The Non-Judgmental Guide to Getting Seriously Into Tea

20150118-tea-max-falkowitz-3.jpg

Fresh, springy Dragon Well: a green tea to love. [Photographs: Max Falkowitz, unless otherwise noted]

My friend Laura is way more into wine than tea, so it took some cajoling to get her to travel an hour and a half away from home to a tiny tea shop in a Queens strip mall, where we settled in for a three-hour tasting of teas from all over China and Taiwan.

"I want you to see the amazing teas I keep blabbing at you about," I told her, and good sport that she was, she acquiesced. A bribe of dumplings beforehand probably helped.

So there we were, hunched over tiny stools under fluorescent lights, while the tea seller prepared five teas for us to try. The first tea left Laura cold, and I watched her say the same "oh that's...interesting" dismissal I've heard so many times before. Then we moved on to the high mountain oolong.

She took a sip and her eyes went wide and she almost yelled at me, "How does this taste like riesling? Is that peach skin? Black walnut?"

20150116-tea-vicky-wasik-3.jpg

Four unique teas, each made from the same batch of tea leaves from the newly funded Dachi Tea. Just like wine grapes, one species of tea plant yields many products. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

I knew she was hooked, because she was picking up on something tea lovers have known all along: The same vocabulary we use for coffee, spirits, and wine—tannins and fruit undertones and terroir—are all just as applicable to tea. In that black walnut-peach skin moment, she understood that tea is something worth paying attention to, not just a hot drink for when you're under the weather.

Every year I'm left in the lurch wondering when tea will get its due. Delicious, ubiquitous, nourishing, gently stimulating, and rich with history and lore, to say nothing of glossy tools to drop money on, tea has everything you could want in an obsession-worthy drink. Perhaps the problem is writing a trend piece on what's already the world's most popular beverage after water.

Or perhaps it's that tea can't shake its image in the West as the drink of grandmothers and British people in rain boots. Coffee gets a siphon pot. Tea gets a cozy.

It's time to ditch that rep.

So if all you know about tea is the English Breakfast tea bags growing stale in your cupboard, I'd like to convince you to dig deeper and see just why tea is so deserving of our respect and appreciation.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tea

Camellia Sinensis vs. Herbal Tea

All tea comes from a single plant: a gnarly, shlubby-looking bush with the scientific name Camellia sinensis. Whether a tea is black, green, or oolong, all are different varieties or treatments of the same plant.

Herbal teas, namely teas made from, you know, herbs like mint and chamomile, aren't, strictly speaking, tea. They have a name all their own—tisane—which derives from the Greek for "not tea."* I don't have anything against herbal tea, but in my mind they're a whole different category of drink, and there's plenty to Camellia sinensis all on its own.

* jk.

Flavored Tea vs. Flavorful Tea

I'm going to ask for another leap of faith: Skip the flavored tea. Or at least don't begin your tea education with it.

Now lots of people love their Earl Grey or a particular chai blend, but drinking flavored tea by default is like saying it's best to drink coffee with a shot of hazelnut syrup, or that white wine's only worthwhile if diluted with ice cubes, or that the only way to have bourbon is mixed into a Manhattan. On a philosophical level, it also suggests that unflavored tea lacks flavor, which isn't the case at all.

I'd argue the opposite, particularly in regards to East Asian styles that are designed to be drunk straight, not with milk. The world's supply of tea is vast, but its supply of amazing-tasting tea is rather small. That eye-opening tea worth seeking out like a $500 bottle of Bordeaux? It's not getting flavored. Rather, if a factory or after-market vendor is adding extra flavors to a tea, it's probably because that tea needs a flavor boost.

The Trouble With Tea Bags

20150118-tea-max-falkowitz-6.jpg

Life on a tea plantation.

If you think tea tastes like boring, astringent brown tree water, I'm willing to bet the blame lies with tea bags.

The smaller a tea leaf's size, the faster it brews, but that brew will taste coarse, rough, and unbalanced compared to one made from larger tea leaves. In many factories, tea is graded according to its size. In black leaves destined for British-style teas, "Broken Orange Pekoe" leaves are smaller (chopped up or crumbled) than "Orange Pekoe" leaves. Smaller still are "Fannings," aka "dust," the tiniest grade of tea that makes up almost all teabags on the market.

A tea bag's chief benefits are speed and ease of use: it brews fast with no added equipment. But that's about it. Tiny tea dust particles tend to oversteep and turn bitter quickly, and the kinds of tea that find their way into teabags don't have much nuance to begin with. If you're just looking for a sturdy black tea to drink with milk, a tea bag like PG Tips will do you just fine. But if you're looking to taste more of the tea itself, there are some better options, particularly beyond English-style black teas.

