What tea should I try?
January 10, 2015 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I've recently purchased an electric kettle that can heat water to appropriate tea temperatures, and I would like to expand my tea horizons. What choices would give me a broad exposure to interesting teas?

In terms of my preferences, I wasn't really interested in tea until I discovered Lapsang Souchong (and blends like Baker Street Blend) several years ago. (I've mostly purchased tea from Upton Tea Imports.) These days, I've gotten a bit lazier (and like my tea a bit less strong), primarily drinking PG Tips with some milk and sugar. I've had some green tea, but I've never been able to brew it properly (which hopefully changes now).

Overall, I'd like to get a sense for what different styles of teas exist, which I don't really feel like I have. With wine, one might try various whites like chardonnay, riesling, and sauvignon blanc and various reds like cabernet sauvignon or syrah --- or maybe one might experiment with different regions (France, Italy, California, Australia, ...). What should I sample to get a similar experience and understanding of tea?
posted by pbh to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Your basic regions are India, Japan, and China. Indian teas are mainly black. Darjeeling is the regional variety not to be missed.

Japanese teas are mainly green. Sencha is your go-to there, unless you're interested in powdered matcha.

For Chinese teas, the basic categories are pu erh, black tea, oolong, green tea, and white tea. This is where you'll find the greatest variety.

I'll take the opportunity to plug TeaSource, which has a well-organized website which gives a sense for what is out there, in terms of regions and different styles, though it's a little tedious to navigate, requiring a lot of click-through. They have some nice samplers.
posted by BrashTech at 5:34 PM on January 10, 2015

Try oolong. Oolong will change your life.

Well, actually, no it won't, but oolong is pretty awesome. Brew it at 200°, instead of boiling, as you would for black tea.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 5:36 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would look for a selection of teas from a reputable tea company. For Chinese greens and oolongs, these collections from Red Blossom would be a great choice. David's Teas also has a number of collections, tending more to the fruity side of the spectrum.

One more thing to think about as you explore teas is the size of your teapot. Traditionally, oolong teas are brewed using much smaller pots than black teas. When lazy, I've been known to steep them in a half-full mug because that's about the right volume (4-6 oz).
posted by asphericalcow at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2015

I personally have a Tea Sparrow subscription and I LOVE it! You'll get some kind of green, black, red, and herbal tea in every box. Plus where to order each tea if you want more.
posted by Crystalinne at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

The big divisions in tea are black, white, oolong, green, rooibos/red, and herbal. Of these, the last two aren't TECHNICALLY tea in that they don't come from the Camellia plant, but they're generally marketed in the same way. Particularly useful if you like non caffeinated options, since herbals are nearly always caffeine free and pure reds always are. In terms of true teas, black has the most caffeine, followed by oolong, green, and white.

You mention having tried lapsang souchong and English breakfast (which is what you're going to get in PG Tips, essentially). In the vein of blacks, Earl Gray is the other big touchstone; maybe try that and see if you like it. That's got bergamot oil in it, which gives it a characteristic taste. Irish breakfast and Darjeeling would also be good to try.

With respect to whites, greens, and oolongs... White is frequently hideously expensive and in my experience you mostly find it in blends, but it might be worth investigating. That said, my experience with it is that it's like green, but milder. Green teas... are mostly just green tea in my experience, but you may wish to try matcha tea (which is powdered and which you mix into the water in a different way). Matcha's kind of its own thing, though. Green tea with jasmine is also very popular, and you can get it rolled up into little balls which will unfurl pleasingly in your tea mug.

Red teas are similarly mostly sold as just red teas, but I really like honeybush rooibos as a pleasant, slightly nuttier version of plain rooibos. I also happen to like mine with artificial almond flavoring. Herbals are going to be a super mixed bag; my advice there is to smell them if possible and pick one you think smells nice.
posted by sciatrix at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I love Chinese green teas, especially green oolong and greens with jasmine. I use whole leaf tea with no bag. Once the leaves rehydrate, they sit at the bottom of my cup and I pour water over them throughout the day and drink.
posted by quince at 5:41 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tea is so fun! It's really interesting once you get into it. Welcome.

