Tea: The Other Hot Caffeinated Beverage

If you want to be more like Uncle Iroh, now’s your chance! Jacob Kessler is here to help you find the perfect tea.

Years ago, as an introvert new to the workforce, I hit upon the idea of making a pot of tea at the end of the day to share with my coworkers as a way to interact with them that didn’t involve the terror of trying to go up to someone and make small talk. I had always enjoyed drinking tea over coffee or soda, it provided a way to meet without needing an agenda or an invitation, and (because of the previously-mentioned tea-enjoying) I already had some loose-leaf tea and a teapot at work. Over time and a few job changes, I went from ‘that junior guy with the tea’ to ‘that senior guy with the tea’, and part of that seemed to be an assumption that I actually knew what I was doing. However, mostly it was just that I enjoyed tea, had picked up some tea facts, and wanted to share that. So today, I’m going to try to walk you, perhaps an aspiring tea-drinker, through some of what goes into finding a tea that you enjoy.

What makes different leaves taste different?
Tea is commonly characterized by oxidation level, additives, age, and location.
  • The oxidation of the leaves during processing
    The most obvious (and usually, the most heavily advertised) is how much oxidation a tea leaf has been through: white and green teas are unoxidized, and will generally have ‘light’, ‘floral’, and ‘vegetal’ tastes, black teas are fully oxidized and will generally have ‘deep’, ‘earthy’, and ‘nutty’ tastes, and Oolong teas are partially oxidized and, unsurprisingly, fall somewhere in the middle.
  • Anything added to the tea to flavor it. Popular options are 
    • Flowers (such as jasmine or rose, mixed in as it is dried)
    • Herbs and spices (mint being the obvious one, but cardamom, cinnamon, anise, and ginger are also common)
    • Fruit (bergamot oranges for earl gray, but dried berries are also popular)
    • Pu-erh is a class of teas that are allowed to ferment to develop a different set of flavors
    • Toasted grains (for example gen mai cha is a Japanese tea made with toasted rice)
    • Lapsang souchong is a Chinese black tea that is smoked over pine logs
  • The age of the tea plant
    How old the tea plant is can play a significant role in both the taste of the tea and its caffeine content. Tea from younger plants (it’s a sliding scale, but generally 50-100 years is on the young side) is both higher in caffeine and more bitter than tea from older plants, since the purpose of both the caffeine and the bitterness (from the plant’s perspective) is to keep away insects, and that’s less of a concern as the plant ages. By the time a tea tree is three or four hundred years old, the leaves make much less caffeinated, and less bitter, tea. Some tea plantations will advertise the age of their tea plants, and you can make a guess based on when teas were introduced to the area (for example, no tea from India comes from plants more than 200 years old), but often it’s strongly correlated with what kind of tea is made from it: younger teas are generally considered lower-quality, and tend to be made into fully-oxidized black teas, where their flavors can hold up even with milk added – more on that later.
  • The location that the tea is grown in
    Much as the growing conditions of the grapes can affect the taste of wine, the same is true of tea. This is often more subtle than the other factors, but it does mean that once you find a ‘style’ of tea that you like, you can dig more into which different regions produce it, and see if there’s a particular kind that you like.
This Champagne Oolong was brewed at 200°F for 4 minutes.
How long, and at what temperature, should you brew tea?

There’s a lot of fuss about how long to brew tea and what temperature water to use (including such claims as ‘if your water is too hot, you’ll burn the leaves’!), but the general concept is simple: There are a wide variety of different flavoring compounds in tea, and they dissolve into the water at different speeds based on the surface area of the leaf, the temperature of the water, and the brewing time. Some of these compounds produce the desired flavor of the tea, some produce a harsh bitterness (I’ve heard mostly it’s a class of molecules called tannins) that you want to avoid. The hotter you brew your tea the more quickly it will become bitter, and at low enough temperatures (on the order of 180°) there may be very little bitterness at all. At lower temperatures, though, there are other flavors that may also not be brought out, so it’s not always advisable to brew at low temperatures. It’s also important to use water that is relatively tasteless (to you! Everyone is used to different minerals in their water), so if you have particularly hard water you may want to use filtered or bottled water for your brewing.

So, it’s a balancing act, but a good starting point for white and green teas (the less-oxidized ones) is at the low end of that range – 180° to 185°. Those teas also have a tendency to need to be brewed for less time, generally 2-3 minutes: their flavors are released sooner but more slowly than the bitterness, so a shorter brew at lower temperature helps to get the delicate flavors they are known for. Many of these teas can also be brewed multiple times, with the flavor profile changing (and slowly becoming weaker) with each brew. Black teas (the more oxidized ones) are usually brewed at near-boiling, since more of their flavor needs higher temperatures to come out. You should also brew them a bit longer, 4-5 minutes, to fully develop their flavors. It’s also worth noting that the great majority of the caffeine will come out in the first thirty seconds of brewing or so, so changing your brewing time doesn’t really affect how much caffeine you’re getting.

