Friday, June 6, 2014

Writing Tea 101

Have you thought about writing tea into your story? About having your reader be a perennial tea drinker?

If you're not a huge tea drinker, you might not know all the terms and tidbits. So here's a quick Tea 101 for Writers:

Bags vs sachet vs loose-leaf vs brew-your-own

Tea comes in a variety of presentations.

Tea bags: This is the lowest quality of tea of each tea leaf, being made of the smaller bits and pieces and dust of tea. That doesn't mean tea in tea bags is bad, and some brands are consistently excellent. It might be very good dust. It's the cheapest way to buy tea, and very convenient to prepare. The tea bags are usually flat, and can be round or square, have paper tags with strings to pull them out of the tea or lack strings and require rescuing with a fork. Even most picky tea drinkers will drink bagged tea if they don't have time for other forms, or if it's all that's available; there really are some very nice bagged teas, and it's convenient. I'd say the majority of American tea drinkers go with regular tea bags most to all the time. If your character is a casual tea drinker, give her bagged tea. Lipton and Bigelow (which have a variety of flavors) are the brands I most often find served in restaurants in the American South), with Numi a higher-end common brand (organic, and also often served at places going green). Few places serve more than one brand of tea.

Tea sachets: These look like tea bags, except that the teas tend to be whole-leaf: that is, instead of being the odds and ends of tea leaves, the entire tea leaf is in the bag, which gives a slightly higher quality of flavor. The sachets are also built with slightly more room for tea leaves to expand (i.e., they're bigger, and often pyramid-shaped, capable of standing on their own). Equally convenient, but slightly more expensive. Picky tea drinkers will usually drink these teas if offered the choice between sachets and tea bags, or if in a hurry, because convenience. The tea is usually higher-quality, and is often on par with mid-quality loose leaf tea. Occasionally companies will offer high-end teas in sachets, too. Like tea bags, sachets offer little to no cleanup.  "Two Leaves and a Bud" is the most common tea sachet I see served, although the Lipton sachets are growing more popular.

Loose leaf: This is tea that is served in a giant tin, and put into a tea bag, a tea ball, or a tea strainer for steeping. Or they can also be prepared with a variety of devices, or added straight to the pot and then the tea poured through a small sieve during serving so the drinker only gets tea. Loose leaf teas aren't necessarily the cream of the crop (they range from dirt-cheap to amazing), but the highest quality teas are usually sold only loose leaf, and most teas served loose leaf are good quality (if not necessarily to the tea drinker's taste). They're not locked into tea bags or sachets, so serving size isn't limited; this makes them ideal for brewing larger pots of tea (those using tea bags or sachets will put more than one bag into the pot instead). 

Loose leaf teas are usually preferred by picky tea drinkers, but this presentation requires more cleanup, as additional implements are required. Usually small bits of tea leaf end up in the tea. Experienced tea drinkers are likely to enjoy loose leaf tea, and most serious tea drinkers prefer loose leaf tea, but black teas are almost never served loose leaf in restaurants. Picky tea-drinkers may only drink loose leaf at home, or loose leaf with very select tea sachets. High-end Asian restaurants may serve loose-leaf-brewed green tea, but only occasionally will you get the portion with the leaves; Indian restaurants may serve loose-leaf-brewed spice or milk teas, but again, you're not likely to get any of the leaves used in the brewing.

Make-your-own: For the true tea aficionado, mixing her own tea will invariably come onto her bucket list. She may or may not regularly make her own tea, but it's probably something she's looked into. This may take the form of going to a tea blending shop and asking for a custom blend (many local tea shops will offer this option), or finding all-natural ingredients, preparing, and mixing them herself. (Angela Quarles does this--check out her blog for more on how.) Healthy-living lifestylists will also frequently make their own tea, and those who are interested in homeopathy. They may or may not include tea leaves in their blends (teas made without tea leaves, or herbal teas, are technically called tisanes). Make-your-own is inevitably a loose-leaf tea.

Types of tea

Tea comes in a variety of types. Any of these can be flavored with spices, flowers, fruits, etc.

White: This tea is completely unfermented. It brews a very, very pale yellow color. Brews at about 180F, for 2-5 minutes. Has a tendency to become bitter when steeped longer. I don't know anyone who prefers bitter white tea, although there's probably someone, somewhere, who does.

