Continuing my informal guide to selecting tea—having gone through the caffeine/no-caffeine decision and having looked at low- and no-caffeine options (see New to Tea? Start Here)—we’re now looking at the types of tea that come from one plant, Camellia sinensis.
And asking whether you want white, green oolong, black, or fermented? And do you want a classic or a flavored tea? No pressure here!
People often begin with flavored teas because they are perhaps more accessible, coming in familiar flavors. If confronted with too many choices, and if you don’t recognize many of the names of those choices, grabbing on to an Earl Grey or Lemon tea might help you save face or allow you to make a quick decision.
But because the classics form the base for flavored teas—and because there are so many teas to be experienced!—here’s a cursory intro to the classics, with a nod to flavored teas within each category.
When you look at the spectrum of oxidation, the least oxidized teas have very delicate flavors whereas the most oxidized teas have robust, bold flavors. So if you are looking for subtlety, I suggest you try a white tea—but with the understanding that these aren’t what most people envision for “tea.”
White Teas. The least oxidized (basically the leaves are picked, allow to wilt, and then dried), a white tea can consist entirely of buds or can be a mix of buds and new leaves that are still in the process of unfurling. The fuzzy, silvery, buds are expensive, highly prized, and really beautiful. They also yield a very subtle flavor. Easily missed.
Too little flavor for you?
Then go with a white tea that has some of those just-emerging leaves blended in, providing greater flavor. Depending on the tea, you might get hints of floral or some woody tones. If composed of new leaves and few or no buds, fruity may enter the mix.
The nice thing about white teas is that their softness pairs well with fruity or floral, so flavored white teas are stellar when iced. The delicate white tea base allows a clean fruity or a light floral additive to really shine.
However, say you want something with a more pronounced flavor. While still on the less oxidized side of tea, green teas offer an entire world of flavors.
Green Tea. A common characteristic of green teas is that they are more on the vegetal side than are black teas, but as a guide to looking for a green tea that you’ll like, the question may be whether you prefer a fresh vegetal or a toasted vegetal or something a little smoky. Although this is an extremely simplistic breakdown, it can point you to something you’ll like.
If fresh vegetal is great with you, then start with green teas from Japan. Leaf oxidation is usually stopped with steam, which retains the bright green color of the leaves as well as their grassy flavor.
Sencha accounts for two-thirds of the tea produced in Japan, although the premium sencha shown here actually comes from South Korea. (Working from home, I ran out of sencha from Japan so this will have to do!)
Sencha is brisk, full of fresh-mown grass and brine flavor. For a slightly milder version, less vegetal and more toasted, try bancha, which is picked after the sencha harvest. Both sencha and bancha are very refreshing when iced.
If you want a savory, starchy tea, then genmaicha is perfect for you. Roasted rice blended with sencha or bancha leaves (and even matcha) makes a blend that’s quite satisfying if you’re a bit hungry! Genmaicha iced is hardy, with substance. But there’s still that brininess that’s characteristic of Japanese green teas.
Another well-known Japanese tea is matcha, although if you want the real thing, be prepared to spend a lot of money for it. And if you’re going to shell out that much money, I’d recommend that you first try having actual matcha at a tasting or as part of a sample because its unique vegetal flavor and full-bodied complexity are not for everyone.
And that cheap stuff you find is not matcha but rather is powdered green tea, well suited for baking, lattes, and so on. (Read why matcha is so expensive.)
If, however, the fresh vegetal and brine of these teas remind you more of seaweed or fish, unpleasantly, but you still want that vegetal characteristic, green teas from China may better suit you. Because most of them are dried with heat rather than steam, they have a pleasant toasty note.
Lung ching (long jing) or dragonwell is probably the best known, with its perfect balance of sweet and bitter, grassy and toasty. In contrast to the rolled leaves of sencha, these leaves have been folded and flattened as they were dried in a wok.
If you like floral flavors, China specializes in jasmine tea (tea leaves are layered with jasmine flowers to pick up their flavor) and rose tea (tea leaves are given a rose petal steam infusion). When tea leaves are soft, they readily pick up aroma and flavor, retaining that even after the flowers are removed and the leaves dried.
For a bit of smokiness, try green gunpowder tea. Note that this isn’t the heady smokiness of the black tea Lapsang Souchong. Rather, gunpowder has a light touch with those smoky notes, and with green gunpowder (there’s also black gunpowder), the green tea comes through with a nutty toastiness.
Note that leaves that have been rolled into tight balls or curls, as many Chinese teas are, will slowly unfurl, often requiring several infusions to fully open. The intact leaves continue to release flavor in each steeping. (Read more about whole leaf rolled tea.)
Other green teas run somewhere between the grassiness of Japanese tea and the toastiness of Chinese teas. If, however, the vegetal nature of these teas just doesn’t appeal—yet you want to try a green tea, something perhaps more innocuous—you can fall back on a tea such as Nepal Everest, described by one friend as “absolutely the cleanest, most inoffensive green tea ever.” Can’t go wrong with that!
Remember, these are only a few examples of green teas. There are many different ones, all with unique characteristics. I’m just providing a starting point.
Additionally, there are many flavored green teas, most of which, in my opinion, are good either hot or iced. And a flavored green tea is very different from a green classic tea, or from flavored black teas.
The green tea base gives a clean, fresh foundation so that the flavor additives, whether fruit or flowers or other herbals, come through clearly (and I’m talking about natural, not artificial, additives). There are also mint options, with green mint tea integral to Moroccan culture, although when green gunpowder tea is used as the base, there will be an underlying hint of smoke.
If, in the end, none of these are for you, I’ll next look at oolongs and of course black tea, which many of us in the western world think of when we think “tea.”
The teas shown here are available at TeaHaus, Ann Arbor.