Before you get started making tea, you gotta have tea. But where to begin? What’s a good “starter” tea? Where can you even get loose-leaf tea here in ‘Murica, not just the tea bags at the grocery store?
In this post, I’ll give you a primer on some different teas, then I’ll point you along to some beginner-friendly tea stores so you can get teas without buying five pounds at a time.
Let’s get started!
What kind of tea should I start with?
Instead of going through every. single. tea. that’s out there, I’ve picked four of the most common kinds to help you decide where to begin.
Bit of science first. All true tea comes from one plant, Camellia sinensis. What distinguishes teas is how they are prepared. After the leaves are plucked and “withered,” they are fermented, or oxidized, before they are dried. The more oxidized the tea leaf, the higher its caffeine content will be. Many other things also influence the tea’s flavor, including the growing process of the plants and the chemicals released during steeping.
Let’s go from highest oxidization to lowest: black tea, green tea, white tea, and herbal tea.
If you’ve no idea where to start, start with black tea. It’s the easiest to find and to brew. Black tea is fully oxidized. Its dry leaves are usually dark brown or black, although some are golden yellow, and its liquor (the liquid form) can range from dark amber to deep red-brown.
- Caffeine: high
- Water temperature: 190 degrees F – boiling
- Steep time: 3 – 5 min
- Flavor: full-bodied, wide range of flavors
- Health benefits:
- Good coffee substitute – calmer energy burst, less jitters, less crash, no gastrointestinal side effects
- Can improve cardiovascular health
- May lower risk for diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease
Breakfast or afternoon teas, the kind that we associate with Britain, are good starter teas. These are usually very inexpensive and easy to find. They have bright, brisk flavors and go well with sugar or cream. These teas include:
- Earl Grey (flavored with bergamot)
- English Breakfast
Chinese black teas, meanwhile, can be bright but are often smooth. These are often more forgiving of too-long steeps than many “British” teas. They are pricier, but it is fairly easy to find samples. Some Chinese black teas:
- Yunnan / Dian Hong
- Lapsang souchong (a smoky-tasting tea)
- Black Dragon Pearl (my personal favorite!)
The next most popular type of tea in the U.S., green teas are moderately oxidized. They have green or light brown leaves and yield a pale, yellow, or golden tea.
- Caffeine: medium
- Water temperature: 160-190 degrees F
- Steep time: 1 – 3 minutes
- Flavor: light to medium, grassy/vegetal, wide range of flavoring
- Health benefits:
- More antioxidants than black tea (due to less processing)
- Improves cardiovascular health
- Possible prevention of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease
- Less dehydrating than black tea
(One warning: Japanese green teas (sencha, bancha, hojicha, kukicha, and most varieties ending with -cha) tend to be finicky and more difficult for beginners to master.)
Some popular green teas:
- Gunpowder (used to make Moroccan Mint)
- Bi Lo Chun
White tea is produced with minimal oxidization, making it the healthiest of the teas. Its leaves are frosty green or brown, not white, and the liquor is usually pale yellow.
- Caffeine: minimal
- Water temperature: 155 – 180 degrees F
- Steep time: 4 – 5 minutes
- Flavor: light, delicate, grassy, floral, some range of flavoring
- Health benefits:
Some of the most prevalent white teas:
- Bai Mu Dan (peony tea)
- Silver Needle
Herbal teas, also known as tisanes, are not produced from the Camellia sinensis plant – so they’re technically not tea! They’re usually made from infusing herbs, spices, or other plant materials in hot water.
- Caffeine: none
- Water temperature: 200 degrees F – boiling
- Steep time: 4 – 5 min
- Flavors: depends on the tea!
- Health benefits: medicinal qualities associated with the teas
There are hundreds of herbal teas out there, but some of the most popular include:
- Rose hip
Start with samples!
I recommend buying new teas in smaller quantities. Many tea vendors offer “sample” quantities of their tea, with just enough leaves for a few cups, and some even have sampler packs featuring four or five teas of a kind. Which brings us to the next question…
Where do I find loose-leaf tea?
Finding good loose-leaf tea in the United States can be tricky. Most major grocery stores only carry bagged tea, and the few loose-leaf options aren’t the tastiest. (UPDATE: I went to Giant Eagle today, and they had Lipton and two flavors of Twinings available in loose-leaf form. Don’t know if that’s the case everywhere, but that’s par with what I’ve seen in grocery stores so far.) I have had some luck with local and specialized grocery stores. If you’re lucky, you may have a brick-and-mortar store near you that will let you smell the tea before you buy:
- Teavana is the most prevalent tea retailer in the U.S., with locations across the country. People have mixed opinions about them, especially after they were acquired by Starbucks, but that’s partly due to snobbery.
- Local tea stores may also turn up if you do a Google search.
- Some local coffee shops may also offer loose-leaf tea.
If you’re a long way from any tea stores like I am, you’re not out of luck! Online retailers offer the most expansive options for any tea drinker. While there are countless online tea stores, here are some of my recommendations:
Adagio was my formal introduction to tea. Hailing from the Chicago area, they have a wide selection and offer generous sample sizes of all of their available teas, as well as sample sets of categories including Chinese black teas, Chinese green teas, “Silver” white teas, and garden herbal teas. Their shipping costs are fairly low.
Harney and Sons, based in Millerton, NY, have particularly good black teas and offer inexpensive samples of all of their teas. They also have black and green tea sample sets with 1 oz. each of four teas.
Arbor Teas offer organic teas and by far the most impressive range of Fair Trade Certified teas I have found so far. They have nice sample sets of black tea, green tea, white tea, and herbal tea, which ship from Ann Arbor, MI.
Mahamosa, based in Atlanta, offer reasonably priced teas from all over the world in quantities starting at .5 oz.
These next two are pricier, but they have quality tea and good sample sets.
Teavivre are based in China; they seem a bit daunting at first, but their product is excellent. They have sample packs of their black, green, and white teas and offer free samples upon checkout. If you choose the free shipping, expect to wait at least 2 weeks for your delivery.
If money is tight, you may be able to find a tea community that does swaps, exchanges, and traveling tea boxes. The forums on Steepster, an online tea community that allows you to log your tea cupboard, post reviews, and discuss tea with other enthusiasts, have been known to have these.
Happy hunting! Next time – we’ll brew the tea! (I promise!)