Tantalizing Teas

Discover the wonderful world of premium teas -- and the best way to brew and serve them.
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Is Tea the New Coffee?

New, hip tea shops reminiscent of coffeehouses are opening in cities throughout the country -- for a total of more than 2,200 of these tea hangouts. In these establishments, you can sink into a comfortable armchair, relax, and enjoy flavorful premium infusions . Or you can take your leaves to go.

But don't expect to find anything brewed from standard-issue tea bags at these newfangled salons. While all tea leaves come from the plant Camellia sinensis -- a warm-climate evergreen -- those that end up in bags simply marked "tea" are blends of many different types from around the world that have been mixed for consistency of taste, says David DeCandia, tea buyer and master blender for the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a California-based company with more than 500 stores, including more than 250 overseas.

In contrast, says Joseph Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the U.S.A., premium products, whether loose or bagged, have specific origins (such as Darjeeling, from northern India) or a unique preparation (such as Earl Grey, in which the leaves have been flavored with bergamot oil, imbuing a citrus-like aroma). From season to season, says Simrany, these top-notch teas may vary slightly in flavor -- something that connoisseurs look forward to.

Types of Teas

There are four major categories of tea, each of which gets its distinctive characteristics from the way the leaves are processed. (Herbal tea does not usually include actual tea leaves, but rather is a mixture of herbs and other ingredients, such as dried citrus; it is not, strictly speaking, "tea.")

  • Black tea is made from leaves that are harvested and then dried. Exposing them to air causes them to oxidize (this process is often referred to as "fermentation") . The resulting rich, fill-bodied taste has made this the most popular tea in America: It accounts for up to 90 percent of total annual consumption. Assam, Darjeeling, Lapsang souchong, and Keemun are examples.
  • Green tea leaves are steamed to stop the oxidation process and then dried. This produces a fresh, grassy taste. Gunpowder, with leaves rolled into pellets, Genmaicha, and gyokuro are in this category.
  • Oolong leaves are allowed to oxidize partially before they're heated. This makes oolong as clear and fragrant as green tea but strong tasting like black tea. Names to look for include Wuyi, Ti Kuan Yin, and simply oolong.
  • White teas, including Silver Tip Pekoe and Silvery Oolong, are made from leaves and buds that have not yet fully opened. This type is processed like green tea, resulting in a light, sweet flavor.

Continued on page 2:  Brewing the Perfect Pot


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