With more than three thousand varieties of tea and countless combinations, your choice is staggering. Until recently, buying rare or single-garden teas was difficult, because most never reached your local marketplace. Times have changed, however, and so have the number of ways you and the tea merchant can search out and purchase fine tea. Even if you aren't dialed into e-commerce, the global community, or the Internet, they are bringing the world of tea to your doorstep.
Here is an introductory guide to some of the world's finest and most popular teas and tea blends. If you experiment, you'll discover that the way in which a tea has been grown and handled, as well as its grade, all contribute to its taste. Describing that taste can be elusive and, like fine wines and coffees, each tea has its signature characteristics.
Green Tea Varieties
DRAGON WELL, also known as Lung Ching or Long Jing, is one of China’s most noted teas. The leaves are long, flat, and a vibrant jade green. Dragon Well teas produce a clear, pale emerald-green tea with a slightly sweet, buttery, and lingering mellowness that will last through several infusions. It's ideal for those quiet, contemplative times.
GEN MAI CHA (gen-my-CHA) is a name you'll recognize from Japanese restaurant menus. It is a hearty, everyday green tea that is blended with toasted rice kernels to give it a nutty flavor, which goes especially well with Japanese cuisine.
GUNPOWDER refers to a Chinese grade of green tea that is rolled into small pellets. The Chinese refer to it as Pearl tea. Pinhead Gunpowder is made from choice young tips and buds. Because the leaves are tightly rolled, they stay fresh longer than other green teas. Tea drinkers enjoy the pale green brew, with its slightly grassy flavor. Be sure to brew it loose in your cup, so you can watch the leaves unfurl gracefully in the water. Gunpowder teas make a delicious afternoon tea and go well with any meal.
GYOKURO (ghee-OH-koo-roe) is a highly prized Japanese tea also known as Pearl Dew. It is grown in shaded gardens under marsh-reed screens, and only the tender top buds of the first flush are picked. These delicate leaves are high in chlorophyll and are made into a hand-rolled leaf that resembles pine needles. The tea has a deep green color and a rich, sweet, herbal flavor.
HYSON (Hl-sun), also called Young Hyson, is named after an East India merchant who first sold it to the British. Originally made in China, Hyson is now made in India as well. Its tightly twisted yellow-green leaves produce a fuller-bodied liquor than most green teas.
MATCHA (MA-cha) is the ceremonial tea of Japan. It is made from the same leaf as Gyokuro, but it's dried in its natural shape and ground into a brilliant chartreuse powder. It is whisked with boiling water into a frothy, slightly thick, sweet, pleasant beverage.
SENCHA is a designation given to many teas from Japan, and it accounts for more than 70 percent of the country's export. It is the classic Japanese tea. A bright green tea, its flavor is reminiscent of freshly cut grass, and its aroma has a hint of the sea.
Black Tea Varieties
ASSAM is the foundation for many of the finest tea blends. Grown in northeastern India (the world’s largest tea-producing area), Assam’s deep color and rich flavor make it an idea tea whenever you want a full-bodied brew. Like the little black dress or the navy blue blazer, this is a basic tea that you will always want to have on hand.
CEYLON, now known as Sri Lanka, began growing tea in earnest when a fungus blight in 1869 wiped out the country's profitable coffee plantations. It was here that Sir Thomas Lipton made his fortune. Sri Lanka's mountain-grown teas, called self-drinkers because they are unblended, are among the world's favorites. Delicately flavored and bright in color, they can be enjoyed any time of day and are especially nice in the morning with milk. These teas also work very well when iced because they don't become cloudy when chilled.
DARJEELING is called the champagne of teas. The finest of India's unblended teas, Darjeeling is grown on the slopes of the Himalayas in plantations called gardens. There are fewer than one hundred of these small-scale, family-based gardens clustered in the seven valleys of the Darjeelings.
True Darjeelings are still processed the way they were a hundred years ago. Like other exquisite teas, more Darjeeling is sold each year than is grown. To be sure you're buying a true Darjeeling and not an impostor from the lowlands, buy from a tea specialist knowledgeable in single-garden or estate teas.
Darjeeling's bright, golden-red color is attractive in the cup. Its teas have a delicate, flowery aroma, with the character and body to make the tea enjoyable to drink any time of day.
KEEMUN is the famous China black tea that connoisseurs refer to as the burgundy of teas. The small, tightly curled black leaves unleash a lovely red color when brewed, and the tea has a full, strong body. Its aroma is variously described as smoky or as having an orchid bouquet. Excellent with food, this is a delicious breakfast tea.
LAPSANG SOUCHONG is the popular, smoky south China tea, recognizable the moment the tin is opened or the first cup is poured. Its pungent flavor comes from smoking the leaves over pine wood. Lapsang Souchong was a favorite with Western pioneers and trappers, and it's very pleasing at the office, served black or with milk and sugar.
PU'ERH (POO-air) is a Chinese black tea that is allowed to decay partially during the withering stage, permitting bacteria to enter the leaf and alter the flavor. The leaves are then buried and aged in the ground. The taste is earthy and very strong. The tea can be sold loose or compressed into cakes.
YUNNAN (YOU-nahn) is a pleasantly assertive Chinese tea from the southwestern province of Yunnan, where tea has been produced since the second century a.d. The long green leaves with their golden tips (a sign of meticulous plucking) make a rich, slightly floral, spicy taste that complements highly seasoned foods and is delicious when iced.
Oolong Tea Varieties
FORMOSA OOLONG's peachlike aroma and fruity flavor are a result of shortened withering followed by partial fermentation. It is a nice complement to sweets and is enjoyable as an afternoon tea with scones and tea cakes or after a meal with dessert. Originally grown on the island of Taiwan by Chinese who longed for their native oolongs, Formosa Oolong has surpassed the native oolong in taste and reputation. It is one of the few commercially grown teas still produced on family farms.
TI KUAN YIN is a Chinese oolong from the Fukien province. Its curled leaves create an amber liquid and a delicate, peachy, slightly nutty flavor.
Favorite Tea Blends
ENGLISH BREAKFAST starts many a sleepyhead's day and is especially good with a dash of milk. Once made from a self-drinking (unblended) Keemun, its strong, full-bodied flavor now often comes from a blend of teas from India and Sri Lanka.
IRISH BREAKFAST is a heartier brew than its English cousin because of the higher percentage of Assam and Sri Lanka teas. Like English Breakfast, it handies the addition of milk and sugar with grace.
RUSSIAN-STYLE blends have a common characteristic: a striking aroma that most often comes from the addition of Lapsang Souchong. These exotic blends also include Keemun and China or Formosa Oolongs.
Favorite Flavored and Scented Teas
EARL GREY'S signature ingredient is bergamot, a fragrant essence made from the rind of a citrus fruit (Citrus bergamia). Not all Earl Grey teas incorporate the same blend of black teas or the same amount of essence. It's worth experimenting to find the subtle balance of flavor versus fragrance that you like best.
JASMINE tea is highly fragrant and deliciously floral. It is made by gently scenting green or pouchong tea leaves with fresh jasmine as they are drying.