One of the factors I mentioned above is the surface area of the tea leaf, which isn’t so much about measuring the size of each leaf as it is about the grade of tea leaf that you are using. Small tea particles and broken leaves (often found in tea bags) have more surface area than whole leaves, so more of the leaf is in contact with the water. That increased contact means that they release flavor, both good and bad, into the water more quickly. The closer to tea dust you are, the more quickly it will brew. There’s also a general association with non-whole-leaf tea as being lower quality, and there’s even a whole tea grading scheme to support it – it goes from ‘fannings’ through ‘broken orange pekoe’ all the way up to ‘special finest tippy golden flowery orange pekoe’. The upper end of the grading system, once all of the leaves are whole,  has to do with how many of the leaves are ‘tip’ leaves, the youngest leaves on the plant when harvested, which are supposed to be more delicate and flavorful. In practice, I can’t particularly tell the difference – what tea tastes good to you has very little to do with its grade. One of my favorite breakfast teas, in fact, is a Kenyan tea that’s fine enough that I need to quickly empty and clean my filter after brewing or it will get clogged. More commonly, though, bagged teas will use tea from young plants because it’s cheap, which can make them (especially cheap brands) very prone to becoming very bitter very quickly, but there isn’t any inherent difference between loose-leaf tea and tea bags.

On the subject of tea that is too bitter: Adding milk (or any fat, really) will cause the tannin molecules and the fat to bind together, neutralizing it. There’s a whole history of the British using milk, sugar, and citrus to cover the fact that the first several decades of tea they produced in India (after stealing plants from China in the 18th century to try to break China’s monopoly on the tea trade) was terrible compared to the Chinese tea that everyone had been drinking. The milk changes the flavor in other ways too, of course, so I wouldn’t advise it with a tea that has delicate or subtle flavors, but there are plenty of teas that have robust enough flavor to play well with milk, and some (such as masala chai) that are greatly improved with the milk balancing things a bit.

Some teas to try

With all of that, I thought I’d end with some kinds of tea to try out, if you’re curious. Note that this is all pulled from personal experience. I drink the tea I like the taste of, but that may not be the tea you like – experiment!.

  • Assam (Black, 5 minutes in boiling water to brew). Teas from Assam tend to be strongly flavored, a little bit bitter, and a ‘classic’ black tea. I like them most commonly as breakfast teas and find that they often go well with milk. You may find them as a blend, or from a particular plantation, but if it describes itself as a breakfast tea it’s likely from Assam.
  • Darjeeling (Black, 4-5 minutes in boiling water to brew). Darjeeling is the other major tea-growing region in India, and teas from there tend to be a bit lighter and more delicate than Assam teas. They are often mellow enough to be drunk without milk and are more of the ‘classic’ British afternoon tea. 
  • Keemun Hao Ya (Black, 4 minutes in 200° water to brew) is a Chinese black tea, fairly earthy and a little bit smokey, but quite mild generally and not bitter. A good introduction to Chinese teas for people more used to Indian teas
  • Lapsang Souchong (Black, 5 minutes in boiling water to brew) is a Chinese black tea that has been smoked over pine wood, which (in the words of a former coworker) “tastes like you’re drinking a burning pine forest”. It might be something of an acquired taste, but it’s now one of my favorite afternoon teas.
  • Mao Feng and Mao Jian (Green, 2-3 minutes in 185° water to brew) are two of the classic Chinese green teas – light, floral, and a little bit grassy. They each have their adherents for which one is ‘best’ or ‘most classic’, but they are both great first green teas. Definitely enjoy without milk to be able to appreciate some of their more subtle flavors.
  • Sencha (Green, 2 minutes in 180° water to brew) is the ‘classic’ Japanese green tea, and tastes and smells quite strongly of fresh-cut grass. If you’ve had green tea in a Japanese restaurant, it was probably either this or genmaicha, which is sencha with toasted rice added to it. It has a tendency to get quite bitter if over-brewed, though.
  • Hojicha (Green, 3-4 minutes in 200° water to brew) is a roasted Japanese green tea, which smells and tastes like freshly-toasted nuts. One of my favorite “It’s cold outside so I’m going to curl up with a hot beverage” teas.
  • Moroccan Mint (Green, 4+ minutes in near-boiling water to brew) is a general category of green teas that are blended (often around 1:1) with dried mint leaves, and often served with sugar. The tea adds a bit of complexity to the strong mint flavor, and I think it works very well. It can be a good introduction into tea if you’re mostly used to herbal blends.

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