by Naomi Rosen
I have no idea how I have gone almost 5 years of peddling my teas and never written a blog post on where to start in the tea journey. I'm seriously slacking! I got the best email today from a gentleman named Josh who has tried a number of teas from a national retailer. He's had some homeruns and some strikeouts and wanted to dive deeper into the overwhelming world of loose leaf teas. The problem: where to start? To summarize, he asked if he should start with whites, move to greens, explore oolongs, and then wrap it up with black teas. While this might seem like a logical approach to introducing your palette to the finer nuances of the tea leaves, I prefer a different route.
- Many might disagree, but I would suggest not using blended or flavored teas. They're great as an introduction, but the ingredients they are blended with (fruits, herbs, extracts, etc.) all detract from the actual taste of the tea leaves themselves. In fact, in many cases, blends are usually made with slightly lower quality tea leaves. Not bad tea, just not the same flavorful brew you would get from the top leaves of an unblended tea. If you think about it, it makes sense that if you're going to mask the flavor anyway, why use really great tea?
- Keep track of what you do/don't like to try to avoid a distasteful cup. For example, there was an herbal blend Josh had tried that was tart and not his favorite. It had hibiscus in it, which typically adds a tart flavor. Note to self...don't buy tea with hibiscus as an ingredient.
- If you try a tea one time, and aren't really a fan, you might still be able to salvage that tea. Steeping times and temps are a guideline for getting the perfect cup but aren't always what suits your tastebuds. Try playing with the tea (steep longer/shorter, lower/raise the water temp, decrease/increase the amount of leaf used) and see if you can't dial in a pleasant taste.
But still....where to start? I'm not really a fan of starting with white teas and working your way up. I think it makes determining your tea preferences tough. In my humble opinion, oolongs are a great place to start. The oxidation range in oolong teas traditionally can be anywhere from 30%-90%. Some are roasted. Some have been grown near orchid gardens. Some are allowed to have bugs eat the leaves. There's so much variety in oolongs and how they are grown/processed. The flavor variations don't just bounce around between different oolongs either. Did you know you can traditionally resteep the same oolong leaves (I've had oolongs I was able to resteep up to 7 times) and the flavors can drastically vary each time. Oolongs are just a great place to start learning what you like and don't like. The lighter oxidized oolongs are sweeter, sometimes fruity or floral, and can help define what you might like in green and white teas. The darker oolongs or roasted oolongs, can help you determine what you might like in a black tea since the flavors run from nutty, to malty, to chocolatey...and everywhere in between.