Green: like what you find in an Asian restaurant. It shades from a light green (powdered matcha, for which the tea leaves are powdered and mixed into the drink) to a pale gold (most types of green tea). Brews at about 170F, for 45 seconds-2 minutes, or left in the pot. Has a tendency to become bitter when steeped long. Some people prefer this.

Black: A fully fermented tea. Like what you find in most sweet teas, black iced teas, and "English" teas. It's fermented and contains caffeine. Brews at 190F for 3-5 minutes. Has a tendency to become bitter when steeped longer. Some people prefer this.

Oolong: Oxidized tea. You have to go looking for this tea; it's almost never offered at restaurants. But it's very good, and easy to find in tea-specific stores. It's closest to green tea, a light gold color, with a touch of the flavor of black tea. Brewed at 195F for 2-4 minutes. Characters of Chinese descent, experienced tea drinkers, and characters who are interested in health (high levels of antioxidants). 

Rooibos tea, aka "red tea" in America, without
milk or sugar.
Red/rooibos: made from the South African "red bush" plant, this tea is not caffeinated (at least not by the rooibos). Like herbal tea, it doesn't have any leaves of the tea plant, and depending on source may be linked with herbal teas or regular teas (since it does have a standard plant that goes into it). It has a different flavor than the tea leaf used for white, green, or black teas, since it's not from the same plant. (I personally prefer it prepared with milk and sugar, whereas I prefer white, green, and black teas plain).

Pu-erh: Fermented and oxidized tea. Sometimes called "the diet tea" because it's supposed to be good for weight loss (unsubstantiated in humans). It's sold in "bricks" of compressed leaves dried together that you can break off pieces and use as loose-leaf tea. Has a smokey flavor; somewhat similar to American black tea. Not a well-known tea in America, but an experienced tea drinker or a character on a diet might have some. Tea collectors or wealthy characters might have a very old brick of tea (10 years to over 100 years old). Brewed at 195-205F for 2-3 minutes.

Herbal: Not really tea because it doesn't contain actual leaves of the tea plant, it's a combination of spices, fruits, and herbs. Herbal teas have the most variety, since there are no hard-and-fast rules on what goes into them. People who are avoiding caffeine often drink herbal teas. Herbal teas are often also used for homeopathic medicine, or for simple wellness reasons, such as using ginger teas to settle the stomach, lavender tea to relax before bed, or fruit tea just to wean oneself off soda with a tasty but healthier alternative. Brewed at 212F-boiling for 4-5 minutes, but doesn't become bitter, so can continue to steep as long as desired.

Yerba Mate: (pronounced mah-te): Also contains no tea plant leaves, mate is instead made with leaves from the South American holly plant. It contains as much caffeine as coffee, so a non-coffee-drinking character who needs an extra boost might reach for some of this instead of soda or an energy drink. Also thought to promote weight loss and thought to have a couple of homeopathic benefits, but also has small amounts of some carcinogens (not thought to be dangerous when drunk in moderation). Brewed at 208F for 4-6 minutes.

Chai tea: Or more properly, Masala chai, but most Americans call it "chai tea." (This is a bit redundant, as "chai" literally means "tea.") A blend of spices (cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, ginger, and black pepper) and (usually) black tea, often prepared with sugar and milk. Originated from India. A character looking for something sweet and spicy might be drinking go for this ("chai latte" is what they might order in a coffee shop, and in most good coffee shops that will contain no coffee).

Numi Flowering teas, fully bloomed.
Blooming/flowering teas: Usually green or white teas with floral flavorings. Blooming teas are balls of tea leaves (and often flower petals) tied up and dried in balls, about the size of a largish marble. They're usually brewed in clear teapots, because the point of them is to watch the tea "bloom" as it opens; the tea is tied in a flower-like pattern. Not common and usually more expensive due to the artistry involved. Might be used by an experienced tea drinker, someone who is into meditation or zen, or someone looking to impress. Would not be available in most restaurants. A character who isn't into tea might think it looks unattractive or even frightening, since it's a bit unusual in appearance.

Stay tuned for Tea 102.


  1. A point to note- A South African character would not drink rooibos for fun. They drink it when they're sick and the taste is associated in their minds the way cough syrup is associated in ours.

    1. Great point! And you know, I hadn't known that yet. Thanks! That's the kind of detail that makes a story rock. ;)