A Beginner’s Guide to Appreciating Tea

OK, coffee, you’ve had your day: now it’s tea’s turn. More and more, even diehard coffee aficionados are finding themselves talking and learning about high-end teas. We’re talking straight loose-leaf tea: none of those little paper bags or premixed concoctions that smell more like potpourri than anything you would want to drink. These are folks who take their tea as seriously as they took their coffee.

It makes a certain amount of sense: tea, after all, has been enjoyed the world over for thousands of years in the making: that’s long time to learn how to get it right. It offers its own culture and history matched only by wine. And just like wine, there are people who live and breathe tea in a way that borders on obsession.

You think coffee can get complex? Tea is all that and then some. We’re not throwing shade at coffee–seriously, we understand that it can be an art form–but tea offers a vast range of flavors, aromas, and characteristics that makes the magic bean look like a one-trick pony. Not to mention the fact that the caffeine in tea is absorbed more slowly, so the kick is much smoother.

And have you ever heard of being coffee-drunk? “Tea-drunk” is an actual thing.

We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with coffee. Only that it seems unfair that here in the US, you mention tea and people start thinking of the Nestea Plunge. Anywhere else in the world, if someone asks what type of tea you want, they’re asking if you want it hot or cold. People in America asking that question want to know if you want sweet or unsweet.

In an effort to level the coffee/tea playing field, we’re here to offer a quick rundown on appreciating all that tea has to offer.

  • Skip the Prepackaged Stuff. You grind your own coffee beans? Same logic applies here. Buying loose-leaf teas generally means you’ll get a higher quality product. In addition, bigger leaves tend to have a fuller body and more balanced flavor, if properly prepared.
  • Flavored vs. Flavorful. To serious tea-drinkers, flavored teas are a little like barely-alcoholic drinks with cute paper umbrellas. Nothing wrong with trying out flavored tea, but it’s not the best place to start: drinking flavored tea by default is like trying to appreciate coffee by drinking white chocolate mochas. Tea doesn’t need a flavor; tea IS a flavor.
  • Understand What You’re Getting. Tea grows all over, from sunny lowlands to rocky crags to misty mountaintops. And just like coffee, a tea’s soil, environment, and growing conditions impact its ultimate taste. The minute the leaf is plucked, it starts to oxidize–a process which impacts the tea’s flavor more than where or how it’s grown. To a large extent, this can be controlled by applying heat; green and white teas, for example, are barely oxidized, while Oolong and black teas are allowed more time.
  • OK, the Brewing. When it comes time to brew your loose leaf tea, there are all sorts of detailed methods to try and specialized tools you can buy. Our advice: skip all that for now. Novice tea drinkers make the mistake of focusing too much on whether they’re brewing the “correct” way; go too far down that road, and start wondering if it’s worth making at all. On the other hand, truly good tea can give you different subtleties with different styles of brewing–all of them delicious. Instead of fretting technique at this stage, just start drinking. There’s always time to experiment later.
  • It takes some time to train your palate to pick up on a tea’s peculiarities. That’s why–like wine–you don’t guzzle fine tea. Take time to sniff. Appreciate the bouquet. Take a sip and let it sit in your mouth. As you keep tasting, you’ll start to differentiate between fruity and woodsy tinges, between a light taste on the tongue and a creamy robust body.

The bottom line is, you can’t pick up a bottle of green tea from a convenience store and really say you’ve experienced tea drinking. Schedule a little time in your hectic schedule (experts say that’s a good idea, just on general principle) to educate yourself and experiment. Like any fine food, it takes time and patience to learn to pick out all the nuances of tea. But the end result is worth the effort.