In order to more fully appreciate the hundreds of teas available, here are 10 that will serve as guiding lights and points of comparison. As there can be distinction between the same kind of tea at differing levels of quality, it is recommended that you try the same kind of tea from at least 2 different retailers, sources, or different quality grades.
The list includes teas from the main 4 categories of tea: white, green, wulong (or oolong) and black.
1. Silver Needle: this white tea originated in China, although other countries now offer versions of silver needle tea. Silver needle consists of the downy tips that are light green to silvery color.
2. Bai Mu Dan (sometimes Pai Mu Tan, White Peony): White Peony is a bridge between white and green teas. It includes more mature green leaves, silvery tips, and the stems that connect the two.
3. Dragonwell (or Long Jing, Long Ching): This Chinese green is pan-fried and shaped to give it a “grasshopper wing” shape. Fresh long jing has flavors reminiscent of steamed wild rice.
4. Sencha: A Japanese green. Sencha often resembles emerald green sewing needles. A good sencha, when prepared properly, delivers a creamy or brothy coating in the mouth and brings savory hints of seaweed and sweet spinach notes.
5. Li Shan: A Taiwanese oolong with fragrant floral scents. Li Shan usually consists of 2 leaves and a tender bud on a stem that is lovingly rolled into a compact ball resembling a small paper wad.
6. Tie Guan Yin (also Tie Quan Yin or Ti Kuan Yin): While the li shan offers fragrant flower reminders, tie guan yin has a stronger roasted element with a rich woody or smoky touch. TGY resembles li shan in its paper-wad shape, but is distinguishable by its roasted smell and its browner colors compared to li shan’s brighter green leaf.
7. Darjeeling 1st and/or 2nd flush: While this Indian tea is usually classified as a black tea, it bears similarities to some oolongs. 1st flushes deliver fruit notes of grape and some of the briskness of a black tea.
8. Dian Hong comes from Yunnan Province in southwest China. The name of this tea comes from the old name for the Yunnan area and the word for “red”. The term can be broadly used to describe several black teas produced in Yunnan Province. Dian Hongs often steep to deliver a black tea liquid with malty, sometimes chocolate tastes.
9. Keemun: Keemun teas stand as shining examples of Chinese black teas. Several variations exist, most notably keemun mao feng and keemun hao ya, and they offer a range of aromas that extend from chocolate to peach/plum notes.
10. Puer (also pu’ erh): Puer is unique in its processing. While many teas depend on an oxidization process to develop flavor, puers rely on a bacterial process for fermentation (think wine or cheese). The result includes both sheng (i.e. raw) puer and shu (cooked), the latter one known for earthy tastes and a dark, inky brew.
As you begin to taste these teas, don’t forget to make notes on the smells, textures and colors. A journal of this kind will help you immensely when you search for your perfect cup.