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Choosing Tea

When you buy tea from a supermarket, gourmet shop, Web site, or mail-order catalog, you're confronted with dozens of choices. How do you determine which tea you'll try next? Do you end up with the kind your mom used to fix whenever you were sick, or do you settle for the brand that's at eye level on your grocery store shelf? Or are you game to explore the tea of connoisseurs and savor the legendary teas from single plantations? One thing is certain: understanding how tea is grown and processed, recognizing the different categories, and knowing what goes into the various blends will make choosing your tea far more enjoyable and interesting.

If you were to try to brew a pot of tea with freshly picked tea leaves, you would face a somewhat bitter and watery drink. Just as a tea's quality depends on which teas are picked, its special character results from how the fresh tea leaves are treated after they've been harvested.

There are three major methods of processing freshly picked leaves, and each results in a different category of tea: green, black, or oolong. What sets these teas apart from one another is the amount of fermentation that is allowed to take place. Fermentation is a chemical reaction, specifically oxidation, that occurs between the air and the leafs natural juices. However, unlike fermenting grapes, fermenting tea has nothing to do with microbes or alcohol.

Green tea

Green tea s delicate, unfermented liquor most closely resembles the taste of the tea leaf in its natural state. Indeed, green teas like Gunpowder and Pearl Dew are often described as having a light, slightly sweet, herbaceous flavor, while others surprise the tongue with a smoky, maltlike flavor that leaves your mouth dry. Until the Ming dynasty (a_d. 1368-1644),green tea was the only type of tea produced in China, and it is still their most popular tea, although it makes up only 20 percent of the world's tea production.

The first step in processing green tea is to steam or pan-fire the freshly picked leaves. This destroys the natural enzymes necessary for fermentation. The steaming not only helps to preserve the leaves' natural oils and important natural antioxidants (also referred to as polyphenols and tannins), it also helps to soften the leaves, making them more pliable. After steaming, the leaves are rolled or twisted, which forces the cellular structures to break down so that they will release their aromatic juices when brewing occurs. A second gentle heating, also called firing, reduces the water content further, to 3 percent moisture. The rolling and firing may be done in two steps or repeated several times. The end result is that the leaves dry slowly.

The last step in processing green tea is grading-sorting the leaves according to shape and age. The choicest grade is Gunpowder. Its young leaves are roiled into tiny balls that resemble BB shot. Other grades include Young Hyson (middle-aged leaves that can be rolled or twisted), Imperial (older leaves made in the Gunpowder fashion), and several lesser grades, ending in dust.

Green teas are produced mainly in China, Taiwan, Japan, and India. Although many of the steps are mechanized, you can still find handmade teas in specialty stores, Asian markets, and on the Internet. Rolling tea leaves by hand is a tedious process. A worker goes over each of the leaf-laden trays two hundred times or more, rolling the leaves against the tray with his or her palms. How the worker rolls the leaves will determine whether the tea is twisted, curled, flat, or pellet shaped.

Black tea

Black tea is familiar to anyone who has ever dunked a Lipton tea bag, enjoyed a spot of English Breakfast, or sipped a tall, frosted glass of iced Ceylon on a summer afternoon. Black tea's popularity surpasses all other teas in the Western world today.

The most processed of the three categories, black tea tastes the least like the natural leaf. Instead of being steamed, the harvested tea leaves are placed on large drying trays and allowed to wither until they are limp. Depending on the type of tea being produced, withering takes place either in the sun or in the shade. The leaves are then bruised and rolled either by hand or by machine, giving the air and the aromatic juices a chance to mix. Since the enzymes and bacteria are still present- they haven't been deactivated by steaming, as they are in green tea-fermentation begins in the humid, climate-controlled fermenting rooms. This fermentation/oxidation process takes just a few hours. Once the green leaves turn a coppery red-a color that tea specialists say reminds them of an apple turning brown after it's sliced-the leaves are ready to be dried (fired) to stop any further fermentation.

