Your Ultimate Guide to Drinking Tea
Once upon a time in China (around 3,000 BC or so), someone had the brilliant idea of pouring boiling water over the cured leaves of the Camelia sinensis plant, thus infusing a new beverage.
So began our love affair with tea.
Initially seen as a medicinal drink, today, it’s said to be the most widely consumed beverage on the planet, after water.
Tea’s spread from Southwest China to the rest of the world shaped global trade and economics as well as developing entirely unique cultures around the consumption of a fine cuppa.
In 2013, NASDAQ reported the global tea market value at $48.58 billion. By 2020, that figure is expected to reach $59.04 billion. So, as it turns out, it’s pretty big business, too.
North Americans are following the worldwide tea trend with passion and pocketbooks. Boutique retailers are opening all over, and even the coffee shops are taking notice and upping their tea game.
Before Europeans had access to China it was thought that green and black teas were made from different plants. Only later it was discovered that it is the different growing, plucking and processing methods that produce the different types of tea.
The chart below shows the slightly simplified production of each tea type. They’re distinguished by the processing they undergo mainly how much or how little they are oxidized (= enzymatic oxidation, sometimes also called incorrectly fermentation, except for Pu Erh tea).
All fresh tea leaves are withered to remove excess water content.
For green teas. the next step is ‘fixing’ (or sometimes called ‘kill-green’), to stop any unwanted oxidization of the leaves.
Fixing is done by heating the leaves to a minimum of 65°/70° Celsius, which kills the enzymes responsible for oxidization.
Often, Chinese green teas are pan-fired, while in Japan, the leaves are treated with hot steam. Each method has a distinct effect on the final appearance and taste of the end product.
White tea leaves are the least processed and therefore keep their original appearance.
White tea is known to be one of the most delicate tea varieties because it is so minimally processed. White tea is harvested before the tea plant’s leaves open fully, when the young buds are still covered by fine white hairs, hence the name “white” tea.
These buds and unfurled leaves from the newest growth on the tea plant are handpicked and then quickly and meticulously dried, so the leaves are not allowed to oxidize as long as leaves plucked for green or black tea production. This minimal processing and low oxidation results in some of the most delicate and freshest tea available.
White Tea Flavor
Just like the with the Chinese Emperors and courtesans of ancient times, white teas are still revered today for their delicate, rare and beautiful aromas and flavors.
Most white teas are still handpicked and hand processed, making them a true delicacy to sip in appreciation of the artisanship that went into their making.
Some common traits used to describe the overall flavor profile of the white tea category include floral, grassy, honey, fruity, melon, peach, apricot, vanilla, chocolate, citrus, herby, mild, subtle, delicate and sweet.
Oolong (or Wu-long, means ‘black dragon’) is a specialty from China and Taiwan.
It is a traditional semi-oxidized Chinese tea produced through a process including withering the plant under strong sun and oxidation before curling and twisting.
Most oolong teas, especially those of fine quality, involve unique tea plants that are exclusively used for particular varieties. The degree of oxidation, which varies according to the chosen duration of time before firing, can range from 8–85%, depending on the variety and production style.
Oolong is especially popular in south China and among Chinese expatriates in Southeast Asia, as is the Fujian preparation process known as the Gongfu tea ceremony.
The manufacture of oolong tea involves repeating stages to achieve the desired amount of bruising and browning of leaves. Withering, rolling, shaping, and firing are similar to black tea, but much more attention to timing and temperature is necessary.
The production is labor intense but produces wonderful complex, high quality teas.
Black teas are rolled after the withering to break open the cell structure. The released enzymes react with the oxygen in the air, similar to the browning of a cut apple. This is a crucial step and has a significant influence on the quality of the finished tea.
To stop oxidization, the leaves are heated (which gives them their characteristic black color).
Grading is the last step in the process.
This is the so called orthodox production, but there is another important commercial method called CTC. CTC is the acronym for Crush-Tear-Curl, which is the automated process for lower to medium tea qualities (e.g. tea bags).
