Sometimes, after a particularly intense geek-out, I’m asked how long I’ve studied tea. (If you’re curious, I’ve been drinking tea regularly since a trip to London in 1988 and the first class about tea I attended was in 1993 or 1994). Many new to the vastness of the world of tea are daunted by the sheer variety and everything there is to learn about it.
Here, then, is my checklist for what to try if you’re just getting started. It’ll give you a survey of some of the famous teas from the major growing regions. Ask your local tea shop for brewing advice on each, as they will probably know the peculiarities of the teas that they sell. Get a sample, or whatever their minimum quantity is. Brew them up and pay attention to the flavor. Take notes–it’ll help you differentiate them better, and help you explain what you like and don’t like when you go back to buy more.
- a green (Longjing, aka Dragonwell is a good choice)
- an oolong (my favorite is Tieguanyin, also spelled Ti kwan yin, or some variation on the Iron Goddess of Compassion)
- a black (either Yunnan or Keemun; something that’s labeled “tippy” or “golden” are generally top quality)
- a white (Bai Hao Yin Zhen, aka Silver Needles)
- a puer (ask for help on this one–or check out some great Puer Resources to educate yourself a little)
Teas from India are almost all black tea, so for your India sampler, explore by region.
- Darjeeling (go for something with a particular estate name–e.g. Makaibari Estate–and go for the Second Flush if available)
- Assam (again, estate names are good; flush is less important)
- Nilgiri (I’m particularly fond of Havukal Estate, but explore to your heart’s content)
- Baozhong (a lightly-oxidized oolong). This is sometimes called “pouchong,” the old transliteration from Chinese. The Wenshan region, especially around Pinglin, is famous for this tea.
- Bai Hao, aka Oriental Beauty (a darkly-oxidized oolong). This will give you a nice contrast, and is another famous Taiwan tea.
- Sencha (the most famous and common of Japanese greens)
- Matcha (a powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony of Japan)
- Genmaicha (an interesting and popular green tea with toasted rice)
- Pick a couple of so-called “Ceylon teas” (Ceylon is the old name for Sri Lanka and the tea industry hasn’t caught up yet). Go for individual estate names, or teas from different regions. Perhaps the most famous region here is Uva. Generally, the higher the altitude it’s grown at the better.
- Same with Kenya–try a couple. Kenya produces a great deal of bulk tea used in blends, tea bags, etc. and can sometimes have a very strong flavor.