A Beginner’s Guide To Tea

The most common tea questions (when you are new to it) answered

Pouring plain black tea from a teapot into a cup

Did you know that tea is the world’s second most popular drink (right after water)?
But at the same time, there is so much to tea, that sometimes it might seem too complicated.
For example, you may what’s the difference between its many sorts…
Or maybe you just want to know the basics to prepare tea properly…

If that’s you, you’ve come to the right place!
In this -to-understand article you will learn all these basic questions about tea so that you can truly ENJOY it from the beginning!

What is tea?

Tea plantation and close-up from tea plant leaves

The word “tea” is often used to designate any type of drink that is made by infusing a plant in water, but strictly speaking, in the tea world, “tea” refers only to brewed from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.

Types of tea

Infographic about different types of tea

So, while generally speaking there are three categories of “tea”, only the third category in the list below (real tea) is truly tea:

  1. herbal tea (tisane)
  2. flavored teas (blends)
  3. real teas (from Camellia sinensis)

Here is what you can expect from each group:

Herbal tea

Herbal tea is the name for everything that is made without real tea plant.
Popular examples are mint tea or chamomile. Rooibos tea or mate are also herbal tea.
Herbal tea can be made from leaves, roots, flowers and other parts of plants that aren’t Camellia sinensis.
So, these “teas” aren’t real tea but tisanes.

Four different blends of flavored teas

Flavored teas

This category goes for any kind of combination of true tea with spices, herbs, flowers, fruits or any other kind of flavoring that add nuances to the teas.
Earl Grey (black tea with bergamot oil) and chai (black tea with masala spices) are examples of well-known flavored tea blends.

Real tea

All kind of tea that come from the leaves of Camellia sinensis is real tea.
Most lists say there are 5 types of real tea; 6 when counting yellow tea (which is quite rare out of China):

  • white tea
  • green tea
  • yellow tea
  • oolong
  • black tea
  • pu-ehr

There is a seventh type of tea known as purple tea, which is also prepared from the same plant but has purple leaves due to a genetic mutation.
All these tea types are made with the same plant (Camellia sinensis): the difference between them (for example, between green tea and black tea) lies in how the the tea leaves are processed.

Questions about a specific type of tea? This cheat sheet come in handy!:

Your go-to guide for
TEA SORTS

Do you want to know how to prepare a specific type of tea? Try looking for it in this list (it has more than 70 sorts of tea!)

What’s the difference between green und black tea?

One of the most common questions when people want to begin drinking tea is which one to choose: green or black tea.
As we just mentioned, both are made from the same plant (Camellia Sinensis).
But black tea get a treatment (oxidation) so it gets a different look, flavor, and other characteristics than green tea.
The result is that while both are share antioxidant properties and caffeine, they taste different:

  • black tea usually taste more robust and “strong”
  • green tea has a more “vegetal” and raw taste

That’s why green tea is usually served as is (without milk nor sugar), while black tea is commonly drunk with milk and sugar or with a drops of lemon juice.

Regarding nutritional benefits, all tea types are known for being healthy, but non-oxidized varieties (white and green tea) appear to have more of antioxidant effects than oxidized ones like black tea.
This might be why there is more research on green tea than other types of tea though.

Further info for curious minds
What exactly makes green tea and black tea different? A word about Oxidation
Images of different types of real tea

The most determinant procedure in tea processing is called oxidation, and it includes the drying, rolling, and heating of the leaves.
This transforms the green tea leaf into a variety of shades of green to brown and black:

  • Black teas are fully oxidized, turning the leaves black and raising the caffeine content.
  • Green and white teas are not oxidized. This means, they are the less processed tea types, keeping more of tea’s original flavor and antioxidant levels.
  • Oolong tea get an oxidation level between that of green and black tea. Yellow tea (quite uncommon outside of China) is also partially oxidized.
  • Pu-erh tea is processed in a similar way as green tea. The difference is that once dry, pu-ehr is fermented and aged for several months (sometimes even years in the case of raw pu-ehr).

How much caffeine is in tea?

Caffeine formula written with tea images

The amount of caffeine in tea varies considerably depending on its origin, type, quality, time of harvest and preparation.

As general rules:

  • The longer and hotter you steep your tea, the more caffeine it will contain.
  • Tea prepared from tea bags usually contains more caffeine than infusion made with loose tea (the reason, the smaller the tea pieces, the more caffeine they release during steeping; teabags include crushed pieces of smaller-sized tea leaves).
  • Black tea contains more caffeine than green tea

Is the caffeine in tea good for you?

There are claims that some of the antioxidants in the tea slow down the body’s absorption of its caffeine, but I wasn’t able to find data from studies that support this, so it might be advisable to see the caffeine in the tea in the same way as you would see it in other sources.

That said, the combination of caffeine and L-Theanine (a tea component found it larger quantities in green tea) may have particularly strong benefits in enhancing brain function.

