Choosing the Right Tea

Tea and Tea Etiquette

Next to water, tea is drunk more than any other beverage. It is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen tree with bright green leaves, partially serrated and slightly hairy, a botanical member of the Theaceae family. C. sinensis produces a tiny white flower, similar to a camellia. The size of the tea leaf varies in accordance with the variety of the plant but averages about the length of the small finger. The finest tea is made from the leaf bud and the next two leaves at the tip of the branch. Tea of medium quality is produced from the third and fourth leaves, and sometimes from the fifth leaf.

Tea plants grow in the wild to approximately 30 feet high, a height impractical for harvesting; commercially raised bushes are pruned to 3 or 4 feet. When the tea bush is 3 years old, it is "plucked," or picked. The harvest is called a flush, depending on the weather, tea plants flush three or more times a year. In Java and Sumatra, tea plants flush all year long and every 7 to 10 days the first four leaves at the tip of the branch are plucked.

The leading producers of tea are India, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Turkey, and Russia. The taste of the tea varies according to the soil, the climate, and the altitude. Generally, the higher the altitude, the cooler the climate, the slower the growth, the finer the taste. Tea is classified in two major groups: Assam and Chinese. Assam is raised in India, Tibet, and Burma at elevations of 3,000 to 7,000 feet. The cold climates restrict the speed of growth and produce tender leaves. In the cup, Assam infuses to a darker color than Chinese tea, and the taste is malty, deeper, and more pronounced.

Tea contains enzymes, potassium, and magnesium, but the drink is enjoyed primarily for caffeine, tannin, and essential oils. Originally caffeine was called theine, a substance extracted in 1827 from the tea leaf. Today, the caffeine in the tea leaf and the coffee bean are recognized as one and the same, an alkaloid that stimulates the heart and nervous system, promotes blood circulation, increases energy, lifts the spirits, reduces stress, aids digestion, activates the kidneys, and promotes insomnia (for some). Although tea leaves contain more caffeine than coffee beans-approximately 2.5 to 4.5 percent caffeine in tea compared to 1 to 2 percent in coffee -a cup of brewed tea actually contains less caffeine than coffee because fewer tea leaves are used in the infusion.

Caffeine is found in most tea-black, oolong, and green-and increases with fermentation. Black tea is a fully fermented tea and contains the most caffeine. Oolong is a semi-fermented tea and possesses half the caffeine of black tea. Green tea is a non-fermented tea that contains one-quarter to one-third the caffeine of black tea.

The smaller the tea leaf, the stronger the extraction of caffeine. Tea bags filled with broken leaves, fannings (bits of tea), and dust (siftings) infuse faster and re­lease twice the caffeine as whole-leaf tea. The shorter the infusion, the less caffeine per cup. In the first minute, three-quarters of the caffeine is extracted. In general, black tea infused for 3 minutes in 6 ounces of water produces 20 to 40 milligrams of caffeine, and when infused for 4 minutes produces 40 to 100 milligrams of caffeine.

Decaffeinated tea is made after the leaves are fermented and fired, a process that involves ethyl acetate, a component of ripe fruit that promotes a loss of taste. To compensate for the reduction in piquancy, decaffeinated tea is scented or flavor is added. After decaffeination is complete, the leaves retain approximately 3 percent of their original caffeine content.

Tannin gives black tea and oolong a brownish-red color and green tea a yellowish-green color. Tannin is an astringent, giving tea its puckery quality. It promotes body (the fullness of tea in the mouth), flavor (the bracing, invigorating taste), and aroma (natural or scented). Tannin is known technically as a polyphenol, an antioxidant said to reduce cell damage (that may lead to cancer) and increase the white blood cells that fight disease in the body. Because fermentation and roasting lower the polyphenol content of tea leaves, the antioxidants in green tea (an unfermented tea) are higher and more effective in reducing free radicals than those in black tea and oolong. Moreover, recent studies reveal that antioxidants, particularly those from green tea, may reduce blood cholesterol. Tannin absorbs cholesterol in the digestive tract and promotes the digestive juices. However, tea obstructs the body's ab­sorption of iron from some foods, such as dairy products, eggs, vegetables, fruit, cereal, and nuts.

The glands of the tea leaf contain essential oils that undergo additional development in the fermentation process to promote taste, aroma, and digestion. Whole ­leaf tea retains essential oils longer than broken-leaf tea, fannings, or dust.

Green tea leaves are fired, steamed, rolled, dried, and graded. After black tea and oolong are plucked, they are processed in steps known as withering, rolling, fermentation, drying, and grading. In the withering process, the tea leaves are spread on wicker trays to wilt for twenty-four hours, a period in which they partially lose moisture. To release the aroma, the leaves are crushed and bruised in a mechanical process known as rolling that destroys the membranes. Fermentation follows in a humid place and color develops. Drying eliminates residual water, and the leaves are fired or smoked, then dried, sifted, graded, selected, blended, packed, distributed, and sold.