There are 4 main grades for black teas:
- OP – Orange Pekoe: full leaf
- BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe: broken but still recognizable as leaves
- F – Fanning: pin head sized particles, mainly for tea bags
- D – Dust: smallest particles, mainly for tea bags
Orange Pekoe has nothing to do with oranges or orange flavor. It comes from the name of the Dutch royal family: Oranje. Dutch traders were the first to bring tea to Europe, and the name for a full tea leaf has stuck ever since.
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) is the top grade. During harvesting, only the bud and the two top leaves and are plucked. These young buds have a golden tip, hence the grade ‘Flowery’.
When the tips are in abundance ,the terms Tippy and Golden are also attached.
Occasionally the number ‘1’ or ‘2’ may be placed at the end of the letters to designate better grades among similar teas. Similarly the letter ‘F’ may appear before the TGFOP to designate a ‘finer’ grade, and the letters ‘SF’ designates a grade of ‘super fine.’ Thus a tea graded as ‘SFTGFOP1’ is a ‘Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – grade 1’.
These grades are only used for black teas, and don’t necessarily indicate a better or worse quality.
Pu Erh Tea
The production of Pu Erh tea is different from all other teas.
After a basic tea is produced (not unlike a green tea), the leaves are piled up and kept moist to initiate a post-fermentation (some oxidization will occur naturally as well).
Then the leaves will be dried but the fermentation will still continue at a slowed rate.
Pu Erh is the only tea that has the capability to develop enhanced qualities as it matures over time.
Choosing Your Perfect Tea
The best rule about tea is that there are no rules. Tea is very versatile and everyone can find their favorite tea for any time of the day.
In general, black tea is the strongest in terms of taste, color and caffeine content, followed by Pu Erh, Oolong tea and green and whites teas.
For simplicity I’ve divided potential tea drinkers into four groups:
1. Tea Newbie
2. Tea Explorer
3. Coffee Lover
4. Health Sipper
…Which one are you?
If you’re new to the world of tea, the best thing to do is to try each type of tea to find out which one appeals to you the most.
It might help to try a scented tea first and move on from there.
Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Black Assam (a strong, coppery red colored).
- Black Darjeeling (a more delicate, lighter tea).
- Wild Cherry (scented black tea with cherry flavor)
- Green Mao Feng (typical Chinese green tea, easy to drink)
- Green Sencha (different flavors, from Japan)
- Green Spring (scented green tea with strawberry or red currant).
You’re already a tea drinker and it is most likely black tea. Since North American teas consist mainly of hearty African and/or Indian blends, your palate is used to strong brews.
In order to enjoy lighter and more fragrant teas, I recommend that you explore the differences between the black teas firstly before you move on to the Oolongs and green teas.
I recommend the following teas:
- Ceylon OP St. James or Ceylon Nuwara Eliya (even higher quality)
- Darjeeling Singtom BOP or Kalej Valley (other Darjeeling is suitable as well)
- China Keemun (completely different from the two above but strong and aromatic)
- Any Chinese green tea
- Jasmine Green Tea or a flavored green tea of your liking
- Oolong Orange Blossom (flavored and highly oxidized) or Oolong with Osmanthus Petals.
Try to detect the differences in smell, color and taste. Give your palate a chance and stay off the strong teas (especially tea bags) for a while. It’s like having too much salty food which will overpower any other spice.
When you return to your old favorites do you notice the difference?
You didn’t like tea very much in the past but you want/need to replace coffee with something healthier.
Start with black teas:
Golden Monkey is made from a local variety of tea bush from the mountainous region of Fujian, China. These tea bushes are known for producing tea with a rich aroma, sweet taste, golden color, and well-twisted, tippy leaf.
If you enjoy the black teas, you could then move on to more delicate teas like Darjeeling, green or white.
Tea was first used as a medicine before it became a drink. It contains vitamins (especially green tea), minerals, essential oils and a group of chemicals called ‘polyphenols’. They’re responsible for the many health benefits of tea.
I suggest a few cups of green or white tea daily. Your particular tea choice depends on your preferences and budget, of course.
Jasmine tea is easy to drink and ideal after a rich meal, and for a white tea, Pai Mu Tan or the White Grapefruit are lovely.
Pu Erh and Oolong teas are known for weight loss and reducing ‘bad’ cholesterol (but this has not been scientifically proven).
Even simple black tea contains high amounts of antioxidants!