Most common teas come from the same plant - Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, and are from three major regions, Japan, India and China. From the tea plant, you get the basic categories of black, oolong, green and white (and less commonly yellow and pu'er). The main difference between these main types is oxidation, black being the most oxidized and white being the least. Then between each of these teas, there are subcategories, depending on when the tea was harvested (what 'flush'), what part of the tea plant the tea comes from, how the tea was grown (shade or sun), and how the tea was prepared after harvest.

I tend to really like Japanese green teas, especially matcha (my absolute favorite, but requires a bit of extra equipment), genmaicha (a runner-up for my absolute favorite, a green tea blended with toasted brown rice and is absolutely delicious), and of course classic sencha.

I think green tea is the most finicky tea, steep-wise. Mostly you just don't want to over-steep it. It becomes bitter very quickly. Probably needs steeped a little less long than you think it does (I steep mine for about 3 minutes).

Not technically tea exactly, but I absolutely love rooibus, an African tea that's red and delicious.

Herbal teas are really hit or miss. Sometimes they are good, often they aren't so good. Just don't ever buy them from Teavana unless you hate good tea and having money.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:47 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding rooibus. Said to be madly good for you.
posted by BWA at 5:51 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Adagio has some pretty great sample packages that I can't recommend enough.
posted by General Malaise at 6:04 PM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm fond of yerba mate. Nice, smoky flavor. I make kombucha with it, sometimes.
posted by alex1965 at 6:11 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you are at all a coffee drinker, and are looking for an interesting midpoint between the maillard-zone flavored of roasted coffee and the floral juicy notes in tea, I would seek out some Cascara, or coffee-cherry tea. It's a tea made from the skin and/or fruit of the coffee berry (often referred to as a cherry). Some of the major third wave coffee roasters carry it, and if you like tea, it can be delightful. If memory serves, Blue Bottle has some in right now, as does Ritual Roasters.

It's fascinating to try, even if it doesn't make it into your regular consumption habits.
posted by furnace.heart at 6:16 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not really a "tea snob" type tea recommendation, but the best dang flavored tea I've ever had: Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice. If you like cinnamon you should just buy this tea without a second thought, you will love it. (And if you don't, I'll buy it off you!)
posted by ghostbikes at 6:21 PM on January 10, 2015

As Alex 1965 said, try mate. It's not made from camellia sinesis but from the yerba mate plant. This blend from Teavana is scrumptious.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:51 PM on January 10, 2015

If you want to try a bunch of stuff, Upton Tea Imports sells 15g sample sizes for most of their teas. They have a great selection and very reasonable prices, as well as fast shipping.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:57 PM on January 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

I want to update further later but whites, oolongs, and Chinese fermented teas are all good directions to go!
posted by stoneandstar at 7:08 PM on January 10, 2015

Also less snobby, Republic of Tea has some cute chocolate and cake-flavored teas ("Cuppa Chocolate" and "Cuppa Cake" are the sub-brands I think).
posted by stoneandstar at 7:10 PM on January 10, 2015

An interesting varietal of green tea: genmai. It has puffed brown rice mixed in with the dried tea leaves, which gives the tea a funky popcorn scent.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:49 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I LOVE Russian Caravan!!! It's smokey like Lapsing Souchong but not AS smokey- just right!

I get mine from Peet's Coffee and Tea but there's lots of brands
posted by morchella at 8:06 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Lupicia has a wide range of excellent green and black teas, and some interesting flavoured teas. The site also has a lot of background information about tea, directions, recipes, etc. If you spend over $30, they send you a magazine with free samples.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:05 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oolong, more specifically Tieguanyin. My absolute favorite. A good tieguanyin has a nice floral character with a very smooth body and slight sweetness that finishes with a very subtle chestnut note and an interesting sensation of fullness and warmth in the back of the mouth. It is a highly renowned variety of tea of which the very best offerings can go for $100 per ounce in China. Fortunately there are more reasonable grades available out there that are more like $10-$20 per ounce that can go through multiple steeps. It is definitely something you have to try at least once in your tea career. If anyone, including OP, is in NYC, this place is a great shop to try teas and pick some up- very high quality stuff there.
posted by incolorinred at 10:12 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really like Chinese black teas, especially qi hong mao feng, which is pretty full-bodied and slightly chocolaty, and jin zhen, which is a bit more mellow. If you're into the strong flavors, pu'er teas will be your friend.