Oolong is graded on an 18-point scale from standard quality to choice. Green tea is graded according to the age and style of the leaf when plucked, such as a bud and one leaf, a bud and two leaves, a bud and three leaves, or more. Black tea is graded in large and small sizes, as whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings, and dust. Whole leaf is the grade of tea that remains in the sieve after the leaves are sifted, a grade also called leaf which is popular in Europe and South America but takes longer to infuse and release its flavor than broken leaf. Because of the faster infusion of slightly torn leaves, broken-leaf tea promotes a darker liquor and a stronger taste than whole leaf; it is used to fill tea bags and is popular in North America, Asia, and the Middle East.

Broken leaf is sorted and further graded in sizes known as pekoe, fannings, and dust. Pekoe refers to leaf size and has nothing to do with the flavor of tea or the color of the infusion. Pronounced "peck-o" rather than "peek-o," pekoe is derived from the Chinese word pa-ko, for "white hair," meaning the delicate white down that covers the lower part of the emerging tea leaf. Orange pekoe refers to the House of Orange and was a term Dutch traders used to denote long, thin, wiry tea leaves rolled lengthwise. Fannings are bits of tea leaves about the diameter of a pinhead that brew quickly with a dark-brown infusion, a size used primarily in tea bags made for industrial purposes. Dust denotes the siftings left over from broken-leaf tea, a grade also known as fines. Dust brews quickly, the flavor is strong', and the infusion is a dark-brown color. It is often used to serve a large group.

Various terms are used to describe different types of tea. Blended tea is a mix of different teas that create endless aromas, flavors, and colors. There may be as many as forty varieties in the mix, each type taken from a different estate and region; this method prevents the loss of one crop from affecting the final taste of the finished product. For an aromatic and healthful infusion, blended tea may contain flowers, fruit, seeds, nuts, and spices. Specialty tea is made from one kind of tea leaf produced in a particular region or country. Because the tea bears the name of the locale, the quality is excellent. Instant tea is powdered tea made from steeped and evaporated tea. Nursery tea is laced with generous amounts of milk and sugar and served to children. Cream tea is served with clotted cream, a thick, creamy yellow substance with a minimum fat content of 55 percent. Tea taken with clotted cream is associated with Devon and Cornwall in southwest England, a high-cholesterol treat served with scones and jam.

Tea bags are a twentieth-century innovation credited to Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, who, in 1908, sent samples of leaf tea to customers in small hand-sewn silk bags. Encouraged by the response, the merchant filled gauze bags with tea leaves and eventually enclosed tea in small bags made of paper.

Black Tea


Black tea is rich, full-bodied, robust, and potent, with a sweet citric taste.


The color is dark brown with a slight reddish tint.


Black tea is taken plain or diluted with milk and sugar. Originally green tea was the preferred drink, taken initially as a medicinal brew without sugar. Eventually black tea gained in popularity, a strong-flavored brew that tasted better with the addition of milk and sugar. When milk is added, the tannin in the tea is fixed by the casein (protein) in the milk, and the tea loses its astringent taste. Because milk is a lighter consistency than cream, and does not curdle in hot water, milk mixes better with tea than cream.

Confusion exists over whether to add milk to the cup before or after tea is poured. In England, warm milk is put in the cup before tea is poured, a method that promotes a rich flavor and inhibits the discoloration of the cup by straight tea. Furthermore, warm milk tempers ceramic teacups (notably porcelain, which is naturally cold to the touch) and helps to inhibit cracks. Sugar is also added before the tea. But in the United States tea is poured before milk or sugar are added. In Asia, tea is taken neat, without milk or sugar.

In 1680, Madame de Sevigne, a noted French writer of the seventeenth century, wrote to a friend who was ailing and suggested she drink milk. She went on to state that should the temperature of cold milk mix unfavorably with the warm temperature of her friend's blood, she should add hot tea. In another letter Madame de Sevigne stated that Madame de la Sabliere took tea with milk because she liked the taste. By the middle of the eighteenth century, tak­ing tea with milk was an accepted custom in England as well as France.


Assam. A strong full-bodied unblended tea from India, such as Bamon­pookri, with a spicy, rich malt flavor; also ideal for service in the afternoon.
  • English breakfast tea. A full-bodied blended tea made from small-leaf black tea grown primarily in Sri Lanka and India and, to a lesser degree, in China and Kenya.
  • Irish breakfast tea. A robust blend of Assam and Ceylon tea, a taste and aroma more complex, more pungent, and stronger than English breakfast tea.