Note that tea contains caffeine; Rooibos tea is a good alternative, with plenty of vitamin C and zero caffeine.
Good Tea Needs a Good Teacup
To bring out the best in your tea, your cup needs to:
Be Nonporous, so that it does not interfere with the unfolding of the aromas and flavors; the material should be neutral and not “leach” – transfer molecules from the cup – or leave traces of the tea’s compounds trapped in its tiny pockets of space.
Modulate the heat of the tea to meet your preferences: keep it hot and cool it down quickly or slowly. A cup that is broad at the top cools tea more quickly than a tall, narrow one, which however concentrates the aroma. This is comparable to the different shape of glasses for red and white wine glasses. Ceramic cups tend to retain heat longer than glass ones. Thinner cups transfer heat faster.
Be safe chemically, in dishwashers and microwaves ,and inert, with minimal interaction between the material and the tea.
Borosilicate glass is excellent in this regard, but the very fact that it is highlighted in ads as “BPA-free” indicates that BPA-loaded is definitely not good. The same applies to dishwasher safe; the term warns you that there are plenty of unsafes around. (Bisphenol A is used to harden plastics and is banned for many applications.)
Best Choices for Teaware
Bone china is technically different from porcelain and fine china, but has the same characteristics.
It is more fragile but less expensive to manufacture. It adds bone ash to the clay. That comes from cow bones, which can be a creepy idea for many people.
It was invented by Spode and became the dominant material used in English teaware.
Porcelain and bone china are both terrific choices for cups, except for their fragility.
They look good, are a pleasure to handle and keep tea warm. They do not interfere with the flavor or leach other flavors.
Porcelain remains the choice of professional tea tasters. It has historically been accompanied by the saucer, and that remains the case for the traditional tea set, which has smaller cups that are narrow at the bottom and widen out to the top. High tea ceremonies invariably include saucers.
Glass is a classic material for both teapots and cups. It’s nonporous and very smooth.
The popular, practical and portable option is tough borosilicate glass. This adds boric oxide to the standard silicate ingredients, making it resistant to extreme temperatures and chemical corrosion. If it breaks, it doesn’t shatter into pieces but cracks, snaps and collapses.
Tea cups that use the glass are increasingly double-walled: a cup within a cup, separated by a wall of air. The outer and inner pieces are blown separately, dried and firmed up, and then joined together. The inner one keeps the tea hot while the outer one ensures the cup is cool to the touch.
One of the special extras is that the transparency of the glass shows both the color of the liquor and the unfolding of the leaf. It is striking and appealing to watch a flowering blossom tea open up its tied ball of leaves inside which is a marigold, jasmine or other flower or to see a teaspoon of rolled Oolong expand to half the cup.
Glass does not require glazing, is easy to keep clean, and is a good choice for teaware.
Ceramics vary widely in porosity. The term ceramic technically means made of clay that is fired in kilns, but it is loosely used to refer to stoneware – “pottery” – earthenware, porcelain or terra cotta or just some of the above.
The clay and firing heat determine a ceramic’s type. Clay is fine-grained natural rock or soil material with minerals and traces of metal oxides and organic matter.
Earthenware, the most common and easiest to work with, hardens at a firing temperature of 950-1100 centigrade.
These are the big, clunky pottery mugs. They are very porous and rough, chalky and grainy in surface. They’regenerally not glazed, which is the addition of a vitreous – glass-like – coating that eliminates porosity and adds color and design. To retain heat, they are made thick in their walls.
Earthenware is not a great choice for teaware.
Stoneware has a firing temperature of 1160-1300 degrees; it’s impermeable, dense and hard. There is a wide range of clay quality in terms of size of particles, impurities and non-clay elements such as mica and quartz.
Stoneware may be fired once or twice, to facilitate glazing. It is heavy and thick and widely used for coffee mugs.
Stoneware is inexpensive to make. It retains heat well, but that means that it can crack when subjected to extremes of temperature.
This is cheap everyday functional drinkware and there may be corner-cutting in production to keep costs low. For instance, glazes may not join well to the clay and crack, forming “crazy” spider web-like patterns. When this happens, throw the cup away – immediately. The cracks can provide nesting hideaways for bacteria.