Which has more caffeine, tea or coffee?

Did you know that coffee beans have a caffeine concentration of 1–2%, whereas tea leaves contain 3.5%?
These numbers may lead you to the assumption that tea has more caffeine than coffee, but the coffee brewing process involves hotter water, extracting more caffeine from the beans.
Also, you usually use more coffee beans than tea leaves during the preparation process.
As a result, one cup of coffee generally contains more caffeine than a cup of tea.

Here is a graphic I made to show the amount of caffeine in the most common drinks.
I hope it helps you choose what to drink depending on the time of the day and on how sensitive to caffeine you are:

Comparative chart about caffeine in different types of tea
The FDA recommends that healthy adults limit their caffeine intake to 400 mg per day

What is tea good for?

Iron teapot and tea cup

Tea has been enjoyed since ancient times as a health-promoting habit, so many people decide to try tea for it’s nutritional benefits.
Is it, really healthy thought?
Luckily, research on the topic is increasing and it turns out, it’s backing up tea’s good reputation.

Benefits of drinking tea

  • It’s rich in NATURAL ANTIOXIDANTS: the polyphenols in tea (such as flavonoids, tannins and cathechins)may help prevent cell damage, lower “bad” cholesterol and reduce blood sugar levels.
  • Green tea is specially high in Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a special type of catechin that has been linked to benefits such as better cardiovascular and metabolic health.
  • Tea makes you FEEL RELAXED WHILE REMAINING MENTALLY SHARP thanks to its L-theanine, an amino acid that increases the frequency of alpha brain waves.
    Also, while tea provides less caffeine than coffee, it still has enough to offer its benefits.
  • GOOD FOR YOUR MOUTH:
  • Tea may reduce bad breath, prevent cavities (as long as you don’t sweeten your tea with sugar) and fight plaque thanks to the antibacterial properties of its polyphenols and tannins.

  • The cathechins of green tea may help improve gum health by reducing inflammation, preventing bone resorption, and inhibiting the formation of certain bacteria linked to periodontitis.

  • Tea also contain fluoride, which is known for promoting enamel remineralization and protecting against tooth decay.
Woman enjoying cup of tea by a window

Disadvantages of drinking tea

Tea is overall a great drink, but like every other food product, it can also bring some disadvantages:

  • CONTAINS CAFFEINE – which is a habit-forming stimulant some individuals are sensitive to and that may create dependence. [1]
  • STAIN TEETHUnfortunately, due to its tannin content, tea stain teeth: green tea leaves a dull gray stain on teeth, while black tea leaves yellowish stains.
    Some claim that adding a splash of milk to the tea may slightly reduce the discolouration of your teeth when drinking black tea. [2]
  • Drinking tea could lead to EXCESSIVE FLUORIDE INTAKE – while low fluoride doses strengthen and protect the tooth enamel, high levels of fluoride are harmful and can lead to health problems like fluorosis.
    The most fluoride was found in black tea, with the lowest amounts in white tea. Older and lower-quality tea like cheap tea bags or instant teas have more fluoride, so they’re best avoided. The country of origin and environment is also a factor in the fluoride content of tea. Sources: [3], [4], [5]
  • BINDS IRON – teas tannins can reduce the amount of iron your intestines absorb [6].

Because of these reasons, it is usually advised that healthy adults do not consume more than 3–4 cups (710–950 ml) of tea each day, although some people may be sensitive to lower doses.

Should I use leaf tea or tea bags?

Loose leaves tea vs. tea bags

Tea bags are very convenient and widely available, but tea experts recommend to use loose leaves.
The main reason for this are:

  1. SIZE OF THE TEA LEAVES
    The leaves of loose tea are generally larger than the tea leaves in a regular tea bag.
    Most tea bags include smaller or broken tea leaves and tea dust and fannings (small pieces left over from the processing of regular tea).
    This has a few disadvantages:
    • when tea leaves are broken or crushed, they loose some of its essential oils so you won’t be able to enjoy the tea’s flavor and fragrance as much.
    • the smaller the tea leaf particles, the faster they loose its freshness
  2. TEA QUALITY
    Loose leaf tea is usually of a higher quality than tea from tea bags.
    High-quality teas not only have a better flavor, but they also tend to contain less fluoride. That said, both loose leaf tea and tea bags can be of high or low quality.
  3. SPACE DURING STEEP
    Tea leaves need some room to swell and release their flavor.
    Loose leaves tea can flow freely in the water and expand, but the space in a tea bag is tight.
  4. PACKAGING
    Paper tea bags aren’t only a source of waste; they can also give a “paper” flavor to tea, particularly more delicate types such as white and green tea.

Tea bags vs. pyramids

Tea pyramid

Pyramid-shaped pouches often offer a good middle point between the quality of loose tea leaves and the practicality of tea bags: they often contain bigger tea leaves and are often of higher quality than tea bags but are as easy to use as teabags.