With oolongs I'd say da hong pao and then some of the Taiwanese teas like tung ting. The Chinese oolongs are much darker and the Taiwanese ones are more floral. You should also check out milk oolong if you have a chance just because it's so different.

For green teas I tend toward the floral Chinese greens like pu tuo fo cha, long jing (also called dragonwell), or huang shan mao feng. Your tastes sound like you should try the more savory end, gunpowder green or gen mai cha. For Japanese greens, sencha, kamairicha, and gyokuro.

Verdant Tea has a good selection of Chinese teas. Zhi Tea has a good selection generally and the owner is really excited about oolongs, so if you find that you like those this is a good place to hit up. I'll also second TeaSource which someone mentioned above.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:23 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm big into green teas (and Upton Imports). If you like green teas, or you like Darjeeling, be sure to try green Darjeeling.
posted by mollweide at 8:52 AM on January 11, 2015

I prefer less caffinated teas as a rule.

My greens I generally have some extra mix ins, mostly lemon and ginger but sometimes fruit. If you want your tea stronger brew with more leaves. Do not increase seeping time as your tea will become bitter.

I have an assam with cream flavor. Which is perfect for caffeine days.

I love really light a light white tea in the evening. It is just soft and relaxing . A light fruit flavor can go well.

I also use a perpperment rose mixture for relaxation.

I love a tulsi and rose tea for therapy.

For variety I drink a jasmine green and occasionally matcha.

I suggest finding a mom and pop tea place where someone can talk you through different teas. And keep track of your tastes.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:10 PM on January 11, 2015

If you like British "legacy" teas--brisk blacks, usually from Sri Lanka, India (Assam and Darjeeling), or Nepal, you know, the stuff that's in things like Irish or English Breakfast blends, meant to wake you up and brawny enough to withstand milk and sugar--I can't say enough good things about Harney and Sons for affordable but good quality stuff there, and they have approximately a billion of those blends (my favorites include Queen Catherine, Eight at the Fort, Scottish Morn, and New Vithanakande). Andrews and Dunham's Damn Fine Tea offers a couple blends that are excellent specimens for this kind of thing too (my favorite's Double Knit Blend, delicious!--smooth but robust, just wonderful and as deeply satisfying as any coffee), buuuut they only offer tea in large amounts (4.4oz IIRC), so...Capital Tea Ltd. is based in Canada but ships across the border easily enough, and they have a dizzying array of assams in particular that are excellent too (I'm addicted to their Borsapori one).

If you love darjeeling (seems to be a love/hate tea) and would love to get a better sense of the overwhelming world of seasonal estate auction racing and all that, as potentially exciting as, say, French wine harvest buzz, I'd recommend something like Teabox which will send you an insane amount of sample packs from every estate imaginable, first, second, even third flushes. It's a fun way to see how big the differences can be by year, land, and season.

If you want to dive into the wild, vast, gorgeous world of Chinese tea (focusing on blacks or on greens alone becomes a project!), I recommend Verdant (they used to offer a sampler pack, 5 teas for $5 and it went towards your first proper order, but I don't know if they still do)--given your fondness for smokiness I'd give a shout out to Earl of Anxi (nothing like Earl Grey mind, more like vespers frankincense mixed with mood altering spices) and some of their pu erhs. (My favorite Chinese black teas from them include Laoshan Black, Golden Fleece, and Zhu Rong. They also have some excellent blends for cold season--I'm pretty sure their winter blends with elderberry are the thing that have kept me from getting colds the past few years.)

