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If you've found yourself drinking more tea and less coffee lately, you're not alone; more people—including a number of coffee professionals—are talking and learning about high-end teas than ever before. I mean straight loose-leaf tea, unencumbered by paper bags or potpourri fodder, tea so well-made and grin-inducingly delicious that it doesn’t need a drop of milk or sugar (but no punishment if you swing that way).
After all, this is a beverage thousands of years in the making, with a global culture and history matched only by wine. And if you thought coffee could get complex, tea is an order of magnitude more so, with greater variety, flavors, aromas, and characters than anything you'll get from a bean. It doesn't hurt that tea's injection of caffeine is so much gentler on the body, or that there's a whole term, tea drunk, to describe the giddy sense of well being that can come with drinking a quality cup.
Whether you swoon for the fruity sweetness of a hip craft coffee or the sludgy tar of soul-saving diner brew, there’s a tea for you.
Yet even with all these advances, tea in the West remains slandered with an unfair rep as all jasmine blossoms and unicorn tears, better for doily-festooned tea parties than the oomph of morning coffee. Here is a guide that says otherwise. Whether you swoon for the fruity sweetness of a hip craft coffee or the sludgy tar of soul-saving diner brew, there’s a tea for you. The problem is actually an embarrassment of riches: Where do you even start?
The best way to learn about good tea is to drink it, as much as possible from as many sources as you can, but consider these recommendations a beginning. A few things to keep in mind, though, before you start shopping:
Buy loose: Loose-leaf teas are by and large higher quality than their tea bag counterparts. Larger leaves, when given room to breathe in a cup or pot, deliver more balanced flavor and body.
Be prepared to pay: Like all specialty foods, quality comes at a cost, and while everything from growing regions and labor conditions to processing and market demand affects tea pricing, in seemingly uneven ways at times, all the following teas cost more than the bags at the grocery store. Do the math per serving, though, and you’ll quickly realize that even great tea is pretty cheap: A tea that’s, say, $200 a pound translates into 45 10-gram servings, and quality tea can and should be re-steeped many times. That works out to a couple of bucks per cup, certainly less than the cost of your daily latte. (Not willing to pay that much upfront? Most vendors offer small sample sizes so you can try all kinds of tea.)
Don’t stress on the brewing: Beginning tea drinkers often stress over whether they’re making it the “right” way, to the point where it stops them from making it at all. But truly good tea will reward many styles of brewing, each with its own advantages, so get drinking first, then dial in the details. You can brew many of these teas right in your mug—cover them with hot water and the leaves will sink to the bottom after a couple minutes. For something a hair more advanced, here are some tea-making tools, from filters to teapots, to get you started.
Better Black Tea
There’s more to black tea than an English Breakfast tea bag; a really good black tea should have sweetness, body, and structured astringency just like any cup of coffee. Different regions produce different styles that emphasize those qualities to varying degrees. In the hill country of India and Nepal, Himalayan plantations make teas that layer jammy fruit and cocoa but also clean, crisp qualities like a deep breath of forest air. Over in Sri Lanka, quality Ceylon teas can evoke citrus and nuts, and the best kinds showcase a lively balance of sweetness, body, and mouth-puckering astringency. For less astringency and more palate-coating sweetness, consider dian black tea from Yunnan which when done right are rounded and bold enough to linger in your throat for a while.
Oolong teas are partially oxidized, between unoxidized greens and fully oxidized blacks, and many are traditionally roasted to coax greater flavor, body, and aroma from the leaves. These roasted teas evoke many of coffee’s great qualities: richness and a strong, heavy base that lingers in the mouth but still lets lighter fruit, spice, and floral elements shine. But unlike coffee, these oolongs can be steeped multiple times—five to a dozen or more—and each steeping will showcase a different aspect of the teas’ characters. Oolongs’ dynamism and sheer variety make them some of the most rewarding teas to brew and drink, and these roasted ones are very coffee-friendly.