Milk and sugar? Please. The real question you should be asking before you pinky up to a cup of mystery tea is, "What's the oxidation level on this guy?"
Welcome to the aromatic and alluring world of tea. All tea comes from Camellia sinensis, a stubby evergreen shrub with glossy green leaves, and what makes that into toasty green teas, tannic black teas and funky pu-erhs lies in a rather complicated production process.
But don't worry—this primer on the essential tea styles won't be as dry and dusty as the contents of your tea bag. We've tapped L'Espalier's tea sommelier, Cynthia Gold, to help us break down six major tea styles, plus we're sharing recommendations from her favorite tea suppliers. Steep this way:
① White Tea
Delicately sweet and a wan yellow hue, this specialty brew from China's Fujian region is nearly untouched, production-wise. The leaves, and sometimes silver-haired buds (hence the name), are picked, then withered—that's tea talk for rested so they wilt—and dried gently in the sun or an oven. Unlike the teas listed below, white tea is not oxidized. "Oxidation is the result of the enzyme reaction when the interior of the cell is exposed to air," Gold explains. "It's similar to when a cut apple turns brown." Oxidation browns the leaves, building up brisk, bold tea flavors, a deep body and a musty aroma. White tea, though, is perfect for the tannins-averse.
Steep this: Imperial Tea Court Everyday White (starting at $20)
② Green/Yellow Tea
Bittersweet matcha, potent gunpowder, floral jasmine and sorghum-speckled genmaicha—these are all part of the vast green tea canon. To make green tea, the leaves are plucked, withered and rolled up, which slightly bruises and oxidizes the leaves. They're then heated to stop the oxidation—either steamed in the Japanese tradition, which lends a more vegetal taste, or pan-fired, Chinese style, for a smokier effect. Yellow tea goes through nearly the same process, except the leaves are sweltered, or warmed under a wet cloth, before being bundled up. This sweet and aromatic brew can be harder to find, since it's time consuming and labor intensive to produce, but it's worth seeking out if you can.
Steep this: SerendipiTea Hojicha (starting at $10)
③ Oolong Tea
"I still can't get over the complex and enticing aromatics of a good cup of oolong," Gold says. "There's no place in the world that I'd rather be than standing in the middle of a healthy tea field." Like green tea, Fujian's famed brew goes through a process of harvesting, withering, bruising, rolling (either into small, curled bales or tiny beads) and firing. However, the key differences lie in a longer oxidation period and another firing at the end. The extra steps impart a more honeyed flavor and woody, roasted notes.
Steep this: Imperial Tea Court Monkey Picked Tie Guan Yin (starting at $20)
④ Black Tea
Who doesn't love a good, inky black tea? The previous teas have zeroed in on Chinese and Japanese styles, but black tea crops up all over Asia, from fruity Darjeeling in India and Ceylon in Sri Lanka to peppery Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan. The leaves are plucked, withered, bruised and then fully oxidized. Once the breakdown is complete, the leaves are heated, dried and vacuum sealed until they're shipped out., You'll recognize the teatime stalwarts, mixed with other ingredients: The addition of bergamot oil creates Earl Grey, and a blend of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon makes English breakfast tea.
Steep this: Upton Tea Imports Basic Darjeeling Sampler ($20)
⑤ Postfermented Tea
Instead of the usual picking-withering-firing deal, this brew is processed more like compost than tea. The leaves are piled up and left slightly wet, allowing for some oxidation. Most of these teas hit the market as partially oxidized green- or oolong-like teas, then sit fermenting for months at a time, which mellows the tea's bitter flavor into something funky, rich and smooth. Yunnan's pu-erh is the most common type of fermented tea, and it usually arrives in compact blocks or thick discs. The best way to pry it open is with a tea knife (or letter opener, in a pinch)—poke several holes into the corners and jiggle the knife side to side as you take it out to loosen the leaves without tearing them.
Steep this: Norbu Tea Company 1990's CNNP Green Mark Sheng Pu-Erh Tea ($27)
Technically, not a tea. "The word 'tea' evolved from the Chinese cha, which was certainly only referring to Camellia sinensis," Gold explains. "It is simply the definition of what tea is." Blends like chamomile, rooibos, tisanes or basically any herbs, flower or spice packets made without that all-important Camellia sinensis aren't a tea, and they don't undergo the same processing. However, these herbal blends are important to note as caffeine-less alternatives, and without all the production fuss, they're easy to make on your own, as Eleven Madison Park's Chris Day notes in our tisane guide.
Steep this: SerendipiTea Tisane Sampler ($40)