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Tea Blog

Get the most out of Oolong Teas

Oolong teas cover the range from green to black, with a wide variety of flavors. Learn how to make the most of this wonderful tea category."
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Tea 101: Basics for Beginners

Tea Definitions:

If you're new to tea, you may find it hard to know what to ask for if you don't know the lingo. Here are the basics.

Assam: The Brahmaputra Valley in the Assam region of India is the largest producer of black teas. Teas from this area are known for their rich, malty taste. Good ones are strong yet smooth, and brew to a rich copper color. Often used for Irish Breakfast blends, they hold up well to the addition of milk and sugar, but the higher quality ones should always be taken plain to appreciate their rich flavor. Please see our Black Teas - Unflavored Section.

Black tea: Black teas are produced by a process that includes oxidation, sometimes also called fermentation. Black teas are first withered by allowing the moisture in the leaves to evaporate somewhat so that the leaves become pliable. This process takes 12-18 hours. The leaves are then rolled to bruise and damage them, allowing enzymes in the leaf to come to the surface. Then the leaves are spread out, exposed to the air, in humid rooms. Oxygen reacts with the enzymes on the surface of the leaves and causes them to turn black, thus changing the color and taste of the brewed tea. To stop the oxidation process at the right time, the leaves are finally fired in ovens, destroying the enzymes responsible for oxidation. Please see our Black Teas - Unflavored and Black Teas - Flavored sections.

Camellia sinensis: The tea plant. Properly speaking, tea is the beverage brewed from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Its wide variety of incarnations, such as green, black, oolong, and white teas, are created by different processing methods, but all derive ultimately from the same plant. The flavor of tea depends not only upon how the tea was processed, but also in what part of the world the plant grew, the time of year the leaves were harvested, what the weather was like that season, the soil conditions, altitude etc.

Chai: This Indian word for "tea" has come to refer to black tea brewed with traditional Indian spices and lots of milk and sugar. The flavor of chai will vary from brand to brand. Some are quite hot due to a lot of pepper; others tend sweeter with more cinnamon and cloves, like our Masala Chai. You can get pre-blended liquid chai, chai mix, or loose tea with chai seasonings to which you add your own milk and sugar. This is one of those words no one knows how to pronounce: the "ch" is pronounced, just like in "chair," and it rhymes with "I."

Clotted Cream: A thick, unsweetened, cream traditionally used as a topping for Scones. A standard tea party food of British heritage. Double Devon Cream is it's slightly lower fat twin.

Darjeeling: Due to their unique characteristics and delicate aroma, Darjeeling teas, from the mountainous Darjeeling region of India, are often called the "Champagne of Tea." Unlike teas grown in lower altitudes, they have only four harvest periods: first flush (spring); "in between" (late spring); second flush (summer); and autumnal. Each crop produces a different tasting tea, with the earlier crops tending light and flowery and later crops becoming progressively fuller bodied and fruity. Be careful not to over-steep Darjeelings—they are quite sensitive! Please see our Darjeeling category to see our Darjeeling selection.

Earthenware: All pottery that is not vitrified (changed into a glassy substance by heat).

English, Irish, and Scottish Breakfast: Traditional strong blends of different teas, made to go with fairly rich breakfasts. Each blender will make these tea blends a bit differently, so you should taste several before you decide whether or not you like them. Usually blended to drink with milk and sugar. Irish and Scottish Breakfast blends tend to be a bit stronger and maltier, due to a higher quantity of Assam teas. English Breakfast is often a blend of Keemun.

Gaiwan (or guywan): A Chinese teacup with a saucer and lid, made of thin porcelain. Traditionally, you brew the tea right in the cup, then use the lid to hold back the leaves while you sip your tea.

Green tea: Green teas are produced by a process that does not include oxidation, sometimes also referred to as fermentation (in contrast, black teas are oxidized, or exposed to air). Some green teas are steamed initially to kill the leaf (sencha, gyokuro). Most are first withered by simply letting some of the leaves' moisture evaporate, making the leaf pliable. Then the leaves are usually fired in a hot wok to destroy enzymes in the leaf, which prevents the oxidation process from beginning. During firing, the leaves can be shaped in the wok into the desired form, such as the flattened leaves of Dragon Well or the small pellets of gunpowder tea. Some teas are then roasted (hojicha) to produce a toasty flavor. Our green teas are in the following two categories: Green Teas - Flavored and Scented, and Green Teas - Unflavored and Unscented.

Herbal tea: Technically, this is not tea. This term refers to beverages made from plants other than Camellia sinensis (the tea plant). Usually, they are caffeine free. Examples include chamomile, rooibos, peppermint, and hibiscus. Often, herbals are are blends of many different plants, fruits, and flavorings. These are also referred to as "tisanes." They are particularly nice choices for children, for evening consumption, and for anyone who wants to completely avoid caffeine. Please see the Herbals, and Rooibos categories.