Never use a dishwasher for stoneware, no matter what the manufacturer states about this being safe; stoneware is rigid and intolerant of heat changes.
Most tea cups and coffee mugs are uniformly cylindrical, with the bottom and lip being pretty much the same radius. The structural characteristics of ceramics mean that they are invariably thick-lipped.
Porcelain cups typically are narrow at the bottom and widen out at the top, which enables a better balance between heat retention and expansion of the aroma of the tea.
All in all, ceramic stoneware is an acceptable (but not outstanding) choice for teaware.
Tea Sets to Inspire You
Tea For One? (Do It With Style!)
As you embrace the world of tea, you may find yourself the lone tea fan among coffee drinkers in your home or office. In that case, there’s no need for a large teapot and full set of cups and saucers.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some style and tradition with your favorite hot beverage! Whether it’s your morning routine, afternoon pick-me up, or evening relaxation, your cup of tea should be enjoyed as it’s meant to be: steeped in a pot, and served in a lovely teacup.
We’ve spotted some gorgeous and practical tea for one cup and teapot sets that’ll put the old coffee mug to shame! So if you’re looking to step up your tea service for one, or need the perfect gift for a tea lover, we’ve got the goods to to turn a common tea break from mundane to a pleasurable, proper, personal tea time!
This Joy Tea for One Set from Royal Albert is a collaboration with model Miranda Kerr.
Delicate, delightful and totally Miranda, the three piece box set makes the perfect gift for the sophisticated and feminine woman who enjoys to celebrate with friends or simply when she needs to take time for herself with a nice cup of tea.
‘Joy’ is a buttermilk colored take on the ‘Friendship’ pattern, featuring a butterfly shaped bough at its center.
This Lady Lux Tea for One Set from Appletree Design is so adorable!
Appletree Design is noted for its collection of whimsical and colorful ceramic kitchen related items, and this set is no exception!
This functional and decorative tea for one set is made from ceramic and dolamite material, and features a bright and delightful lux lady cup, topped with her polka-dot, stripes and rose teapot hat!
This cheerful set is certain to lift any tea drinker’s mood!
The reviews for this set are excellent. Hand washing is recommended.
This pretty Glass Teapot Set from Rainie Love includes the cup and saucer, teapot and a removable ceramic tea strainer!
The ceramic cup and saucer feature a bluebird perched on the the branch of a blossoming tree against a background of soft pink and white.
The ultra clear glass teapot will highlight the rich hues of your tea, and a the ceramic infuser strainer can be added for loose tea, or removed for teabag use.
This set is dishwasher safe, but don’t put it in the microwave.
Fantastic Cup and Saucer Sets
With these sets for inspiration, you’ll want to invite someone over for tea every day!
This unique Rose Cup, Saucer & Spoon Set from Cosmos comes in a set of 2.
This beautiful set will have you thinking of a spring garden, with it’s soft pastel colored leaf, flower, and butterfly design.
It comes gift boxed and ready to give or enjoy yourself.
Other pieces in this design, including the teapot are also available. Hand wash this set.
The Arris Accent Teacup and Saucer Set (of 4) from Wedgwood, features a clean, bold design.
This contemporary set is made of dishwasher safe fine bone china.
As you would expect from Wedgwood, the reviews for this set are perfect!
There are several pieces available in the Wedgwood Arris Collection, all of them blending warm metallic, crystal and textural ceramics.
Some of the additional options are:
This lovely vintage-style teacup, saucer, and spoon set from AwHome is designed in detailed European style.
Made of fine bone china, this set features roses, butterflies, and a vintage style dress against a sky blue background, edged with gold banding. The set comes packaged in a pretty blue box.
Awhome also offers several other pieces in this design, including a teapot, covered teacup, multi-tier serving platter, and dessert plate.
The cup capacity is 7 oz., and a stainless steel spoon is included. This set should be hand washed.
This graceful white ceramic cup and saucer set from belle and June is hand-finished with a delicately beaded pewter rim. This cup and saucer is perfect for fine dining or everyday. It’s made of Italian ceramic and pewter, and hand made in Italy.
This set is dishwasher safe on the low-heat/air-dry setting with a non-abrasive detergent (I would hand wash it).
The cup is 3 inches high, and the saucer is 6.5 inches in diameter. There are also other pieces available in this stunning design.
