The road to drinking great tea, even at its most simple, gets complicated fast. On the one hand, you need some thorough guides to navigate the overwhelming diversity of styles, growing regions, and cultivars to have some sense of what you're drinking. But on the other hand, you just need to start drinking some damn tea.
Problem is, unless you know some knowledgeable tea folks to get you started, picking out just where to start is a challenge all its own.
Here's my proposal to get you over that hump. Read about these five teas below, then buy them. Just these five (or fewer) to start. Drink them and think about what you like. What flavors and textures stood out to you? How did they make you feel?
I can't promise you'll like them all. The idea is buy small samples of each and experience the full range of what fine tea has to offer. One of these teas tends to taste like buttered scones; another like Scotch. Some are light and floral, others bold and woodsy. Chances are at least one will speak to you and make you want to seek out others like it.
Of course there's no one set of "best" introductory teas out there, and this collection is based as much on my personal tastes as anything else. But these teas will give you a sense of what you like, what you don't, and what you should drink next. Most important, they'll get you drinking right now.
Toasty and Nutty: Genmaicha
Lots of tea drinkers start out with genmaicha for a few reasons. Its taste is bold but accessible. It's nearly bulletproof to brew. And it's damn cheap and easy to find; some Japanese groceries sell it by the quarter pound for just a few bucks.
Genmaicha is made by combining inexpensive late-season Japanese green tea (though it's still higher quality than virtually all tea bags) with grains of toasted rice. The tea leaves bring a smooth, verdant verve to the brew, while the rice adds tons of toasted nut flavors, which together make for a clean but full-flavored drink a little like light roast coffee crossed with popcorn. I turn to genmaicha when I want an easygoing daily drinking tea, or after I've eaten a heavy meal; its mellow, toasted richness makes it a perfect digestive aid.
Since it's so affordable and widely available, lots of large tea shops sell genmaicha, and most of it is pretty solid. The version in the photo above, from the American Tea Room, gets its green tinge from a dusting of matcha (powdered green tea). The matcha there doesn't impact the flavor too heavily, but it makes for a more full bodied brew.
Next up: If you like the green and nutty vibe of genmaicha, you'll probably enjoy longjing, a.k.a. Dragon Well, a pricier Chinese green full of spring vegetable flavors rounded out by kicks of chestnut.
Golden and Fruity: Himalayan Black Tea
Black tea is where most Western tea drinkers begin, and your typical tea bag black tea, the kind that make up blends like English Breakfast, comes from all over the world, but the basic script is the same: something dark, malty, and heavy on the tannins. Much of it brews up so strong it's practically designed to be drank with milk. But if you want something more nuanced and subtle with less astringency, it's time to look high up in the Himalayan mountains.
The teas grown thousands of feet in the air in India and Nepal deliver astonishingly complex flavors with deep aromas and long-lasting finishes. The most famous—and expensive—of these teas come from Darjeeling, but lesser known regions nearby also produce excellent tea. Expect moody fruitiness with accents of sweet wine or dark chocolate, along with honeyed, delicately floral flavors in batches with lots of young leaves and unopened buds.
Himalayan tea goes marvelously with milk, but it's also good enough to drink straight—well rounded for a nice daily drinker but with plenty to hold your interest. Be sure to seek out large leaves produced in the "orthodox" style; tiny flecks of cheaper "crush-tear-curl" tea are lower quality with coarser flavors. In Pursuit of Tea and Simpson & Vail offer commendable options.
Next up: If you like the malty, chocolatey aspect of these teas, look for higher grade Assams and Sri Lankan orange pekoe. Or seek out specific flushes of Himalayan teas. The first picking (flush) of the season in the Himalayas typically gets processed into a creamy and airy but delicate green or white tea; it's a totally different perspective on the same leaf.
Rich and Savory: Sencha
The archetypical Japanese green tea is sencha, and when done well, it's one of the most intense greens out there. The good stuff is downright soupy and lipsmacking, with sweet blasts of spinach, cream, or pine all tempered by just a hint of bitterness. If you want a taste of what premium green tea is like, sencha is a perfect place to start.
