April 30, 2019

The Scoop on Black Tea

While all black teas are made from the fully oxidized leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, all black teas are not the same. There are many types of black tea. They look and taste different. If you read my Q&A with The Daily Tea you'd know that the first tea of my day is a black tea so I spend a lot of time thinking about this type of tea. Here I share my notes on black tea with you.

How is black tea made?

To make black tea, the tea leaves must be completely oxidized. The typical process includes the following steps: plucking, withering, rolling, oxidation, drying, and sorting. Rolling breaks down the cells within the leaves and exposes them to oxygen which triggers the oxidation process. Oxidation times vary and the length of oxidation influences the aromatic profile of the tea. Once the leaves have been oxidized to meet the tea master's criteria, they are dried to stabilize the tea.

Where is black tea produced are the black tea producing countries?

This questions is not simply one of geography. It is also central to figuring out the different types of black tea. Since all (black) tea is produced from Camellia sinensis, theoretically, black tea can be produced wherever C. sinensis is grown. The top 10 tea producing countries are China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, Myanmar, Iran, and Bangladesh. I'll focus on the black teas produced in China, India, and Sri Lanka. The variety among the countries is the result of many factors including processing, variety, harvest period or flush, and altitude.


When I think of Chinese black tea (or red tea/hong cha as this tea style is known in China), the following teas come to mind.
  • Keemun (Qimen) (Anhui) - a thinly twisted, tippy tea made from leaves with notes of fruit, smoke, and cocoa
  • Yunnan Black Tea aka Dian Hong - a twisted, golden tea made from buds only or a mix of leaves and buds with sweet, wood, and fruit notes
  • Jin Jun Mei (Fujian) - a very expensive bud only tea with floral, fruit, and chocolate notes
Lapsang Souchong is another Chinese black tea I like, and highly recommend this one. My other favorite is no longer available.


My favorite Indian black teas are from Assam and Darjeeling. Indian and other South Asian black teas are graded by the integrity of the tea leaves ranging from broken leaves which are used in tea bags to whole leaves (Broken Orange Pekoe to Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) to whole leaves and buds (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe to Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe). In addition to grades, Darjeeling teas are also categorized by time of harvest or flush. First flush teas are made from an unopened leaf bud and two young open leaves. Second flush teas are made later in the season with a medium pluck of older leaves and leaf buds. Other harvests are the Monsoon and Autumnal flushes.
  • Assam - this type of black tea typically malty, fruity, and sweet; the highest quality Assam are bud only teas
  • Darjeeling, first flush - the loosely rolled leaves of this tea are not fully oxidized (so is it technically not a black tea?) yielding grassy (hay) and floral notes
  • Darjeeling, second flush - the defining flavor of this tea is muscatel


Like India, Sri Lanka also grades its black teas. Sri Lankan black teas are further distinguished by altitude similar to Taiwanese teas. In general, high grown teas are delicate while low grown teas are more robust in body and flavor.
  • Low grown teas (below 2000 feet) - Ruhuba and Sambaragamuwa
  • Mid altitude teas  (2000-4000 feet) - Kandy 
  • High grown teas (4000-6000 feet) - Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Uva, and Uda Passellawa

How do you drink black tea?

The most convenient way to drink black tea is to steep a tea bag in a cup. One tea bag to 6-8 ounces of boiling water. Tea bags vary in quality of the leaves and the bag itself. You can find non-plastic tea bags filled whole leaf tea. Go the extra mile and look for biodegradable tea bags. Better yet are compostable bags. You can move towards a zero waste tea life by composting your tea leaves and bags.

If you prefer to use loose leaf tea, you can prepare your black tea Western style (low leaf weight, high water volume, long steep time) or gongfu style (high leaf weight, low water volume, short steep time). Here are some general numbers.


One heaping teaspoon of tea (2 to 3 grams) to one cup of water (6-8 ounces or 250 ml) is a general rule of thumb. Steep for three to five minutes depending on the tea. I steep two teaspoons of loose leaf in 250 ml of boiling water for three minutes and 30 seconds.


