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Guide to Good Tea: by numbers.
1. The Benefits of Loose Tea
Using loose teas is the best way to make a cup of tea. With loose tea you can appreciate the full, balanced flavour of the tea. Here we explain why.
Loose tea makes the best tea. That’s a bold statement you say. Why? Well, I’ll tell you why. Loose tea is larger leaf. And if you choose large leaf teas they are even better than standard loose leaf teas. The reason is this: large leaf teas have a larger volume compared to the surface area of the leaf. So, when infusing they take longer to brew, giving time for the full balanced complexity to the tea to infuse. If you did this with a small leaf tea or the dust used in teabags the tea would become unbearably tannic and too bitter to drink.
Larger leaf teas also have the benefit of generally being made by the orthodox method, being carefully picked – two leaves and a bud, withered, rolled (not torn) and then fired. This gives an excellent flavour unlikely to be found in mass-market CTC teas (cut, tear curl). Needless to say, we only sell loose leaf tea!
2. Brisk, biscuity, nutty, spicy and teas with bold tannins
Discover more about the teas we drink most: Black Teas
Essentially all tea is the same plant – the more aromatic Camellia sinensis originates from Yunnan province in south-west China and a larger leaf, more strongly flavoured variety Camellia assamica originates from neighbouring Assam in India. The leaf is picked, allowed to wither and from there on the methods of production can vary giving a multitude of tea varieties. Of course, it is not only the method of making but the terrain and climate in which the tea is grown and produced that can make all the difference to the character of tea.
In this article we aim to identify and classify the principal tea categories by their flavour and aroma and to talk about the sub-categories where these differences in tea production make a discernable difference to the finished drinking experience. To experience the differences between these teas most noticeably we are here talking about whole, unbroken loose leaf teas produced using traditional, orthodox methods. These may take slightly longer to infuse than smaller, broken leaf grades but it is well worth the extra patience. Being larger leafed the infusion will be more subtle, complex and less dominated by tannins which mean that small leaf teas cannot be brewed sufficiently long to allow these more complex, balancing flavour characteristics to become apparent without creating an unbearably tannic brew.
Let’s start with China …
The first group we will discuss is brisk with a biscuity character. Flavours may be bold, aromatic, nutty and spicy. It is this black style of tea that we are most familiar with drinking. The leaf is oxidised in air after withering and rolling. This process creates the distinctive tannins which gives black teas their characteristic briskness or astringency and biscuity note. It is for this reason that many of the fuller bodied black teas are traditionally drunk with milk. The caffeine content of black teas is the highest of any tea category: typically 19.9mg per 100ml compared with 10.6mg for green tea.
Noted for their medium body and wine-like character are keemuns from Anhui Province, known as the ‘burgundy of teas’. Chinese black teas are less plentiful than green but this is one for which they are famous. These were originally created for the export market, being less perishable than green teas on the long sea voyage to Europe and America. Yunnan teas are also typically black and have a full bodied character with a complex, slight sweetness reminiscent of tobacco and aromatic woods.
Full bodied assams (native Camellia assamica) have a well-known malty character with notes of raw sugar is a traditionally popular Indian black tea. They generally have plenty of tannin necessitating the addition of milk but the second flush pickings tend to be lighter and more elegant often with an evident tippiness of the young leaf. Light bodied, clean tasting muscatel Darjeeling teas (Camellia sinensis hybrids) are demanded for their brisk, clean taste and muscatel aroma. These teas should definitely be drunk without milk. Darjeeling first flush teas picked around March, are peach-like, brisk and with an aroma of muscat grapes. Second flush Darjeelings are more full bodied and smooth, have a less fruity note but more of a muscat aroma. Nilgiri teas from the southern blue mountains use the Camellia assamica variant but produce a lighter bodied, aromatic and more fragrant tea, ideal for everyday drinking.