Unlike the lower grade leaves used to make genmaicha, the best sencha comes from spring harvests. The season's cooler temperatures make for a more flavorful and nuanced tea, which should taste and smell like the concentrated essence of spring, all green vegetables and crisp, sweet air.
Spring's cooler temperatures mean slower growth and lower yields, and thus higher prices. When it comes to Japanese tea, price maps pretty well to quality, and there's a lot of low grade cheap sencha out there that, while totally fine to drink, isn't mindblowing like the good stuff. You can get excellent sencha from shops like Ippodo, O-Cha, and Kettl.
Next up: Once you've developed a taste for sencha, you can start exploring even spiffier Japanese greens, such as the shade-grown gyokuro, kabusecha, and matcha, all of which deliver even more profound soupy-sweet vegetal flavors.
Light and Floral: 'Green' Oolong
Fine oolongs from China and Taiwan are some of the most labor-intensive teas to produce in the world, but the rewards are many: brews brimming with sweetness, complex aromas, and deep rounded qualities. This is an enormous category of tea, but I'd suggest starting with one of the lighter varieties, what's sometimes referred to as "green" oolong—dried without any roasting so its aromas are powerful right from the start.
If you're into big fragrances with notes of honey, vanilla, fresh flowers, and sweet grass, these are the teas for you, particularly those grown at high elevations that embody the misty, airy qualities of those mountain peaks. One popular gateway oolong is the jin xuan cultivar developed in Taiwan in the 1980s, also known as "milk oolong" for its sweet, buttery, and creamy character that's shockingly reminiscent of a cup of milk tea or freshly buttered scones. This tea is made for re-steeping, and its flavor and aroma will change over the course of several brews.
There's plenty of junk jin xuan out there, some of which is processed with milk powder for a more obvious milky aroma at the expense of a terrible brew. So make sure you get it from a trustworthy vendor; Eco-Cha and Té offer exemplary versions.
Next up: Once you've gotten a handle on the style, you'll be ready to branch out to more unroasted oolongs and even more complex roasted varieties like toasty dong ding, buttery tie guan yin, and candy-sweet hong shui "red water" styles. These roasted oolongs typically have a less in-your-face aroma compared to unroasted versions, but more than compensate with glowing smoothness and layers of spice, grains, caramel, and baked fruit that last a dozen steepings.
The Whiskey Wildcard: Wuyi Oolong
Teas grown on the rocky cliffs of the Wuyi mountains in Fujian province are never cheap. Their flavors are bold and sometimes challenging. And the market is full of assorted BS-ing about them. So why am I putting them on this list? Because a good cliff tea was one of the first teas to make me stop and take notice at just how amazing this beverage can be. Because this dark, wild stuff has a habit of tasting like fine whiskey, which I hear some of you have a thing for.
By this point we're talking about a more advanced tea, but sometimes you gotta spring for the good stuff, and the signature mineral "rock" taste of Wuyi speaks to me a lot like the peaty brine of Scotch. The comparison makes more sense once you consider the dark roast on the leaf, the honeyed sweetness lurking underneath, and the accents of leather, smoke, and/or vanilla found in classic styles like da hong pao and shui xian; they're like all the elements of Scotch deconstructed and put back together. You can steep a tea like this all day. It'll start out dark, rich, and roasty, with a tongue-tingling minerality, then mellow out to something smooth, sweet, and rounded on the palate.
Truly great Wuyi oolongs can go for a dollar a gram, but when you're just starting out there are plenty of more affordable sources to consider for nice tea. Red Blossom and White2Tea sell Wuyi oolongs at reasonable prices.
Next up: There's nothing quite like good cliff tea, so drink more of it! Seek out dark roasts, aged varieties, and smoky lapsang souchong styles.
Disclosure: Some vendors listed provided samples for review consideration.