even a minute or two can completely change the flavor.
Creamer and sweetener are often, though not always, used for black tea, but rarely for green tea; I typically put two teaspoons of milk and two teaspoons of sugar. There’s traditionally controversy about whether to add the milk first or last, which is mostly a matter of taste; the distinction does matter, because putting the milk last scalds the milk slightly.
I tend to prefer loose-leaf tea over tea bags, though the difference in taste is marginal. Mostly, it’s just more convenient to buy large amounts of higher-quality loose-leaf tea, e.g. from Vahdam. Usually, I’ll use about two teaspoons of loose-leaf tea per cup. This isn’t that inconvenient, since a decent stainless steel tea infuser runs about $10.
You can also cold-brew tea! Just get one of these Hario cold brew bottles and leave a few teaspoons of tea in the fridge for a few hours for a very different drinking experience.