  • China black tea. A mild-flavored tea that goes well with spicy foods, such as Thai.
  • Darjeeling. An Indian word for "land of the thunderbolt," Darjeeling is the "champagne of black tea," a tea with a lovely bouquet and flavor sometimes likened to the muscat grape or honeyed fruit. However, the availability of Darjeeling is limited, and usually the tea is blended. The subtle complex taste goes well with spicy foods, such as curry and jambalaya, and also the light repast taken with afternoon tea.
  • Orange pekoe. A high-grown black tea appropriate for lighter menus served midday, and the simple fare of afternoon tea.

Black Afternoon Teas

Coronation Tea

A blend of Indian and Ceylon tea, a mix made in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The flavor is full­-bodied.

Earl Grey Tea

A blended tea named for the second Earl Grey, British prime minister under William IV (r. 1830-1837). In 1830, Earl Grey visited China and during the diplomatic mission one of his envoys saved the life of a mandarin. In appreciation, the Chinese official presented Earl Grey with a special blend of tea, along with the recipe. The tea is a mix of China black tea and Darjeeling flavored with oil of bergamot, an essential oil obtained from a pear-shaped citrus fruit indigenous to the Mediterranean. Earl Grey is the favorite scented tea of connoisseurs. It has a mild taste that compliments the repast served at afternoon tea and high tea.

Lapsang Souchong

Large-leaf black tea grown in the Lapsang district of Fujian Province. The tea leaves are fermented, grilled on hot metal plates, then placed on bamboo panels above burning pine logs, a process that promotes a smoky aroma and a flavor similar to cooked bacon. Lapsang souchong is complimentary to the light fare served at afternoon tea, the heavier repast of high tea, and the taste of salty and spicy foods.

Black Dinner Teas

Keemun. Sometimes called the burgundy of Chinese tea, keemun is the finest black tea grown in China. The taste is rich, full-bodied, and strong, with smoky overtones, a flavor complimentary to Asian foods. The aroma is flowery, similar to roses or orchids. Hao Ya is the finest keemun.

Prince of Wales

A blend of Chinese tea grown in Anhwei Province, made exclusively by Twinings, a taste complimentary to cheese and fruit.


High-grown tea from East Central Africa, on the Indian Ocean possesses a rich flowery aroma and brisk flavor, a taste compatible with poultry or game.


Oolong is a Chinese term for "black dragon." A blend of black and green teas, oolong was developed in the nineteenth century in Formosa (Taiwan). It possesses a less potent flavor than black tea but a taste stronger than green tea.


Oolong has a somewhat peachy taste.


Its color is dark brown.


Oolong is served black or with sugar. The exception is Jas­mine tea, which is taken black or with lemon. Because oolong does not have a full-bodied flavor, milk is not added.


Oolong has a flowery scent and is not recommended as a breakfast tea. The following oolongs are appropriate for lunch, in the afternoon, or in the evening.

Formosa oolong

A Taiwanese tea plant, formosa oolong is produced from April to December and usually yields five flushes. The second and third flushes are the best, processed from large-leaf and bud sets. Formosa oo­long compliments the taste of spicy foods.


A scented oolong perfumed with the petals of jasmine, a light taste appropriate in the afternoon or in the evening following dinner.

Russian Caravan

A blend of keemun tea from mainland China and oolong from Taiwan, Russian caravan is appropriate iced or served hot in the after­noon and evening.

Green Tea

Rich in vitamin C, green tea is a natural antioxidant that aids digestion and compli­ments a multi-course meal, such as a Chinese dinner.


The tea is vegetable-like, with an astringent quality that ranges from bitter to sweet. Green tea is harmonious with Asian and sweet foods.


Green tea is pale yellowish green, never dark green.


Green tea is taken plain or with sugar or lemon. However, when lemon and sugar are added, sugar is added first. If lemon is added before sugar, the chemical reaction inhibits the rate at which the sugar crystals dissolve.


Green tea compliments the sweeter, lighter fare served with afternoon tea. Gunpowder, gyokuro, and young hyson are among the finest green teas.


A name for green tea made from the smallest leaf at the tip of the stem, plucked while the white down is on the leaves. The young leaves are rolled by hand into small pellets that look like shot, that explode with flavor when infused, hence the name.


Green tea from Japan, and the finest available. Matcha uji, a type of gyokuro, is used in the Japanese tea ceremony. To reduce the chlorophyll in the leaves and decrease the tannin, gyokuro is raised in a garden covered for 3 weeks with black curtains or straw shades. The plant is carefully tended, and once a year in May, the tips of single buds are plucked by hand. The taste is smooth and sweet.

Young Hyson

Hyson or young hyson is made from trees that flourish in China. The yellow-green leaves are long and thick and promote a full-­bodied taste, one more pungent than other green teas.