Steeping instructions for the perfect cup of tea
White teas – steep for 1-3 minutes in 175-185 degree water
Green teas – steep for 3 minutes in 185 degree water
Oolong teas – steep for 3-5 minutes in 185-206 (boiling) degree water
Black teas – steep for 3-5 minutes in 206 degree water
Herbal teas – steep for 5-7 minutes in 206 degree water
All teas come from the same plant: Camellia Sinensis. It’s a distant cousin of the flowering camellia common to North America, but the tea you’d get from our familiar ornamental variety would be a vile concoction. C. Sinensis originated in China and has been cultivated for over 4,000 years. Aside from the obvious, what makes green tea different from black tea, oolong and so on, is the amount of oxidation in the dried leaves. When new leaves and buds are first plucked they all hold the potential to be baby-delicate white teas or cantankerous old pu-ehrs, aged and hardened. Crushing, heating, and drying the new leaves determines the oxidation level, and the type. Based on this process, teas can be categorized into five basic types:
White teas are minimally processed, containing the least amount of oxidation. These are delicate and fine flavored. Often hand-picked, the leaves are handled as little as possible and allowed to dry naturally. Because white teas are relatively labor intensive—some tea growers pick them wearing white cotton gloves—they tend to be rarer and more expensive.
Green teas are lightly processed, allowing less than 30% oxidation before they are steamed or seared to halt the oxidation process. Traditional green teas are hand rolled before drying. Jasmine flowers and other botanicals are sometimes fused with the leaves before drying to add scents and flavors. Today’s tea production is managed primarily by machines, but many tea makers have returned to orthodox methods of hand rolling in order to achieve the finest quality. Green teas are particularly well suited for infusing with fruit flavors, such as pomegranate and blueberry.
Oolong teas are moderately processed, and fall on the spectrum of oxidation—usually 30-70 percent—between green and black teas. The liquor from oolong teas is amber to red, and the flavor is strong, but not bitter. Oolongs are lesser known in the West, but provide a lighter tea than our traditional black while not straying too far from the familiar. Tea makers use a variety of natural ingredients, such as rose petals, lavender, jasmine, and mint, to produce new and interesting oolong blends.
Black teas, the most common in North America, were introduced to us from Europe. When we think if tea, we often think of England, but Europe (with the recent exception of France) has never grown tea. Black teas were specifically created for the European market because the heavy oxidation (more than 70%) allows the leaves to retain their flavor for more than a year, whereas lesser oxidized teas have a shelf life of only a few months. Black teas made it possible for northern regions to obtain teas from China, India and Sri Lanka. These teas are most frequently flavored with bold spices, such as cloves or bergamot, as found in Earl Grey.
Pu-her (pronounced poo-air) teas are also somewhat new to the West. These teas are heavily processed, then compressed and aged (traditionally in caves). The liquor is a true black, very much like coffee. These teas have an earthy aroma, and are often an acquired taste. Though serious coffee drinkers are finding much to love about these dark, rich teas. In China, “black” tea, as they call it, is considered good for the liver, and a natural aid in weight loss.