Learn About Tea

Good tea is a great bargain. At some 200 cups to the pound, a $20.00 per pound tea costs only 10 cents per cup. Many cost less. Compare this to even an inexpensive glass of wine and the point is obvious: you can experience the finest tea in the world for a pittance.

Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. In the U.S. very little is known about it and many of the best and most interesting varieties await discovery. A considerable range of tastes is available to the tea drinker, due not only to natural conditions, but also to regional preferences. To start you will need to understand some basics.

There is but one tea plant, camellia sinensis, a member of the floral camellia family. As soil and climatic conditions change the taste qualities of the tea vary. The bushes are grown in tended plantations or "gardens" and pruned to a height of about 4 feet so they can be easily plucked; if left to grow wild they could reach a height of 30 feet. Beginning with the first mature growths, the bush is harvested every few weeks when the picker takes "two leafs and a bud" from each of the newly sprouted shoots. These recurring harvests are called flushes.

A wooden tea chest arriving at our plant.

Tea Processing

What is done with the tea leaves after harvesting is critical to the category of tea being produced and the qualities it will possess. There are three main categories of tea manufactured:

BLACK TEA - The originally green leaves are made to turn black by withering (wilting), rolling (to release enzymes), fermenting (to turn dark and develop taste characteristics) and firing (to end fermentation). Black tea is fully fermented. The resulting liquors vary from red-orange to red-brown and many can be had with milk, especially those with the most body. 97% of all tea imported into the U.S. is black tea. Black teas are produced throughout the world lead by India, China and Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

GREEN TEA - No fermentation, hence no chemical change takes place. Withering may or may not be done based on the producer's preference; panfrying or steaming is done to prevent fermentation, with the former being the dominant method. Then rolling and firing are alternated until drying is complete. The liquor is light, pale greenish-yellow and often possesses considerable body. Green tea is widely consumed in the Orient and produced notably by Japan and China. Recent health claims have stimulated the sale of green tea.

OOLONG - A partially fermented tea. The process includes withering, basket shaking to bruise leaf edges, a brief fermentating cycle and firing. The leaves are greenish-brown and produce an amber colored brew. Oolong is often called the champagne of tea. Though produced in quantity in China, the best varieties are said to come from Taiwan (Formosa).

Other, scarcer types such as White and Yellow teas are variations of Green tea. Fruit Teas (Tisanes) are not really tea at all but are beverages made from dried fruit, flowers and flavors. Herbal tea, likewise, are not true tea. You can make new and interesting combinations to your liking using any of the above.

Grading

Done mainly by size rather than quality. Grading terminology can be, at best, confusing. There are varying whole leaf sizes and as the leaves are handled (as in black tea manufacture) they break into various sizes. In order to have consistent brewing properties, the leaves and fragments need to be sorted. Though biggest does not mean best, there is an implication that better handling and care may have been given. While there is no international standard, the following grading terms apply to most countries and black tea only.

In addition, letter abbreviations are often used to help describe and embellish better grades of tea. Teas are said to be Fancy (F), indicating excellent appearance, or Tippy (T), if they show a lot of yellow-gold particles among the black; this latter is the evidence of newly formed leaf buds. Sometimes Golden (G) is used to describe a leaf color quality. In short, it can be a challenge to decipher the meaning of some of the more elaborate letter designations. For example, FTGFOP1 denotes Fancy Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe grade number 1.

At Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea, we have brought together an exemplary assortment of fine teas to satisfy both the serious tea fancier and the casual sipper. Our search for tea is ongoing, as is our pursuit of the best coffee to roast. At all times we seek to have a broad representation of Chinese, Indian and Ceylonese teas. Some of the more famous examples are discussed herein, though this is not intended to suggest our complete tea offering.

Willoughby's Own Tea Blends:

English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast and Russian Caravan are blended on the premises. We use our premium teas to interpret these classic favorites. Breakfast teas are heavily bodied and can stand up to the addition of milk. Our Russian Caravan is a touch more delicate and floral, but milk can be added.

Willoughby’s selection includes numerous flavored teas such as Earl Grey, scented with bergamot oil (an Oriental citrus fruit), as well as sought after tastes such as Black Currant, Apricot, Vanilla and others.

Tea Storage & Brewing

Tea, when properly stored, can last a long time. The best way to keep it is at room temperature, in a dark, sealed container such as a tin. Tea is very susceptible to absorbing the strong odors of some foods; it is more a case of letting other taste elements in than losing tea's own to the air.

Brewing Tea

The starting point for brewing is one level teaspoon per 6 ounces of water. 200 cups per pound equals 2.3 grams per cup, but not all teas require exactly the same strength. Start with the one teaspoon method and vary to taste. Let cold water run so it is not flat, bring it to a rolling boil and pour immediately over the leaves. Ideal steeping time is 3 minutes; beyond that more caffeine and tannin are released. If the strength is not correct at 3 minutes adjust the amount of tea used the next time you brew. Don’t judge correct strength by the color of the brew but rather by proper measurement and time.

Glazed and other non porous tea pots are best. Willoughby’s carries a full line of domestic and imported ceramic tea pots in a variety of sizes. Preheat the tea pot and mugs with hot water just prior to brewing. Any infusers or strainers should be large enough so that the leaves may fully expand for complete extraction. And most importantly, enjoy yourself.

Grades

Leaf grades (from largest to smallest):
Souchong - Bold round leaves yield pale liquor
Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) - some countries only, good liquor color and tip
Pekoe - Short, wide leaf. Liquor has much color
Orange Pekoe (OP) - Thin, wiry. Paler brew than Pekoe

Broken grades:
Broken Pekoe Souchong (BPS) - Pale, often used as filler
Broken Pekoe (BP) - More color than BPS; also filler
Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) - Often contains tip and yields liquors with good color; in much demand in blends
Fannings - for quick infusion. Used in tea bags
Dust (D) - The smallest grade produced; used in inexpensive tea bags