Peng Luo

One of the best things in good tea is the ease at which you can get into it. There's an incredible richness that you can experience and learn with and within tea, and you can still prepare and explore it at a pace and in a way that's to your liking. With some basic considerations and information, you can navigate in the world of tea in a clear and meaningful manner.

What is tea?

Tea is dried leaves from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) which turn water into a wonderfully tasty and aromatic drink which is also called tea. The big difference between tea and other herbs is that even without added ingredients or flavorings, tea has a uniquely wide and vibrant spectrum in flavor and aroma, and tea contains caffeine (a stimulant) and theanine (with relaxing properties), the latter which can only be found in tea. Tea has traditionally been produced in the subtropical and mountainous areas of East Asia and northern Southeast Asia, but starting from the 1800s, tea production has spread out, especially to South Asia and East Africa.

The tea blends found in grocery stores are the easiest kind of tea to notice and get in everyday life, but they're merely the tip of the iceberg. The versatility and richness of tea's sensual aspects are truly revealed in teas that you can get from specialized tea shops. Many of those teas are so-called single-estate teas (instead of blends), produced on one single farm where growing and processing tea is a well-paying vocation to the farmers. Finland is first and foremost a land of coffee, but the overall selection of Finnish tea shops is some of the best in all of Europe, which is definitely something you should take advantage of. The salesperson at a tea shop should be able to recommend some good teas to get started or for getting into more specific taste experiences.

Tea is divided into several main categories according to how the leaves are processed, and within those into dozens of subcategories (according to a style or production area), and then on into hundreds of more specific types of tea (according to a cultivar, a local tradition, or a specific processing method). Individual teas (as individual products or separate batches of one type of tea) sold by producers or vendors are too many to even begin to count.

Other herbs that can be brewed like tea (e.g. chamomile or rooibos) are colloquially also known as tea, although in the context of actual tea or in the company of tea enthusiasts, it offers more clarity to call them "herbal infusions" or "tisanes". Herbal infusions have different flavor profiles and other properties depending on which species of plant they're made of, but almost all of them are similar in that they contain no caffeine.

What difference is there
between tea categories like
green and black tea?

After tea leaves are picked, they can then be processed in different ways to get them to taste a specific way. The differences between some main styles of processing divide tea up into main categories that make it easier to expect specific characteristics from a given tea.

  • Green tea is unoxidized tea. Its leaves have been heated up quite soon after picking, which leaves them green – unoxidized – and they'll have a taste most similar to the fresh leaves. Green tea has a light, fresh and vegetal character, and of all the categories it has the most bitterness which can be softened by brewing the tea at cooler temperatures than other teas.
  • White tea is slowly dried tea that's somewhat oxidized. It's not notably processed in other ways than letting the leaves dry. Since white tea leaves aren't heated up to high temperatures, they manage to slightly oxidize in the process of drying up, and their aroma can resemble dry tree leaves or hay, with a very light general character.
  • Oolong tea is partially oxidized tea which ideally has both oxidized and less oxidized parts in its individual leaves. Oolong is made by shaking the leaves to encourage oxidation around their edges, and later by heating them up to halt the oxidation at a specific level. Traditional types of oolong tea are usually roasted after the leaves have dried. Oolong teas have an especially aromatic floralness and fruitiness to them, with a smooth mouthfeel.
  • Black tea ("red tea" in East Asian languages) is heavily or fully oxidized tea, bar some exceptions. Its leaves are thoroughly bruised to encourage thorough oxidation. Black tea has flavors that boldly come at the forefront, and it usually has fruity or grainy notes. Black tea made from tea bags is normally bitter and astringent, whereas whole-leaf black teas are much smoother.
  • Dark tea ("black tea" in East Asian languages) is tea that gets microbially ripened (or "fermented" in a colloquial sense) as the leaves are either kept moist during production or slowly aged in their dry and finished form. The most famous subcategory of dark tea is pu'er tea. Dark tea very often has earthy or woody notes with a thick and smooth mouthfeel.
  • Yellow tea is green tea's odd cousin of sorts. Yellow and green tea are otherwise very similar, but yellow tea leaves aren't allowed to dry for a longer period, which colors the leaves yellow and gets rid of their grassy and bitter character.

It's good to bear in mind that the different main categories can't be reliably compared in the amounts of caffeine or theanine that they contain. Such contents are determined especially by the kind of leaf material picked from the plants, and the growing variables of the tea plant itself (cultivar, terroir and season). The processing style doesn't affect caffeine or theanine levels in tea.

How can I get to a good start in tea?

My recommendation would be to go to a tea shop, talk with the salesperson there, and at least get some unflavored loose-leaf tea that catches your fancy. Besides the teacup, a basic instrument of tea would be a strainer/infuser that allows you to take tea leaves out of the water to stop the tea from getting any stronger. That's really all you'd need for starters! Tea packages usually have individualized brewing instructions that you can use as a guideline, and it's not forbidden to go your own way either.

Finding other tea enthusiasts and drinking and conversing with them is one of the great joys in tea, and it's also a good and fun way to learn more about interesting things. There are no rules set in stone regarding tea, and there's room for plenty of different customs and practices and philosophies in and around tea. There are lots of books and videos and blogs about tea, such as this one right here. I hope that you'll find your tea journey a pleasant one!

Text written by Mika Hannola