Unlike green tea, black tea is graded according to size, not quality. After the tea has received its final firing, it consists of a jumbled pile of whole leaves, broken leaves, bits of branches, and very small particles of tea dust. Mechanical or manual sifters with graduated mesh separate these pieces according to size, which not only gives the tea a better appearance but also ensures an even brewing time.

The two main grades of black tea are leaf and broken. Subdivisions of the leaf grade include Orange Pekoe (pronounced "peck-oh"),Pekoe, and Souchong. Each name refers to a particular size, color, or texture of the finished leaf. In the case of Orange Pekoe, the name refers to the larger leaves on a fine plucking, and not to an exotic flavor. The broken grade is divided into still smaller sizes, which are ideal for quick brewing and tea bags.

Oolong tea

Oolong teas are treated in much the same way as black teas, but withering and fermentation times are minimized. While black teas are fully fermented, oolongs are only 75 percent fermented. This results in a deliciously fruity tea that evokes the qualities of both black and green teas.

Unlike black teas, oolongs are graded only according to their quality. The best is called Choice, followed by Finest to Choice, Finest, Fine to Finest, and so on, a bewildering array of superlatives that ends in Standard. Since there can be many crops in one year, the quality of an oolong refers not only to the character of the leaf and how it was handled but also to the time of year it was harvested and the part of the plant that was plucked. For example, the best Formosa Oolongs are harvested in the summer months. They usually carry the Finest grade, while the grades of the winter harvest, when the weather can be quite unstable, are usually Good to Standard.

Oolong tea originated in the Fukien province of China, where it is still manufactured today. Among tea specialists, Formosa Oolong, which is grown in Taiwan, is considered the best. Oolong tea accounts for less than 2 percent of the world’s yearly consumption of tea.

You also may encounter two other categories of tea: pouchong tea, which is lightly oxidized and is classified between a green and an oolong tea, and white tea, a rare and expensive unoxidized tea that is similar to green tea.

Blended tea

After tea is produced and graded, it is packed into aluminum-lined plywood chests and sold by tea brokers to companies that blend, package, and sell it. Whether loose or in tea bags, most packaged teas are a blend of many different teas. It is the tea blender's responsibility to maintain quality and consistency by blending teas to create the tastes you've come to expect or are about to discover.

scented tea and flavored tea

Scented and flavored teas have been around since the first tea drinkers decided their tea needed a little pizzazz. By adding the sweet or pungent flavor of fruit or spice, the fragrant scent of blossoming flowers, or, in the case of Lapsang Souchong, pine smoke, tea manufacturers are able to alter or enhance their tea.

Jasmine, chrysanthemum, gardenia, and magnolia are the most popular flowers used in scented tea. For centuries, making Jasmine tea has meant gathering fresh jasmine blossoms in the early morning, before they've bloomed. When evening comes and the blossoms open their heavily scented petals, they are either placed beside or mixed in with green or oolong tea leaves. After several hours, the dry leaves absorb the sweet aroma, and the entire process is repeated until the desired amount of aroma and flavor is absorbed. This method is still practiced, but technological innovations such as hot air blowers and combining machines help the blossoms spread their fragrance. You will sometimes find the spent blossoms in your tea.

Flavored teas, such as Orange, Peach, Vanilla, and Black Currant, are fastrising stars on grocery store shelves. The scent or flavoring in these specialty teas is sprayed onto the leaves, which are gently heated to absorb the flavoring. Earl Grey is one of the nobler examples. Spiced teas, such as Orange Cinnamon and Lemon Spice, have spices and fruit rinds intermixed with the leaves to create their characteristic flavors.

Another popular tea product that's lining supermarket shelves and refrigerator cases is ready-to-drink canned and bottled teas, which are, more often than not, lemon-, strawberry-, peach-, or mango-flavored iced teas. Created to go head-to-head with soft drinks, they are marketed as more healthful than soft drinks and more thirst quenching. One look at the ingredients list and you'll discover that the sugar content is too close to that of soft drinks to be comfortable. And when it comes to taste, it's hard to find the tea flavor. There are exceptions, however; you just have to explore, sip, and savor.