This is a guest post by Bob Kasenchak from Unity Teapots – purveyors of high-quality cast iron teapots and other Asian teaware. Want to be a guest writer for Daily Demitasse? Please read our guidelines then contact me.
So you can tell an Ethiopian coffee from a Sumatran by the aroma; you sing the praises of the wonderful acidity of high-altitude beans. But you still think of all tea as a weak, bitter drink that comes from tiny, stapled bags?
What follows is an introduction to tea – black tea – for coffee lovers. Whether you’re naturally curious, health-conscious, culinary-minded, or intrigued by the history and miscellany of the world’s most-consumed beverage, there are plenty of robust teas to please the palate of a coffee drinker-cum-budding tea aficionado.
The best teas are purchased loose, not in bags (although there are increasingly many high-quality bagged teas on the market.) Bagged teas are frequently filled with crushed and broken leaves, so that they fit in the bags, or “fannings,” leftover scraps of leaves and stems.Teas sold in bulk are still whole (or largely whole) leaves, which allows them to maintain their essential oils and other particulate matter retaining both flavor and nutrients.
Depending on the level of tea-geekery in which you’re willing to indulge, you’ll need a teapot, large mug and steeping device, and a good supply of clean or filtered water. You probably have most of these things already; it’s been my experience that almost everyone has a teapot, although they’re not always aware of it. Later you might wish to acquire a thermometer, a timer, various kinds of scoops and cups, more pots, and even litmus paper (to test water alkalinity); advanced tea nerds present symptoms of books on tea, specialized cups for different teas, still more pots, and, naturally, gobs and gobs of teas.
At a well-apportioned tea shop you’ll find quite an array of white, green, oolong, and black teas, almost certainly including some arbitrarily flavored offerings, as well as various other tea-like products including rooibos, mate, and herbal blends (tisanes). Black teas (ignoring the rest for the time being), very broadly speaking, come as single varietals or in blends.
Much like single malt Scotch whisky or fine Burgundy, single varietal teas (although themselves blended, from multiple estates or farms in the region) comprise teas from one country, or perhaps sub-region, and express not only the characteristics of the local strain of tea plant but also the soil, climate, and other factors unique to that specific place. To borrow a term from the wine-tasting world, one could call this terroir. The extension of this principle is the single-estate tea (akin to single-vineyard wines), and occasionally you will even find teas identified by specific harvests.
Blended teas, analogous to blended Scotch whiskies or the red wines of Bordeaux, combine different types of teas to achieve a balanced, complex flavor or a particular composition of body, depth, and tastes. Neither is better than the other; it is a matter of approach.
Like a blended whisky or fine Bordeaux, blends are usually based on (that is, made mostly of) one kind of tea, and the others are added in small amounts as “condiments” to fill out the blends. The best-known and easiest to find examples of these are the “British Isle” family of breakfast teas: English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, and Scottish Breakfast. All three are strong black blends based on Indian Assam. The quality and alkalinity of the water in the three countries also contributes to their chosen styles (a complex topic for another time).
Assam teas come from the eponymous region of India, which is in the farthest eastern bit that juts out south of the Himalayas and towards Southeast Asia north of Myanmar. The teas are distinctively brisk, a little fruity, and often grainy, bread-like, or toasty with a mouth-coating body and a reddish tint. To this base tea is added teas from other parts of India, Indonesia, Africa, or, less often, China to round out the blends.
1 English Breakfast blends contain Kenyan and Ceylon teas in addition to the Assam, and sometimes rarer Keemuns from China (usually found in more expensive brands). They tend to be quite full-bodied and somewhat dark, and are served black or with milk (not cream) and/or sugar.
2 Irish Breakfasts are usually mostly or completely blended from Assams with very small amounts of African or other teas. As a result, they are often described as malty and are quite dry, and enjoyed with or without milk, sugar, or lemon.
3 Scottish Breakfast teas are the staunchest of the lot, and usually have a decent quantity of Kenyan in the mix as well as other African (Ceylon) or Indonesian (Java, Sumatra) teas. They are rich and stout, perhaps less subtle and certainly more intense than their cousin blends.
Although they have their differences, all three types are largely Assam-based teas and are more similar than not. The British Breakfasts also have the advantage of being ubiquitous, available everywhere in an array of brands both in bags and loose. The black teas used to round out these blends can be found as single varietal teas (some more commonly than others) and are also good choices for fans of strong coffees.
4 Ceylon (that is: Sri Lanka) teas come in a variety of styles, but they are all wonderfully acidic and bright, almost tart, and for this reason are sometimes though of as citrus-like. The biggest difference in Ceylons is between the high- and low-altitude teas. It is the high-altitude plants that get the most sun and best drainage and therefore have the greatest natural acidity. Ceylon teas are also relatively common in stores and tea houses.
5 Kenyan teas are harder to find by themselves, although (as noted) they are included in small amounts in many blends. Indeed, although not commonly thought of as such in the U.S., Kenya is consistently among the top five tea-producing nations in the world. The Kenyans have decided, in a largely successful attempt to appeal to the Middle Eastern market, to sell most of their tea crushed and broken; it is very hard to find whole leaf teas of this kind. The tea is nearly granular in appearance, almost like coffee, and is very dark brown or even reddish-black in color. The liquid extraction is likewise dark, earthy, very rich, and full-bodied. It practically begs for milk and sugar, but is also delicious black if you like extremely strong, dark flavors.
Coffee lovers looking to learn about tea will find that loose teas are sold in any quantity from a cup to an ounce to a year’s supply, which is a magnificent arrangement as it allows you to dabble and taste a variety of styles. If you don’t have a good local tea shop, large grocery chains (especially of the increasingly common “healthy” variety) usually offer bulk teas. There are also some excellent retailers with detailed websites that offer mail-order services; of course, you can’t see, smell, or ask about the teas when ordering online. Lastly, enlightened coffee houses often stock a few bulk teas, and some even offer tea “lattes” and other coffee culture-inspired hybrid drinks.
QOTD– Are you a coffee drinker and love tea or getting into tea? Tell us what kind you like and why.
Photo Credit: BarbaraCZ