As chilly weather settles over Wisconsin, warming up with a hot drink becomes an excellent way to start themorning, or take a pause during a busy day. There is something special about curling up with a book and a cup of tea on a crisp afternoon, especially when life seems to move so quickly during this time of year. While many of us are comfortably familiar with coffee and hot chocolate, it can feel a bit overwhelming to dive into the world of tea with so many different varieties to choose from. What better way to celebrate the changing of the seasons than to taste different types of tea and discover your favorites! A warm and welcoming mug of tea can be made with just one tablespoon of loose leaves. Although there are countless varieties, all tea is harvested from the same shrubby plant species called Camellia sinensis. Most teas are categorized as either white, black, green, oolong, or Pu-erh. Don’t get intimidated by the thousands of tea cultivars and hybrids —just focus on these main categories, which each have their own distinct and basic characteristics.
In the early springtime, the youngest shoots of the tea plant are collected before the leaf buds fully open. White tea is often called “silver needle,” in reference to the protective white hairs on the unopened buds, which give the dried tea leaves a silvery appearance. After being harvested, these leaf buds are left out to dry in the sun, and then slowly pan-heated to remove any remaining moisture. This delicate tea is best developed when left to steep for about five minutes in water that is not yet boiling; the bitter compounds within the tea are released in water that is too hot, so 170ºF is an excellent temperature to aim for. A soothing cup of white tea has a delicate, floral, and sweet flavor, which is elegantly enhanced with a spoonful of honey or agave nectar. This tea has the least amount of caffeine per cup, and serves as a gentle afternoon pick-me-up without the jitters.
Just as the inside of an apple turns brown after sitting out for too long, moisture within tea leaves reacts with air in a process called oxidization. In contrast to white teas, black tea leaves are fully oxidized, creating a deeper and more complex taste. Harvested tea leaves are thoroughly bruised or rolled to expose the leaves’ moisture to the air before being pan-heated. This process allows leaves to develop a mahogany color, which trickles into the brewed tea as well. Blackteas are best steeped in boiling water, so that all of the flavors can be released from the leaves. A morning cup of black tea will have a robust, bold, and smoky flavor that stands up well against added spices, dried flowers, or milk.
Once tea leaves grow to reach their full size, they are carefully harvested from the tea plant to produce green tea. Tea harvesters are careful not to bruise the leaves, thus preventing oxidization. They are then quickly pan-heated to remove moisture and retain the leaves’ dark green color. Green tea is similar to white tea in its minimal processing. The young buds of white tea, however, provide a more mild flavor, while the maturity of green tea leaves offer a more substantial taste. Just like white tea, green tea should be steeped for about five minutes in water that is below boiling, as to keep your mug of tea from becoming too astringent. Water that is too cold will prevent all of the tea’s flavors from being fully extracted. A steaming mug of green tea has a stimulating, fresh, and earthy flavor. I find that green tea is best savored without any added sweeteners in order to fully appreciate its vibrancy.
Sitting somewhere in between green and black teas, oolong teas have a wide variety of flavors, colors, and scents. A balanced sip of oolong tea begins where mature tea leaves are harvested, then gently bruised as to allow the leaves to only partially oxidize. Leaves are then rapidly heated to halt the oxidization process and retain unique flavors. The partial oxidization of oolong tea gives tea harvesters a broad range of flavor notes to highlight. Additionally, added essential oils merge neatly with oolong teas, which can further accentuate different aromas. These teas can reach a number of tastes, like caramel, fresh fruit, or chocolate. My favorite ceramic mug, handmade by my sister, is often filled with the blossoming warmth of Rishi’s Jade Oolong tea.
Pu-erh tea leaves begin their journey in the same fashion as green tea leaves, where they are picked and quickly pan-heated to prevent the leaves from becoming oxidized. After tea leaves are fully dried, they are tightly packed down into small bricks and aged. By stimulating natural microorganisms to flourish within the tea leaves, the aging process allows the packed tea bricks to ferment. Pu-erh teas can vary greatly in taste due to the differences in aging conditions, the types of microorganisms within the leaves, and the amount of time the tea is left to age. Some have mossy and musky notes, while others are more fruity and sweet. Unlike the others, Pu-erh teas are not too picky about their brewing; you can experiment with your steep temperatures and times to bring out different flavors within the tea. A few sips provide a daydreamy intermission in my day, where I can reflect on the entangled flavors of this aged tea.