Tea is the beverage of the moment, and we're not talking builder's brew. Sort your Lapsang and Oolong from your Yunnan and Pu-erh, with Elaine Lemm's guide
If you thought drinking a cuppa was a mug’s game, it’s time to think again (though the bag-in-the-bin stuff still is and always will be my favourite morning restorative). So move over, Typhoo; here comes Pu-erh, Wulong, Qimen, Lapsang and Oolong.
We first put the kettle on for tea here the mid-17th century and, thanks to the extortionate tax on it, that initial sip was well and truly reserved for the rich. However, a century on, tea managed to cross the social divide of Britain’s class-ridden society, as workers cast aside their morning draught of beer for the aromatic leaf. Which is probably when the milk in first/last and pinkie-wafting social affectations started.
We marched through the centuries, industrialised the country, emancipated women and fought wars, fuelled up by our daily brew. The love of tea suffered only one (albeit brief) threat during this time, and that came with the arrival of the American coffee chains and skinny mochas et al.
But tea drinking tea is back.
With over 1,500 teas available to buy, choosing one may seem complicated. But with a few basics to hand it’s actually quite straightforward.
Tea is a hot drink made by pouring boiling water over dried leaves to infuse them. Despite hundreds of products labelled as tea, to be the ‘real thing’ those leaves must come from the Camelia Sinensis (the tea plant), which looks not unlike a privet hedge.
There are three types of tea; black, green and white. Black varieties are created from heavily fermented, oxidised leaves and are the most popular for everyday drinking. White are the tips of the unopened leaves, which are dried with no fermentation or oxidisation, resulting in a light, delicate and expensive infusion. Green lies somewhere between the two.
All three have roughly the same levels of caffeine, but the unfermented white tea has higher levels of antioxidants and nutrients, thus making it the healthy alternative drink (but with a kick) .
And the trendy Oolongs and Pu-erh’s? Oolong sits somewhere between black and green. It has a much shorter oxidization, giving a light, fresh-tasting brew with the sophisticated flavours of black. The super-hip, must-have Pu-erh – which comes from the Yunnan in China – is the only tea which gets better as it ages. And the promise that it aids weight loss (it apparently speeds up your metabolism) makes it very popular. (Whittard of Chelsea stocks it.)
To further confuse matters, growing conditions and location all affect the resulting concoction: the soil, altitude and climate; the ways the leaves are harvested; how they’re fermented, roasted and blended.
How to choose your tea
So, what to drink? Starting on ‘proper’ tea is not unlike the initial foray into the world of the grape. Likewise, you can either immerse yourself in the gradations, nuances, snobbism and rituals, or you can simply imbibe. The best way to learn about the different styles is to get out there and, as tea is a social drink, do it with others. There are enough tea rooms around to find somewhere with a good list.
If you want to know how the tea in your cuppa gets from the plantation to your cup, or be able to tell the difference between an Oolong and a white, perhaps a tea masterclass with renowned tea expert Jane Pettigrew will fit the bill.
However, should a Second Flush Assam or Keemun Mao Feng take your fancy, join an online tea club such as Tea Horse and figure your way through it at home. It’s far less harmful to your liver than joining a wine club, and a lot cheaper too.
There are four main players, India (including Sri Lanka) and Africa are famous for their black teas, Japan for its green and China for all four. Many other countries produce them in less significant quantities, including a delicious tea here in the UK at Tregothnan in Cornwall.
Darjeeling from northern India is light and delicate, perfect for afternoon teas.
Assam, from north-east India, produces a strong, malty tea.
Ceylon Tea is aromatic with a slightly sharp taste.
Lapsang Souchong, perhaps the most famous of China teas, has a smoky aroma and flavour.
Yunnan is a black tea with rich, earthy flavours, similar to Assam, and makes a great breakfast tea. Also the home to Pu-erh tea.
Light, delicate and slightly sweet white teas are renowned in China, with four main varieties: Silver Needle (Baihao Yinzhen), White Peony (Bai Mudan), Long Life Eyebrow (Shou Mei), and Tribute Eyebrow (Gong Mei).
Sencha is the most commonly drunk tea in Japan. It’s a pale yellow infusion with a light delicate flavour.
To make the tea
Warm the pot: a quick swirl of hot water means the cold doesn’t shock the tea.
Use a china teapot. Why? Because it’s lovely.
One spoonful per person and one for the pot; the trusted measure still rules.
Use freshly boiled water (not reboiled) for good oxygen levels.
Stir it, then give it three to four minutes for optimum infusion.
Add milk first or last – each to their own.
Use tea bags or loose leaf.
The purist will insist that only loose leaf will do. However, mass produced tea aside, there are some really good bags out there, roomy enough to allow the tea to swirl in the hot water (important for releasing the flavours). Tea Pigs is a good example.