There is so much more to tea than an everyday teabag. Not only are there many different types, but also different growing regions across the globe from China to Africa, Nepal to Cornwall. Our love for a good mug of ‘builder’s’ doesn’t mean we have to ignore all the other delicious leaves beyond that industrially processed bag.
Hand-crafted leaf tea can be an altogether more delicious undertaking. It’s a bit like comparing a farm cheddar to a cheese slice, or a fillet of beef to a frozen hamburger. There is nothing wrong with either, but it’s obvious where to find the best flavours. The lovelier leaves do cost more to produce and need more careful preparation, but the results are worth savouring.
Bags are convenient but they are only good for tiny broken fragments. Good leaves are much bigger and they unfurl as they infuse, re-hydrating and swelling. They need room to expand which can’t happen in a bag. They need the teapot.
How to brew tea
1. Ensure the correct leaf-to-water ratio
2. Get the right water temperature
3. Use a timer when infusing
Making good tea is a bit like making a cake; you need to follow a recipe and take a little care to get a perfect result. There are just three things to measure. Once you have mastered these, you can explore each tea in all its complexity and enjoy each one just the way you like it.
1. Leaf-to-water ratio
We recommend 2-3g of leaves per teacup (150ml). This is roughly one teaspoon of broken, black tea or a dessert spoon of whole leaf teas which are lighter and more bulky. A good rule of thumb is that if you like stronger tea use more tea, do not infuse for longer — too long and it will just become bitter.
2. Water temperature
The flavours in good tea dissolve at different temperatures. White and green teas work better at lower temperatures – around 70°C – to bring out their delicate sweetness. Black teas are best with water at 80°C, if you drink them without milk, or 90-95°C with milk. The hotter the water the more tannic the tea. Boiling water is really only good for industrial tea bags and most herbal infusions. Temperature controlled kettles are available, or you can simply add a little cold water to the teapot before adding the boiling water.
3. Infusion time
This really depends on how you like your tea. The longer you leave tea to brew, the stronger and more tannic it will become. As a general rule, go for:
One minute for a light infusion
Two minutes for a strong infusion
Three minutes for a very strong infusion
Once at your desired strength, pour the last drop from the pot, or remove the leaves, so that they don’t continue to brew and become bitter. When you’re ready for your second cup, just re-infuse the same tea leaves with fresh water. Often the second cup is even more delicious than the first. Some teas will infuse many times, making what seems like expensive leaf tea actually rather affordable – just a few pence per cup.
A guide to different tea varieties
All tea comes from the same plant – camellia sinensis – it is how it’s grown, harvested and crafted that produces the different types.
White tea is the least processed as it’s just dried. It is the lightest, most delicate tea, retaining the highest levels of antioxidants. The best are sweet and grassy with no bitterness at all. A cup of this is best drunk on its own to savour the subtle taste.
Green tea is fired or steamed at high temperatures shortly after picking. The flavour varies as widely as types of white wine. The very best cost £1,000 a kilo and are wonderfully smooth and rich. The cheapest leaves tend to be bitter and seaweedy. Green teas go well with savoury dishes.
Oolong lies artfully between green and black tea, being partially oxidized. The lighter are green and fruity whereas the darker are roasted and nutty. Oolongs are the most versatile to enjoy with food – anything from cheesecake to steak.
Black tea is fully oxidized to bring out the deepest flavours. The best hand-crafted leaf is highly prized and can taste of chocolate and caramel or highly floral, while cheaper versions tend to be more bitter and one dimensional. Black tea is best enjoyed with sweet dishes.
Pu’er is fermented tea, traditionally made in large discs known as cakes and crumbled into the teapot. The flavour is earthy and highly umami. It goes well with fatty foods.
Scented or flavoured tea
Teas can be scented with fresh flowers like jasmine or rose, or flavoured with citrus like bergamot oil in Earl Grey. Most commercial tea, however, uses flavours and scents, just as many fruit teas rely on flavourings rather than real fruit. Do look at the labels — it might not be as healthy as it sounds. You could be better off with a good quality, pure tea.
These aren’t really teas at all but infusions of dried herbs, like chamomile, hibiscus, rooibos, lemon verbena, and mint. While all true teas contain caffeine, herbs do not, so they can be relaxing last thing at night. However, they lack some of the beneficial antioxidants too.
Whatever tea you are drinking, please think of the farmers who grow and craft your leaves. They are often from among the poorest nations in the world and don’t always get the fairest deal from the big brokers, despite the badges on the box. If you can, buy from Direct Trade tea companies who know where their tea comes from. They’re more likely to support the farms they work with so that everyone benefits: you get the best tea and the farmer gets the best deal.
Images of individual tea types courtesy of Rare Tea Company
More tea tips
What’s your favourite type of tea and how do you like to make it? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.