A small steeping vessel for gongfu holds 200 ml or less of water. My smallest teapot holds 70 ml of water. To determine the amount of tea you need, use the one gram to 15 ml ratio. After rinsing your leaves, start with a short steep time then increase the infusion time to experience the evolution in flavor. You can use a gaiwan too. Read my guide to gong fu tea for step-by-step instructions.


If you have multiple black teas you can compare them using professional tasting sets. Read my guide to drinking Darjeeling tea for complete instructions on cupping teas.

What food pairs well with black tea?

My tea amigos and I set out to answer this question in our Tea Pairing 101 focused on black tea. The answer is finger sandwiches! My favorite tea and sandwich combination in the Black Tea and Finger Sandwich pairing challenge was Lapsang Souchong (Joseph Wesley) + Cheddar Cheese (Bosie Tea Parlor). A pairing of finger sandwiches and black tea makes sense when you consider that both are the backbone of afternoon tea.

This is not a comprehensive guide to black tea so I'd love to hear from you what I should include in version 2.0.

April 25, 2019

Zero Waste Lifestyle with Tea

Pickers on an organic tea plantation in Sri Lanka, photo by Dennis Keller

This post was sparked by a few events. One, April is Earth Month so I've been thinking more about reducing my impact on the environment and nature. Two, I attended a film screening with a moderated panel that included Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers fame. Me and my family don't live a zero waste lifestyle but as Lauren encourages, zero waste living "doesn't happen overnight". I am inspired by her to start with one action and in my case, given the amount of tea I drink, it makes sense to reduce the footprint of my tea habit.

Here's what I've been doing and would like to do to achieve a zero waste lifestyle with tea:


I jumped right into composting as soon as my building launched its composting program. Actually, I used to compost in my old building by saving and freezing my scraps then depositing them at a collection site in Union Square. When that became inconvenient, I stopped composting. I'm so happy my current building provides a convenient way to compost food scraps. I compost all my tea leaves.


You don't need to purchase anything to do this. You probably have a mason jar or water bottle or a tea thermos in your cupboard. Make tea at home and bring it with you. For safety purposes, I would let the tea cool before adding it your container and traveling with it, unless you have a tea thermos that's designed to hold boiling hot liquids. If you don't want to make your own tea or travel with it, or you get a craving for a cup of tea at work or otherwise away from home, travel with your own cup. Again, this could be a mason jar. You might want to outfit it with a heatproof sleeve and a drinking lid. A small tea thermos works too. If you want to invest in a to-go coffee cup, I've heard good things about KeepCup (disclaimer: I gifted one to a family member).

If you do none of these at the every least, say no to plastic straws when you order drinks.


Of course tea requires water. How on earth would you infuse the leaves otherwise?! But I limit the amount of water I use for non-steeping purposes. When I rinse my dry leaves, I barely cover them with hot water. When I ceremonially clean and warm my teaware, again I use much less water than is used in a tradtional gongfu cha ceremony or session.


I've been known to collect my prettier tea tins. Some of these tins are stored in a closet but some are actually repurposed in my home. I have also donated tins to a local nursery school to be used in a play kitchen. 


Ask your tea purveyors to use non-plastic packaging. If they can use compostable materials -- and you practice composting -- or recyclable materials accepted by your community's recycling program, even better. Re-use whatever packaging you can.


Unless you live in a tea-producing region, your tea is not produced locally. Most of the tea I have in my cupboard was shipped to me. Even my local purchases were shipped to my local tea shops. However, a benefit of buying locally is the reduction in the number of times the tea is shipped. Another, you could provide ask your local tea shop to fill your re-useable container with their tea. Save your tea tins or other re-useable tea packaging.


This is a big one, and honestly, I don't know how to tackle it. If I am truly committed to a zero waste lifestyle with tea and with low-impact living in general, I need to think about the source of the food, drink, and other items that enter my life. I should commit to only drinking tea whose production from seed to leaf aligns with my environmental and social ethics. I should commit to asking tea companies that provide teas for review for sourcing provenance information. I should commit to asking tea shops in which I buy my teas for sourcing information. I should commit to refusing to accept or buy teas that don't come with information about how and who grew and produced them. This will probably mean I will drink less tea by amount and from different regions and producers.