Speaking of pu erh (fermented tea), Mandala is an excellent introduction to some very easy drinking ones (my favorites include Special Dark which, with a pinch of brown sugar and/or dairy is as treaty as hot cocoa or a mocha latte, and Loose and Luscious Lincang which has the unusual combo of leather and mint, awesome). Yezi, a pretty new company based in NY IIRC, has some nice Chinese black and pu erh stuff too (their Qing Pin is great, and what they market as "scotch" tasting tea is really just a version of Wuyi lapsang souchong, and it's quite tasty). Teavivre and Yunnan Sourcing are often favorites once you've gotten your bearings, know what you like, and want to cut out the middle man as much as possible to save some bucks. I know a bunch of Canadian Steepsters who love Camellia Sinensis, though it seems pretty expensive to me. Red Blossom, Norbu, and Silk Road used to get a lot of love among tea bloggers too.

Taiwan has been generating some buzz the past few years because they've been developing specially crafted tea (according to Harney in his tea book it's because they got used to growing tea when China was closed to the West, then when China was reopened they had to compete instead of merely giving people what they were missing from China, so they got innovative), and I must say, some of it is stunning and to my mind can indeed give much of the best from China a run for its money. Taiwan Tea Crafts is one example of a good place to start if you're interested in this.

Kenyan tea is also growing beyond just "commodity to fill Lipton bags" type dust. Justea and, IIRC, Harney offer Kenyan teas that are quite tasty first thing in the morning.

For Japanese greens, Den's Tea offers a sampler similar to the Verdant one where what you spend on it goes toward your first order IIRC. (I prefer Chinese greens myself, so I'm not too much help, sorry.)

For flavored tea and unique blends, Butiki is hands down the best (and she offers unflavored tea too, much of it very hard to get elsewhere including stuff like Japanese pu erh) BUT she is going out of business for personal reasons (me and everyone I know on Steepster and the typical FB tea groups have been gnashing our teeth and wailing for months!). Lupicia's my second favorite though, lots of excellent stuff (my favorites include Chaud Les Marrons!, Daruma, Momo Oolong Supergrade, Banane Chocolat, and Earl Grey Grand Classic which is nothing like standard EG but instead has smokiness and longan fruit in it, evokes a sort of opium den-y era to me). Then there's the beautiful world of French tea boutiques like Dammann Freres, Mariage Freres, Palais des Thes, The-o-dor, Nina's, Fauchon, etc. Lots of dreamy blends, but often nearly impossible to buy in the US reliably and affordably, alas. Harney has some ok flavored stuff too. Della Terra was a good starter place for me and many others I've talked to for flavored tea, but you may find you eventually outgrow the base tea they use as it's not the greatest quality once you've spoiled yourself with really good unflavored teas. American Tea Room and Samovar are both based in the US and have some nice blends, but are (IMO) often overpriced for what you get. There's Simpson and Vail and Todd and Holland too.

Then there's people who are doing niche-y stuff really well. Shang Tea focuses almost solely on Chinese white tea (and oh my stars their Silver Needle King is so good in spring I could weep), including blends. There's some well loved black tea now being grown in Hawaii too. And Yanabah Navajo Tea too, which isn't tea per se. And other unusual stuff like Red Leaf, which specializes in a zillion flavors of matcha powder to make lattes with, or 52teas (lots of goofy flavors), or Whispering Pines (blends inspired by camping in the Pacific Northwest). NB I don't love all of these vendors personally, for various reasons. But they do have niches some people dig, so.

And there are many decent "generalist" boutique vendors that make it less overwhelming and have reasonable quality while you get a sense of what you like. Some off the top of my head include Golden Moon (though they're in a state of transition right now it seems), Zen Tea, and The Tea Merchant.

You might be interested in downloading the Kindle version of Harney's tea book. I found it, while maybe slightly dated, a really good resource for getting my bearings with the history of tea and how so much intersects to make a single cup--location and the (often colonial/interventionist) history of said location both in terms of terroir and culture/economy/market forces, method, which strain of leaf we're talking about, how young it is/when it's picked, etc. A lot of advancements and changes have happened in just the past 20 or so years with it too, partly thanks to globalization and the internet. It's an exciting time.
posted by ifjuly at 8:29 PM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Another niche-y (some might say gimmicky, some might jump up and down with joy, it all depends on who ya are!) thing I forgot is Vintage Tea Works. They offer tea blends marketed to evoke the flavor of different wines.
posted by ifjuly at 8:35 PM on January 11, 2015

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