New to Tea? Start Here

Step into any tea store, in person or online, and the choices are staggering. If you’re new to loose tea, the range of options can even be paralyzing. Where do you possibly begin?

tea wall

Added to the confusion is that although tea leaves (Camellia sinensis) are rightfully called “tea,” other leaves, flowers, and even spice blends are also called “tea.”

The advantage of visiting a brick-and-mortar teashop is that someone knowledgeable can guide you through the process of picking a tea that you’re likely to enjoy. Today, however, few of us want to be lingering in any enclosed spaces that are not our own homes. Therefore, here’s my take on a possible tea-selecting scenario, which hopefully will be helpful for you.

Hot or Iced?

iced_hotThe first question, especially if you are having tea brewed for you and are taking it to-go, may be whether you want it hot or iced. Although any tea can be iced, some aren’t ideal that way, whereas others absolutely shine. (In fact, my first recommendation if you have tea at home that you don’t like is to try it iced.)

In the U.S., many of us think “black tea” when we envision iced tea, but many green, oolong, and white teas—both classic and flavored teas—are fantastic iced.

So keeping in mind whether you are looking for a hot or iced tea, we move on.

Caffeine: Yea or Nay?

The second decision you need to make is caffeine or no caffeine. The latter can include decaffeinated teas but these do retain a small amount of caffeine—and decaf teas, quite frankly, aren’t the same quality-wise. Because the decaffeination process must take place after the tea leaves are processed, even the superior CO2 process will degrade the leaves to some extent. (Read more about this process.) For the highest-quality teas, you simply have to embrace, or at least accept, the caffeine.

You’ll also notice that your choice of loose decaffeinated tea is pretty limited, partly because demand, which is mostly limited to U.S. tea drinkers, is low. Pick CO2-decaffeinated teas when possible, and know that flavored blends are the most forgiving taste-wise.

For small amounts of caffeine, kukicha is an option. This Japanese green tea is composed primarily of stalks, which naturally contain little caffeine. Houjicha, green tea that has been toasted, is also often lower in caffeine. Kukicha houjicha, then, is a double winner, with the low-caffeine kukicha losing more caffeine through the toasting process. These are all excellent hot or iced.

Generally, green and white teas have less caffeine than black tea, while black and oolong teas have “normal” amounts of caffeine—but endless variables impact the actual caffeine level of what’s in your cup. Still, it’s safe to say that matcha, gyokuro, and kabusecha (Japanese green teas) are always on the high end of caffeine levels.

japan gyokuro kukicha
Low-caffeine kukicha (light green stems) blended with high-caffeine gyokuro (dark green leaves)

If you absolutely must eschew caffeine, you’ll enter the non-tea “tea” world. Such teas are more accurately called tisanes, and there are different types.

All of them, however, can be brewed for lengthy periods of time (including overnight) without ever becoming bitter. They’re perfect for those of us who pour our hot water and then get distracted!

Also, these are great teas for larger teapots because you don’t have to worry about emptying the pot right away to prevent overbrewing the leaves.

rooibos types
(left to right) Rooibos, green rooibos (less oxidized), rooibos Capetown blend

Rooibos and Honeybush. Rooibos is a legume, native to the Western Cape of South Africa, and has woody, sweet, and creamy characteristics. Honeybush also hails from  South Africa, is harvested mostly from wild plants, and has a subtly sweet earthiness. Both rooibos and honeybush are often blended with other herbals for a plethora of flavors, and both are naturally caffeine free. (Read more about rooibos and honeybush.)

honeybush
Honeybush

Fruit Blends. Real fruit pieces complemented with flower petals and possibly spices are like having fruit juices without sugar. Yes, sugar naturally occurs in fruit, but you’ll get very few calories from these teas (provided, of course, that you don’t add anything to them). Fruit blends make incredible iced teas! If you make them with carbonated water, it’s pretty much a sugar-free soda—but healthier. And naturally caffeine free.

roasted almond fruit tea
Roasted Almond fruit tea
plum fruit tea
Plum fruit tea, which contains intact rose blossoms and chunks of cinnamon
paradise fruit tea
Paradise fruit tea

Everything else. This is a huge field, and be aware that not all herbals are caffeine free. Yerba mate, guayusa, yaupon, and guarana, for example, do contain caffeine, so never assume your herbal blend is caffeine free; check the ingredients. Most herbal teas, however, do not contain caffeine.

kankaliba leaves
Kankaliba leaves from Guinea

Herbals may be composed of just one type of plant, or may be a blend of different plant leaves and/or flowers, and may contain spices, or even be composed solely of spices. Flavors can mimic actual tea (e.g., Japanese mulberry leaves are much like green tea; blueberry leaves are much like black tea) or be entirely floral (e.g., lavender or rose blossoms) or serve more medicinal purposes (e.g., Ayurvedic teas). Many herbals are lovely iced.

hibiscus tea
Hibiscus blossoms
pitta ayurvedic tea
Pitta, an Ayurvedic herbal tea with a lemon grass and mint leaf base

But say you’re good with caffeine and want actual tea. Again, there’s a gigantic range of types and flavors, but all of them are produced from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.

Moving into C. sinensis Territory

Most people know there’s black tea and there’s green tea, and many people have an idea that green tea is healthier than black tea, and many think they don’t like green tea. But be open! There are almost endless possibilities, even within each tea category.

And all tea offers health benefits because all tea comes from the same plant! If you like green tea, great; if you prefer black tea, great. Drink what you like and don’t worry about whether it’s “healthier” than another type of tea.

Teas are categorized according to how much the leaves are allowed to oxidize (e.g., like how an apple slice turns brown) and how they are processed. Running the oxidation spectrum, from the least to the most, you have white, green, oolong, and black tea. There are also teas that are fermented, either a little (yellow tea) or a lot (pu-erh).

tea types by oxid
(left to right) White (buds), green, oolong, and black tea

So, the next question, do you want black, oolong, yellow, green, or white tea? Yeah, major decision here. Coming in my next post!

New to Tea? Start Here (Part 2: White and Green Tea)
New to Tea? Start Here (Part 3: Oolong and Black Tea)


Most teas shown here are available at TeaHaus (the tea wall is part of the 175+ teas carried).

4 thoughts on “New to Tea? Start Here

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