I'd love to hear from you about your low-impact approach to tea drinking. Share your ideas for a zero waste lifestyle with tea in the comments.

March 18, 2019

Gong Fu Tea

Simplify your approach to the gong fu tea ceremony. Go with my streamlined flow and you'll be serving gong fu cha in under 10 steps.

The Meaning of Gong Fu

If gong fu sounds like kung fu that's because the terms are one and the same. Kung fu is the Wade Giles spelling and gong fu is the Pinyin spelling of a Chinese martial art. Gong fu/kung fu means to exhibit mastery through hard work. What does gong fu mean in the context of tea? Delmas and Minet say it is “infusing tea systematically and diligently.”

The First Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

The gong fu tea ceremony emerged in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Gascoyne et al. note the earliest reference to the ceremony dates to early 17th century China. A paper by the O-Cha Tea Festival claims that the gong fu cha ceremony was developed specifically to prepare oolong tea. These two ideas about gong fu tea ceremony make sense in light of the fact that loose leaf was a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) innovation. Much of my experiences with gong fu cha has been with oolong. Oolong (and of course, puerh) is ideally prepared in multiple short infusions, the essence of the gong fu tea ceremony.

Teaware for a Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

The basic tools of a gong fu tea ceremony are:
  • Yixing teapot (or gaiwan)
  • A tray that drains water away from the serving area
  • A dish to display your dry tea leaves
  • A sharing vessel
  • Drinking cups
  • A strainer if you are steeping puerh

Steps of the Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

When I first witnessed a formal gong fu tea ceremony I found it quite complex. Honestly, I still find a proper gong fu tea ceremony intimidating. However, it is a beautiful process to watch and in which to participate. I've boiled down the ceremony to this gentle sequence.
  1. Gather your teaware and place them on a tray.
  2. Warm and cleanse your teapot with hot water. Pour out this water but don’t waste it. Cool it to room temperature to water your plants.
  3. Pour hot water into your sharing vessel. Pour this water into the drinking cups. Pour out excess water from the sharing vessel but don’t waste it.
  4. Add your tea leaves to the now empty teapot (consider a 1:15/20 leaf to water ratio). With the lid in place, shake the teapot. Smell the leaves. (Take moments to inhale deeply.)
  5. Pour water hot water (temperature appropriate for tea you are serving) unto the leaves in your teapot then put on the lid. Pour water over the lid and pot. While the leaves are steeping, discard the water in the drinking cups.
  6. Pour the liquor into the sharing vessel then pour the tea into the drinking cups.
  7. Repeat steps 5-6 until your tea leaves have been spent. 

If you’d like to use a gaiwan to prepare your tea, read my post about How to Brew Puerh Tea. If you select a Taiwanese oolong, you may want to add an aroma cup to your gong fu tea ceremony to further appreciate the scents of the liquor.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with gong fu tea -- share them in the comments.

February 14, 2019

Books that Inspired Tea Book Authors with Alexis Siemons

This review series brings you the books that have influenced some of my favorite tea book authors. Alexis Siemons is today's guest. Alexis is a tea consultant and writer, recipe developer, and photographer. Her latest publication is with tea journal ii.

with tea journal 1 is part of my cookbook collection. It is an elegantly designed recipe book. The recipes were created for the summer season. The ingredients are seasonal such as basil, mint and peas. The sips are cooling. Even the savories are refreshing with the focus on jasmine green tea. Alexis opens the recipe book with a story of her relationship with cookbooks and markets. She writes about her approach to using tea in cooking: "Throughout the years, I have coaxed out astringent flavors to cut through the fat of a whipped heavy cream, sprinkled steeped leaves on fresh salads as an unexpected garnish, ground the dry leaves to whisk into breads alongside flour, and subbed it in for water to brighten up a standard grain of rice." The recipes in with tea journal 1 rely on many of these techniques. The meat of the cookbook isn't a dry set of instructions. Alexis peppers the journal with stories about individual ingredients or about her first taste of a particular dish. One of my favorite recipes by Alexis is not included in this journal. It is Lapsang Souchong Tea-smoked Pickled Cauliflower. These pickles are incredibly flavor. I highly recommend this recipe.