One increasingly popular high-priced solution is tetrahedron-shaped "loose leaf" tea bags full of larger leaves. Manufacturers claim these shapes allow for better water circulation and brewing around the leaves, letting more nuances seep into your cup. I've found neither of these claims to be true. For their high costs—higher than true loose leaf in many cases—I've had some pretty foul teas.

My advice? Ditch the bags and go loose. Not all loose tea is quality tea, but the world's best teas don't come in bags. And if cost is your concern, plenty of loose leaf tea is actually cheaper per ounce than what you can buy in a tea bag.

How Tea is Made

20150118-tea-max-falkowitz-5.jpg

Freshly harvested tea leaves.

I'm about to get super info-dumpy and paint with incredibly wide brushes here, so bear with me, as tea-making is a diverse process with few constants. Now for a more detailed take on growing and processing tea, take a look at this deep dive into Chinese Dragon Well. But here's a broader overview of what happens and why it matters for the tea we drink.

Tea grows all over, from misty, rocky mountaintops to sunny lowlands. Just like wine and coffee, a tea's growing conditions and soil makeup have a huge bearing on how it'll taste. How granular does that terroir get? The very same tea plant grown on two sides of a hill may produce different subtleties, say if one side receives more rain or less shade than the other.

Take a look at a tea bush and you'll see a wide swath of waxy, dark green leaves and a thin coat of lighter green ones resting on top. Those dark green leaves are culinarily useless; only the fresh young shoots are good for tea.

The young shoots are usually picked by hand and brought back to a farm's central factory. (Keep in mind that on small plantations, that "factory" is likely just a barn.)

20150118-tea-max-falkowitz-4.jpg

Hand-roasting Dragon Well.

Now the minute a tea leaf is plucked off the bush, it starts to oxidize. This enzymatic process influences the tea's flavor as much or more than where or how it's grown, so farmers and factories monitor it obsessively, then stop the oxidation in its tracks by heating the leaves to shut off the enzymes.

Green and white teas, designed to pristinely reflect their leaves and where they're grown, are barely oxidized, which means they're heated soon after they get to the factory by steaming or pan-firing. (The Dragon Well in the photo above is roasted in a wok by hand until dry.)

20150118-tea-max-falkowitz.jpg

Tea left out to wither.

Oolong and black teas, on the other hand, are partially and fully oxidized respectively. The leaves are often laid out to "wither," where they oxidize and begin to dry out, then they might be curled or torn to encourage even more oxidation, then fired at a specific point to halt the process. Just like oxidation, the method of firing and its duration has a big bearing on a tea's final flavor. From there, the tea may be flavored, aged, or fermented before packaging.

A great tea grower will obsess about every stage of this process, from particular tea cultivars, to the land and the weather, to timing harvest days, to just how the tea is dried and fired, and how it's treated post-drying. Though the tea trade has certainly benefitted from advanced technology, its core is expert knowledge. When you find a tea farmer who really, really cares, you hold on to them for dear life.

Brewing Loose Leaf Tea

20150116-tea-vicky-wasik-1.jpg

A gaiwan. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

When it comes to brewing loose leaf tea, there are all sorts of hyper-specific methods to try and specialized tools you can buy, from wire mesh tea balls to elaborate metal and glass infusers, and in truth the options can get intimidating.

20150118-tea-max-falkowitz-8.jpg

But you don't need anything fancy. Across China, for instance, the most common brewing method doesn't take anything more than a small cup or glass. The instructions: Put a couple pinches of tea leaves in your glass, then fill it with hot water. Let steep for a minute, then sip, using your lips to filter out the tea leaves. Add more water, re-steep, and repeat for as long as you want. No muss, no fuss, no obsessing over water temperature or steeping times.

Going Gaiwan

20150116-tea-vicky-wasik-2.jpg

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

My favorite brewing method is only a hair more complicated: a Chinese bowl called a gaiwan. It'll run you all of $15 but can brew pretty much everything, and like a good knife, a quality gaiwan will feel like an extension of your hand. The gaiwans from Red Blossom and In Pursuit of Tea are both great buys.

A gaiwan has three parts: a saucer, a bowl (three to five fluid ounces), and a lid. Liz Clayton has a good article on how to use it, but in brief, you pour hot water in the empty gaiwan for a minute to warm it up, then empty it out and fill the bottom with leaves—a couple teaspoons with rolled or dense leaves, or even more with larger, less compact ones. Then you pour in hot water and use the lid as a strainer to pour into a cup.

20150118-tea-max-falkowitz-2.jpg

The steeping time is short, 20 seconds or so—with so much tea for a small volume of water, you don't need to steep for long. Learning the straining technique takes some practice, but the gaiwan is by far the simplest, most elegant, and versatile tea-brewing vessel out there. No filters to clean, no moving parts, way easier than pulling a shot of espresso.