Close to Nilgiri teas in character are Sri Lanka’s fruity, aromatic Ceylon teas. These vary in body from the full bodied Dimbulas to the light Uvas, the most highly sort-after being the high-grown teas from the central upland area of Nuwara Eliya at an altitude of 4000-6500 ft. Ceylon teas have a fragrant, brisk character and are often drunk with milk. However the lighter bodied Uvas, Nuwara Eliyas and the youngest picked, tippier teas are generally best drunk without. Again the region tends to use the more robust Camellia assamica variant.
Adjacent to Darjeeling is Nepal which now produces higher quality teas using the Camellia sinensis variant. These teas are now more readily found on the international market. They share some of the characteristics of neighbouring Darjeeling, having a slight muscat note.
In East Africa Kenya is the home of much of our mass market tea, being strong, ideal for quick brewing. However they are now producing some quality orthodox teas such as Tajiri which are attractively full bodied with an unmistakable tanginess with notes of apple and caramel.
See the black teas section of our Tea Store
3. Fresh, herbaceous, floral teas low in tannins
Discover newer style teas: green, white and oolong from China and beyond.
If you prefer more vegetal, herbaceous teas with little tannin then green teas may be more for you. Body can vary as much as for black teas – from light to full but the lack of tannins mean you would not add milk. These teas have less caffeine as these teas are not oxidised, being ‘fired’ in an oven or using hot air immediately after withering and rolling. They can vary from being quite astringent to being very smooth. They may also vary from floral to herbaceous and vegetal. As you can see there is great variety. Care should be taken with making green tea in not infusing with boiled water that is too hot. It should be allowed to cool for a few minutes before pouring on the leaf to ensure the tea does not become bitter. Unfortunately this is a common mistake and has led to the perception among many that green teas are bitter.
Green teas from China and Japan
Green teas originate from China and accounts for around 70% of its production. The most vegetal style are those from Yunnan Province. The wet region in the east, south of the Yangzi river including the provinces of Zhejiang, Hunan and parts of Anhui and Jiangsu provinces produce much of China’s green tea. The coastal province of Zhejiang is famed for its sweet, herbaceous pan dried Lung Ching (Dragon Well). Anhui is renown for its fresh tasting, vegetal Huang Shan Mao Feng.
Applauded for its smooth, vegetal style green teas is Japan, which as epitomised by its tea ceremony is second only to China in its veneration of green tea. Powdered Matcha has been given much publicity for creating frothy matcha latte. Creamy and healthy it achieves this through being drunk whole as the leaf is in powdered form. It is very green for the leaf is grown in the shade for several days prior to harvesting to increase the level of chlorophyll in the leaf and hence its smoothness in the cup. Sencha is the most commonly drunk tea in Japan and is also partially grown in the shade. It is very smooth with a vegetal character. We stock Sencha Fukujyu and Sencha Fuji from Shizuoka prefecture as well as Sencha Gyokuro Ashi, used in the tea ceremony.
Green teas of less traditional origin
Regions of India famous for their black teas such as Darjeeling and Assam are now producing green teas which maintain the characteristics for which they are renown with the freshness and floral notes of good green tea without the tannins. Kenya now also produces good orthodox green tea which is recognisably east African. Our Rift Valley Green is a good example.
Little known are the smooth, aromatic and fresh tasting yellow teas. These are made in a similar way to green teas but covered in cloths after drying so that the aromas from the still warm leaf are re-absorbed. Our China Yellow Sun is a good example.
See the green teas section of our Tea Store
4. Oolongs and flavoured teas
More complex teas such as oolongs can provide a stimulating tasting experience that becomes increasingly attractive.
If you are seeking a tea more complex than green yet without the body and tannins of black try oolongs. These may be partially oxidised teas from China’s Anhui Province from where greener, fresher closed styles originate such as the famous Ti Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong). Alternatively, they may be the blacker, more oxidised and open styles of Taiwan’s Formosa oolongs. Vietnam also now produces high quality oolong teas from the southern, mountainous areas. We stock a closed style, discernably fruity, citrusy Imperial grade. From Nepal we also have a beautiful open style, fruity and aromatic Jun Chiyabari Organic oolong.