Here are the writers and books that have influenced Alexis Siemons on her and tea and culinary journey.

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

The style of this narrative cookbook inspired me to incorporate introductions to each recipe that lasted longer than a brief introductory headnote. She was also able to weave practical elements into such beautiful prose.

Ruth Reichl 

All books by Ruth Reichl.  Her tone and style of writing have always spoken directly to my soul. I have yet to find another writer who paints such alluring, evocative pictures that transport your state of mind and all of your senses.

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto edited by Joan Reardon

This book is quite influential for two reasons. One, I like to reach back in time to words from another era as I am an old soul. Two, as I worked to create two mini journals I was always inspired by the process/attention to detail that Julia had as she created her masterpiece.

Thank you Alexis for sharing your writerly inspirations with us.

What are the books that have influenced your tea journey? Share them in the comments.

Image sources: An Everlasting Meal // As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto

January 31, 2019

Tea Cupping Three Tillerman Wenshan Baozhong

I am having so much fun writing about tea preparation! So far I've shared a post about brewing shou puerh in a gaiwan and steeping Darjeeling in a professional cupping set. Today's post features the professional cupping set again but this time I used the tea cupping set to compare three Wenshan Baozhong oolong teas.


The Wenshan Baozhongs are courtesy of Tillerman Tea: Wenshan Bao Zhong Winter 2018 (farmer Weng Wan Dashi), Spring 2018 (Wong One Dashi), and Spring 2017 (Wang Han Yang Dashi). Read my review of the Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong and review of the Spring 2017 Wenshan Bao Zhong. Wenshan Baozhong also known as pouchong is a twisted Taiwanese green oolong. Baozhong teas are lightly oxidized anywhere from 10% to 15%. Their provenance is northern Taiwan in Taipei and Pinglin. The best harvest is spring and the resounding aspect of this tea is its floral aroma.


The professional cupping set was designed to compare Indian black teas but it has been used to evaluate similarities and difference among other types and styles of tea. For this tea cupping of oolongs, I steeped 3 grams of tea in 195F water for 3 minutes. After measuring the leaves of each tea, I placed them in the lidded cup then poured hot water to overflowing then replaced the lid. At the end of the steep time, I poured the tea into each drinking cup starting with the first cup to receive hot water.

Related - Tea Cupping - Three Chinese Spring 2016 Green Teas from TeaVivre

Before I even steeped the leaves I evaluated the dry leaf color and smell. I made notes about color and smell.
  • Winter 2018  Wenshan Bao Zhong - vibrant dark green leaves, no stems, floral and woody scents
  • Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong - duller dark green and brown leaves, stems, floral and buttery scents
  • Spring 2017 Wenshan Bao Zhong - similar leaf to the Spring 2018, woody and fruity scents

After pouring the each liquor into its respective drinking cup, one can smell the infused leaves to gauge consistency between these and the dry leaf. I did not. The floral steam coming off the Winter 2018 diverted my attention. Next one evaluates the color and taste of the liquor.
  • Winter 2018  Wenshan Bao Zhong - lively green-yellow liquor, floral, heady, buttery, thick (now imagine I had typed these words in caps!)
  • Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong - tending more yellow in color, also thick and buttery but the floral is significantly less unbridled than the Winter 2018
  • Spring 2017 Wenshan Bao Zhong - almost apricot colored liquor, medium-bodied, smooth, Baimudan-esque, fruity
You can resteep the leaves by adding 30 seconds to the initial steep time. The second infusion of the Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong was delightfully floral.

I did not evaluate the infused leaves as I was too busy slurping all the cups of oolong. By the time I had turned my attention, and camera, back to the wet leaves much of that immediate sensory information had evaporated.

Related - Tea Cupping - Tasting Two Oriental Beauty Oolongs


It's definitely worth reading my original reviews of the Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong and the Spring 2017 Wenshan Bao Zhong. I stored both teas well but their profiles have changed since I first drank them. I enjoyed both teas then and now. However, my favorite of the trio presented here is the Winter 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong. It's fresh and bursting with classic bao zhong flavors and texture.

All three teas in this post were provided by Tillerman Tea for review.
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