How to make coffeeshop drinks: Tea

May 11

Welcome to another part of an ongoing series of posts about making your own drinks at home! If you’ve been reading along so far, you may have been thinking to yourself “thanks for all the info on coffee, but I’m more of a tea drinker”. Say no more, I’ve got you covered!

Just like with coffee, the first thing you gotta do is choose your tea. This can be trickier than choosing a coffee, because varieties of tea vary much more widely than varieties of coffee. There’s the same scale of “shop sweepings” to “finest hand-picked drinkable gold”, but there’s also big differences in taste — black tea, green tea, yellow tea, white tea, flavored tea, tisanes, rooibos, it’s enough to make the newcomer’s head spin!

If you’re already a tea drinker, you probably know the kinds you like. You may be a “tea only, no spices or flavorings” person (like my dad). You may like your tea super dark, or super light, or heavily flavored, or herbal-only. Or you might like pretty much all kinds of tea (like me). If you’re reading this going “I can’t stand tea at all”, hang in there — I used to be in your shoes. I’ll be writing a post later on how to “learn” to like tea.

So my advice on choosing a tea is similar to my advice on choosing coffee — try things until you find something you like. Ask for recommendations. Try to home in on generalizations about what you like and what you don’t. If you try a few black teas and none of them are very good, maybe black tea isn’t for you. If you really want to be Captain Picard but Earl Grey tea makes you do the whiskey face, maybe you should try unflavored teas. Try the teas offered at Asian restaurants as well as the ones offered at European restaurants. Try some herbal teas (technically “tisanes”, as the actual tea plant is nowhere to be found).

The big divide in tea is loose-leaf vs. bagged. Loose-leaf tea is just that — tea that comes loose in a bag or a tin. You have to measure it yourself and do something with the leaves once the tea is brewed. Tea infusers are great for this, because they make it easy to remove the leaves before they steep too long and get over-bitter. Loose-leaf tea has a better flavor because the tea leaves themselves are as intact as possible, depending on the variety of tea, and the leaves have room to expand fully as they steep, letting out all the delicious tea flavor.

Bagged tea is the kind of tea that comes in tea bags. This tea is often in tinier pieces, and the bag makes it so there’s less room for everything to expand. On the other hand, a tea bag is more portable, easier to store, and can easily be removed from the cup or pot once the tea is done steeping. It’s also easier to find variety packs with bagged tea, giving you lots of options to try.

So what about the different “colors” of tea? As a general rule, the “darker” the tea the more processed it is, from delicate white teas to heavily oxidized black teas. If you want to see how dark tea can go, try some pu-erh — it’s a Chinese tea that brews up as dark as black coffee. Most tea is either black or green, and it’s just a matter of taste what kinds you prefer.

As for flavored tea, my advice here is different from my advice on flavored coffee (i.e., avoid flavored coffee beans). Instead, I suggest leaning toward teas that are flavored by having the actual flavor ingredient added to it, either with plant parts or with oils or what-have-you. Artificially flavored tea is rarely worth it, in my opinion — like with coffee, it’s better to get a non-flavored kind you like and add flavor if you want it. But naturally flavored tea? I’m a sucker for a good jasmine. There’s even tea that’s flavored by its drying process, such as lapsang souchong which is dried over smoking pine needles for a deep smoky flavor (another favorite of mine). Earl Grey is a well-known flavored tea that has bergamot oil (a kind of citrus).

And then there’s the non-tea teas, tisanes and rooibos. These are good if you just don’t like the taste of regular tea, or if you want something that’s caffeine-free. Tisanes are the proper name for herbal teas — they can include all kinds of different herbs and flavors. This means the taste can vary hugely, so make sure you like a particular tisane before you buy a lot of it. Rooibos is an African plant that is used as a substitute for real tea. It has a distinctive flavor of its own, and serves as a good base for various herb blends.

As for storage, that all depends on how the tea is packaged. The more air-tight, the longer it should last. As tea is dried rather than roasted and ground, there’s no “countdown timer” like there is with coffee. Just throw it out when it starts tasting stale to you.