And now for something completely different … this Butterfly Rose Cup and Spoon Set from Wind Life absolutely dazzling!
This handmade glass and enamel cup is certainly is so eye catching, with it’s sparkling rose and butterfly design, stylish flourishes, and deep colors.
The reviews for this set are fantastic, with one happy buyer stating that this glass cup is the most beautiful one she’s ever bought!
Another thrilled reviewer raved:
“My Mom’s birthday is coming up, and I wanted to get her something special. Something completely different… I ordered the smaller red mug, because she loves her tea.
The package was a cute little box with a picture of the mug on it. The mug was DOUBLE bubble wrapped …the spoon was in a matte plastic Ziploc-looking bag. It also comes with a little envelope with a card of authenticity.
This mug is GORGEOUS. The details are so intricate. It looks even better than the picture. I am so excited to see my Mom’s reaction when she opens this!!! This is definitely a great gift for the person in your life that has everything!!!”
This Costa Nova Madeira Blue Cup & Saucer from Bell and June features a reactive glaze that creates a crackled surface similar to the effect of dappled light. It brings a sophisticated and artisan backdrop to your table.
This stunning stoneware set is made in Portugal, and is dishwasher, microwave, oven, and freezer safe.
It measures 5.5” x 4.25” H2.5”. The cup holds 8 oz.
Belle and June offers many other gorgeous serving pieces in the Madeira Blue design.
This Parchment Check Teacup will remind you of of the perfect guest: well mannered and yet still full of personality.
This set features color-dragged checks which blend parchment, taupe, gold, and aqua. It’s finely detailed with lustred gold rims and accents.
This handcrafted ceramic cup is hand-painted and kiln fired, four times, by artisans in Aurora.
It measures 4.5 inches in diameter and 2.5 inches tall, with a 6 oz. capacity. Hand wash this gorgeous cup.
This charming vintage style fine bone china set from Jusalpha is sure enhance your tea time!
The design features Tiffany blue stripes and flourishes, detailed with luxurious gold banding.
The reviews for this set are outstanding, with many purchasers commenting the quality and beauty of the pieces. Some customers have posted photos of the set in their reviews, and you can see that it’s truly as nice as the listing.
The set includes the 7 oz. teacup, saucer and spoon, and comes packaged in a gift box. Hand wash this set.
Full Tea Sets
With these full sets, you’ll be ready to serve 4 to 6 lucky tea drinkers in style!
This pink Grace’s Rose set from Gracie Bone China has everything you need to serve a lovely tea for four. It includes a teapot, sugar bowl, creamer, and four cups and saucers.
This lovely set features a delicate traditional rose bouquet design against a soft white backdrop, and luxurious gold rim detail.
This set has excellent reviews, with purchasers commenting on just how beautiful and functional this set is!
These pieces are dishwasher safe, but avoid the microwave.
This Porcelain Set from Pukka Home’s British Royal Series, exudes timeless style with the this tea service for six.
This classy 22 piece set includes:
- 6 teacups
- 6 saucers
- 6 teaspoons
- sugar bowl
- tea filter (stainless steel)
(The metal display stand is available separately for purchase)
Reviews of this set are excellent. One purchaser even reported ordering this for a friend, but deciding to keep it after seeing how beautiful it was!
It’s also available in the colors “milk purple” and “young pink”.
This Gold Lace Pink Teaware set from Grace Teaware is just so beautiful with it’s intricate, reflective pink and gold lace pattern against gold-trimmed white porcelain.
This fine porcelain set includes a 5-cup teapot, 4 cups and saucers, a sugar bowl, and a creamer.
Reviews for this set are outstanding; customers are uniformly happy with the purchase!
This teaware is dishwasher safe, but cannot be microwaved.
Regular teaspoons can seem oversized and clumsy with teaware.
If you don’t already have some, I recommend picking up some demitasse spoons (mini teaspoons).
They’re just the right size for stirring tea (or coffee), and resting on the saucer.
“Taking tea” is such an enduring and delicious ritual; I hope you’ve found some inspiration to expand your tea drinking horizons.
There is much to explore in the world of tea, but no need to feel intimidated … just trust your palate and enjoy yourself!
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