I really like this method because it's all about tasting and appreciation, not idle sipping from a giant mug. It also encourages multiple steepings. That's right: Unlike tea bags, loose leaf tea all but demands to be steeped more than once, and each steeping will taste a little different, giving you a full sense of a tea's range and depth. You'd be surprised at how long-lasting some teas can be this way—I've gotten flavorful brews on my ninth re-steep of some hearty roasted oolongs.

I also like this method because it limits the number of variables to worry about. With serving size, amount of tea, and steeping times at relative constants (though each re-steeping will take more time than the last, an extra 10 to 30 seconds), all you have to think about is your water source and your brewing temperature.

Water Woes

20150118-tea-max-falkowitz-7.jpg

Some tea snobs will say you absolutely must use filtered water to get the most out of fine tea, and if you own a $3,000 specialty filtration system used by some tea shops, that's certainly true. But depending on where you live, standard consumer filters like the Brita may not be necessary. Here in New York City, where the tap water is very high quality, I've found little difference between using tap and Brita-filtered water. Your mileage may vary, though, so here's a simple rule: If you wouldn't drink your tap water straight, don't try making tea with it.

Your other option is bottled spring water, and certain brands have more alkaline minerals that play nicely with the essential compounds in tea. Eternal's bottled water is my current favorite; it's done nothing less than unlock flavors in my favorite teas that I never knew were there. If I didn't care about the expense and plastic waste, I'd use it to brew all my tea. Whether you brew with bottled is up to you and your water source, but it's a fun and edifying exercise to brew the same tea with several different waters and see how the flavors compare.

Some tea snobs also freak out about water temperature. Conventional wisdom says that black teas are best brewed with full-boiling water to extract maximum flavor, but green, white, and some oolong teas will wither and die at such high temperatures, turning bitter and over-extracted. Some retailers go as far as to put narrow temperature recommendations on each tea they sell.

This approach isn't wrong, per se—some delicate Japanese green teas can indeed turn bitter with very hot water—but I don't think it's totally right either. In fact, more than a few tea experts I know brew almost all their tea with full-on boiling water, then compensate by brewing more delicate teas for a shorter time. You can experiment with water temperatures for every tea you own, but the main point is there's no one right or wrong way to do so.

Take Time to Taste

20150116-tea-vicky-wasik-4.jpg

Rolled oolong leaves after several steepings. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

So: Get your gaiwan. Warm it, then add leaves. Use boiling water (to start, anyway) and do short, concentrated steepings. Don't worry about getting it "right." But do take time to taste.

Just like wine, you don't throw back fine tea. Give it a good whiff first. Then sip and let it sit in your mouth. Is the tea light or full bodied? Fruity, woodsy, earthy, leafy, acidic? Does it feel creamy on the tongue, or perhaps tannic? I find some teas evoke atmospheric feelings. A high mountain oolong, which grew in misty, rocky, hilltops, blooms with clean, airy alpine qualities. A creamy, chestnutty Dragon Well harvested in springtime has the crisp, green snap of early spring vegetables.

After you swallow your sip, slowly exhale. What kind of finish do you feel on your tongue and throat? How does the air taste? For some teas, aroma and finish are just as, if not more, important than the actual flavor.

Then give your tea another steep and taste again. Adjust your steeping time if you need to—shorter if the tea was too strong, longer if it tasted under-extracted. Some teas, like rolled oolongs, show more of themselves on the second or third steeping than the first. And as you keep going, the tea will continue to evolve in your cup. Most teas will go for three to five steepings, and by the time you get to the end, the brew might taste like an entirely different tea.

Just like coffee or wine, it takes some time to train your palate to pick up on a tea's subtleties. But as you keep tasting, you'll start to notice them, sussing out creamy green teas with notes of buttery biscuits from sharp, crisp ones that remind you of mowing the lawn on a hot summer day. Tea, like anything else, demands patience. But when you find a winner, you'll know.

Now what teas are worth all this trouble? In truth, any tea deserves to be brewed and tasted this way, but to really fall head over heels for tea-drinking, you have to head to its home turf: Asia. Take a look at the tea styles you'll find there, then hit up this list of recommended vendors to get started on a tea journey of your own.

More Tea Reading

Beyond English Breakfast: An Introduction to the World's Great Teas »
Where to Buy Amazing Tea Online »
The Tea Cup and the Dragon: Secrets of China's Favorite Green Tea »
Taste Test: Should I Use Filtered or Bottled Water for Tea? »
The Secrets Behind Making Incredible Matcha »
Getting Tea Drunk in Japan's Sencha Paradise »