Infuser: Often confused with a strainer, this is a ball or basket that you put your tea leaves in while they brew. The point is easy removal of the leaves once you're done brewing your tea. You don't want your brewed tea leaves in the water too long because they will continue to brew and may turn your tea bitter. You can use an infuser in a teapot or in a cup or mug. Simply put the leaves inside, place it in your pot or cup, pour hot water over, and let brew. When ready, lift out the infuser with the leaves and you're left with clear tea. In general, the larger the infuser and the smaller the holes, the better your results. Tip: Make sure your infuser will fit into your pot. Measure the opening of your teapot and compare to the diameter of the infuser. Please see our Infusers and Strainers category for different kinds of infusers.

Keemun: From the Anhui Province in China, Keemuns are often called the Burgundy of teas for their full body, natural sweetness, and superb aromatics. Keemuns are often considered the quintessential English Breakfast tea, and most English Breakfast blends are exclusively Keemun. Holds up well to milk and sugar, although the finest ones are often taken plain. Please see our Black Teas - Unflavored category.

Lemon Curd: A thick topping or filling made from lemon juice, butter, sugar and eggs. Often used as a topping for scones at tea parties. Other flavored curds are also available now, such as raspberry. Very rich and delicious!

Oolong tea: In contrast to black teas, which are fully oxidized, and green teas, which are not oxidized, oolongs are semi-oxidized. Like black teas, oolongs are first withered for several hours to soften the leaves. Then the leaves are alternately oxidized and fired several times by various methods, which may include shaking in baskets or walking on leaves that have been placed in cloth bags! When the desired amount of oxidation is reached, which can vary significantly, the leaves are fired at high temperatures to destroy the enzymes that contribute to oxidation. Because some oolongs are more oxidized than others, the flavor of oolongs can vary from near-black to quite green. The best oolongs are still all handmade and have a lovely fruity/flowery aroma and a delicate sweetness.

Porcelain: "True porcelain," or "hard-paste porcelain," is a mixture of kaolin, a white clay, and petuntse, a type of rock, both from China. It is fired at 2552 degrees F and is strong enough that it does not chip or crack easily. "Artificial porcelain," or "soft-paste porcelain," is made from a mixture of white clay and glass and is fired at 2012 degrees F. "Bone china," often shortened to "china," is a blend of clay and kaolin with the addition of bone ash (burned animal bones) to stabilize the ingredients.

Rooibos: Rooibos (pronounced "roy bus") is made from the needle-like leaves of a caffeine-free bush native to South Africa. It is oxidized like black tea, and many people are using it instead of decaffeinated black teas. Good both hot and cold, it has a mild flavor and won't turn bitter with extended brewing. Known for its soothing properties, it is reputed to be even higher in antioxidants than green tea. Steep 1 teaspoon of rooibos per cup in freshly boiled water for 5-10 minutes.

Scones: This is a quick bread traditionally served with afternoon tea. It is only slightly sweet and often contains currants or other dried fruits. Best served fresh from the oven and topped with clotted cream, jams, or lemon curd.

Strainer: Often confused with an infuser, a strainer is used when you have placed loose tea leaves in your pot to brew. When ready to pour, you place the strainer over your cup and pour the brewed tea through it to catch any leaves. Often made of silver, silver-plate, porcelain, or stainless steel. Please see our Infusers and Strainers category.

Stoneware: Opaque ceramic between earthenware and porcelain. Fired at a higher temperature than earthenware, which vitrifies it, making it watertight without glazing.

Tea cozy: This is a device used to keep your tea hot while it's in the pot. Usually made of some type of insulated fabric, they will either fit over top of the teapot or wrap around it. The wraparound kind allows you to serve with it on (often called a "serving cozy") because the handle and the spout are exposed. But the over-the-top style often keeps tea hotter longer since heat won't rise out the top. (We sell the over-the-top kind.) If you're using a teapot, a tea cozy is a practical investment. Unless you drink your tea very quickly, it will cool off, even in the finest pot. A good quality cozy can keep your tea hot for a couple of hours while you leisurely sip and thoroughly enjoy your tea.

Tea Kettle: This is what you heat your water in, not what you brew your tea in. They either go on the stove top or are electric. Electric kettles generally heat water more quickly than stove top varieties and are especially popular in Europe and the UK, where the different electric current allows these kettles to heat water to boiling much faster than in the US.

Teapot: This is what you brew your tea in and serve it from. It can be ceramic, porcelain, glass, silver, cast iron, or stainless steel.

White tea: White teas are appreciated by connoisseurs for their unmatched subtlety, complexity, and natural sweetness. The most delicate of teas, white teas are minimally processed. They are simply steamed, then dried, without significantly altering the leaf. Consequently, these teas appear light and fluffy and require more room to infuse than other teas. Most brew to a very pale, straw colored liquor, hence the name, "white." Use either a large infuser or put the leaves loose in your pot or cup.

Yunnan: The Yunnan Province of China has been producing tea for 1700 years. Teas from this area are full-bodied and brisk with a hint of smokiness. Great for breakfast (although I like them any time). Best consumed plain or with a little milk. Please see our Black Teas - Unflavored category.