Light, soothing and honeyed
For late night drinking and for when you prefer a really light bodied, soothing cup then white tea could be for you. Traditionally made in Fujian Province, China from the downy white buds of the emerging leaves these bud set teas are most sought-after pickings available only for a couple of weeks each spring. A famous example of such a tea is Baihao Yinzhen (White Down Silver Needles). These teas yield a lovely hay-like, buttery smoothness and delicate aroma with very little caffeine. After picking they are merely withered and dried, remaining intact. They can have honeyed notes of melon, peach or apricot. Other white teas can include young leaves with the buds, varying between 25 and 40%, such as Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) which have a slightly more concentrated flavour.
The increasing popularity of white teas has prompted such areas as Darjeeling and Assam to adopt Chinese white tea making methods to create very gentle teas that have some of the flavour features for which their own teas are renown such as the briskness and muscat aspect of the former and the maltiness of the latter.
Clearly fruity, floral and spicy?
So, this leads me to the final flavour profile; that of flavoured teas themselves. They may be based upon black or green teas, the latter taking flavours well but the former appealing to our preference in the West for black tea characteristics of some tannin with a certain biscuitiness. Flavoured teas are made with the addition of dried fruit pieces or peel, spices, nuts and essential oils from fruits. The varieties are almost too numerous to mention but favourite and classic China flavoured teas include Jasmine and Magnolia. Popular flavoured black teas include Rose Congou and Vanilla. White tea has been used to create flavoured teas butwe consider that these are so subtle that the addition of flavourings would overpower their fine tastes and aromas.
5. White Tea
White teas can be picked on only a few days of the year such are the demands on which leaves and buds can be picked. They are very subtle, gentle teas to be savoured.
This traditional tea is the perfect embodiment of the art of the tea maker to produce the purest, simplest tea that captures to perfection the subtleties of the youngest, freshest tea buds of the season. The liquor is always pale, straw-like giving a certain sweetness. Flavours of honey, chestnut and peaches most commonly come to mind. It can form the perfect luxury at the end of a long day.
White tea is produced in a similar way to green tea and the caffeine content is therefore very low. The soft, silvery, downy-white buds are picked in early spring before they even open to produce new leaves. It is important that at this time there is no rain, frost or dew during harvesting that might in any way might compromise their delicate quality.
Next, the buds are withered in the fresh mountain air away from light that would increase the chlorophyll content of the tea and the leaf is then dried. White tea is originally from China’s Fujian Province although today Anhui Province also produces good white tea.
Three types of white tea
Firstly, traditional budset white tea from Fujian Province where only the bud is picked. The leaf is greenish-grey in colour and produces a pale liquor with flavours reminiscent of ripe melon, fresh apricots and peaches. Baihao Yinzhen or White Needle is a good example of this exquisite tea.
Secondly, are new style white teas produced from the 1960s in many tea growing areas in which the bud and first leaf is picked. Different proportions of bud may be used to maintain consistency of flavour. This is generally more concentrated than budset white tea and tends to be much less expensive. The leaf may be very lightly rolled to enable an eight to fifteen percent oxidation using the principle of oolong production. There is no astringency. Pai Mu Tan and Snow Bud are good examples of these new style white teas.
The third type of white tea is traditional style from other provinces such as Anhui, Zhejiang or Yunnan or even the Nilgiri hills or Assam region of India. We would particularly recommend Dragon Well and White Monkey as beautifully made and consequently fabulously delicate teas to taste.
How to make white tea
White tea should be made with fresh water that has been boiled and allowed to cool to around 65 to 80 degrees Centigrade. Infuse from seven to fifteen minutes but if multiple infusions are desired then these should be from one progressively to two minutes allowing the water to cool further between each. Drink white teas without milk. They are best enjoyed in the evening and especially after a meal and make a wonderfully relaxing beverage with which to contemplate your day.
See the white teas section of our Tea Store