When it comes to tea, there's a dizzying amount of choices available these days. From Earl Grey to Constant Comment, most teas come from the same bushy plant, Camellia Sinensis. Any tea that doesn't come from this plant aren't actually "tea" per se -- these are referred to as tisane (or sometimes teasan). These are herbal blends and can contain just about anything, but most often are made from flowers or other bushes with strong flavors.
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With true tea, on the other hand, the flavor of the different types is determined by where the tea is grown, the time of year that it is picked, and how much it is oxidized after picking. The major families of tea include black (also called red tea), green, white, oolong, and fermented -- each possessing its own distinct flavors.
In general, the quality of the tea can be judged by its appearance. Cheaper teas are finely chopped leaves and stems -- these are often sold in boxes of tea bags. These teas are very easy to prepare: Just pop them in a mug and add hot water. Since so much of the leaf is already exposed to the water, you usually don't need to worry about over-brewing these teas.
Higher quality teas will usually have the full leaf intact. These teas require much more precision in the temperature of the water used, the amount of tea used, and the length of time that the leaves are allowed to steep. The easiest way to prepare these is to purchase a wire steeping basket that fits over your favorite mug -- just pour hot water over, and pull the basket off the mug after the recommended time.
There are many fancier preparation methods as well, depending on how much you're willing to spend from cheap glass and ceramic tea bowls and cups to very expensive pots made from clay or iron that have been aged and seasoned. It's best to start simple until you know what your needs are and you determine how you best like to enjoy tea, and then purchase the teaware to match as your tastes grow and change.
This is also true of the tea itself -- there are plenty of delicious teas available without having to spend hundreds of dollars. It's a good idea to try many different types until you find what you like best, and go from there. If you have a local tea shop, stop in to ask if they do tastings, to learn about new teas you haven't yet tried.
Also in Japan, a special type of green tea is produced known as Matcha and used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, using powdered leaves that are blended with hot water rather than being steeped. Photo Credit: Bill Hunt Click Here to see More of the Beginner’s Guide to Tea
Oolong tea is allowed to oxidize longer than green tea, but shorter than black tea. The teas most sought after by tea aficionados are often oolongs. As a family, they have the widest variety of flavors, but most possess a very rich, woody flavor, with subtle floral and sweet notes. The leaves of these teas are almost always kept intact and are prepared by rolling them, either into long, thin needles or tiny, round balls, which open slowly during brewing. Due to the already-complex taste, there are only a few common flavored varieties, such as King’s Tea which is prepared with Ginseng. Photo Credit: Bill Hunt
Most Oolongs are grown in China in Fujian province - the areas of Wuji and Anxi being the most well known producers - as well as Guangdong province, though Taiwan also produces many fine oolongs. There are many famous types such as Iron Goddess (a.k.a. Tie Guanyin or sometimes romanized as Tie Kwan Yin) and Bai Hao (a.k.a. Oriental Beauty). Traditionally in China, oolong tea is brewed in a ceremonial style called Gongfu, using a very small brewing container such as a tea bowl (known as a gaiwan) or a Yixing clay teapot. Photo Credit: © Flickr / Bernt Rostad Click Here to see More of the Beginner’s Guide to Tea
The last family of tea is oxidized and exposed to the air, and undergoes fermentation, and usually are sold as a solid brick. These teas are aged and slowly change their flavor over time, starting very bitter and dark - much like coffee - and turning more mellow over a period of years. The optimal aging time is a frequent subject of debate, but teas can be found aged up to 50 years - with 10 and 20 year old teas commonly available. The most common fermented tea is Pu-erh tea, most of which comes from Yunnan province in China. Photo Credit: Bill Hunt
White tea is also lightly oxidized, and is closest in flavor to green tea. However, it also contains the buds of the plant, giving a very light, floral flavor. Silver Needle and White Peony are the most popular varieties. There are flavored varieties, such as White Melon, but in most cases it’s hard to taste much of the original tea through the added flavoring. Click Here to see More of the Beginner’s Guide to Tea Photo Credit: Bill Hunt
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-- Bill Hunt, The Daily Meal
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