However, while they are also known as “silk” bags, many of these high-end tea bags are made of plastic mesh, releasing micro plastics into your cup and contributing to environmental burden.

Fortunately, more and more brands are creating such mesh bags with other environmentally friendlier alternatives as wood pulp, cornstarch or cotton.

How to make good tea with teabags

Tea made from tea bag

Although we just spoke about how loose tea might be better than tea bags, they are also very practical: they make tea quickly without the need for any equipment (just a cup), and they leave no mess.

So, don’t feel bad if you do prefer teabags.
Luckily, there are some tricks that will allow you to make the best tea as possible even with tea bags:

  • Store them properly: to prevent the tea from going stale too soon, keep them away from light and air (for example in an airtight container in a cool, dark area).
  • DO – dunk (lift up and down) the tea bag.
  • DON’T squeeze the bag when removing it.

Also, when buying tea bags, it’s advisable to choose:

  • Individually wrapped portions (if you can): this way the tea will be always fresher
  • Bigger tea bags: enough space allow the tea to sweet and come into touch with more water, resulting in a more flavorful cup of tea.

Another good idea is to make your own DIY brew bags with empty tea filter bags or re-usable filters: this way you’ll the taste of loose leaf tea with the convenience of tea bags!

How to make tea the right way (hot)

Every tea lover has its opinion about how to make the perfect cup of tea, whether it’s how long to steep it or when (if) to add milk.
But there are a few things that everyone agrees on:

What you need

Utensils to make tea: tea, big strain and cover

Tea

  • Better tea leaves produce superior tea. Loose leaves are commonly the finest option. A tea pyramid is the second greatest alternative, while a tea bag is usually the last choice.
  • As a general guideline, use 1 tea bag or 1 teaspoon (2 g) of loose tea per cup (6 oz. of water).

Water

As with any ingredient, the better the water, the better your tea will taste.
For some people, this may imply using filtered water, but regular tap water also works.
The important thing is to make sure you use freshly drawn room temperature water, not reboiled one. This is because over-boiling or re-boiling reduce the amount of oxygen in the water, making the tea taste flabby.

The tools (actually only a couple)

Tea lovers have their pick of favorite utensils, ranging from the material of the kettle to the type of pot to the cup or strainer.
However, this is mostly a matter of personal taste.
Personally, I prefer things simple, so my must-haves are only:

  • Tea kettle or water boiler – an electric kettle saves time and energy
  • A tea strainer or big tea infuser* – you can steep your tea in the cup (or teapot) and then strain it with a tea strainer or use a tea infuser (a tools that holds the tea).
    If using a tea infuser, be sure it’s a large one so it gives the tea leaves enough space to expand and let the most amount of water to swirl around them.
    Also, bigger strainers are easier to wash than smaller infusers.

    *If you are using a teabag, you won’t need a strainer or a tea infuser.

MY PICKS:
This is the exact pot with large tea infuser that I use: I love its functionality (the infuser is so big and easy to clean!) and its elegant, simple design.
When I only want a cup for myself, I use a mug with infuser similar to this one.

water temperature and steeping time

Steeping your tea at the right temperature and time is one of the most important things to get good results.

Each tea type calls for different water temperature and steeping time, so in case of doubt, the best thing might be to follow the package instructions.
But this cheat sheet has the general guidelines that go well most of the time:

Chart with recommended brewing times

Related: How to cold brew green tea

How to make a proper cup of tea (step by step)

Time needed: 10 minutes.

Steps to make a good cup of tea

  1. Bring water to a boil

    Use fresh water and avoid heating the water in a microwave, since it may produce unevenly hot water, making your tea taste bitter and unpleasant.

    Every type of tea calls for a different water temperature and this is very important to get good results.
    For example, when making black tea, you may pour the freshly boiled water over the tea as soon as it reaches boiling.
    Other types of tea may need letting the water cool down before steeping (or not heating it until boiling point).
    Here you have a chart with the recommended water temperature for each type of tea.
    Fresh boiled water in water cooker

  2. Warm teapot or cup (optional)

    This isn’t essential, but it will bring your teatime to the next level.

    To warm the teapot (or cup, if you are making your tea in a cup), simply rinse them with hot water: fill half of the teapot or cup with some of the heated water.
    Give hot water a few swirls and then discard it.Warming tea cup

  3. Cover tea and steep

    Place the tea in the mug or in the teapot.
    Steeping time is as crucial as water temperature, but there is no fixed answer: this also depends on the type of tea (here is a cheat sheet for steeping time).

    If you leave the tea in water after the steep time is over (oversteeping), the tea won’t get a more intense flavor but a too bitter taste that will make it difficult to appreciate the tea’s nuances.Steeping tea

  4. Remove tea

    Removing the tea after the recommended steep time stops the brewing process while you wait the tea to cool to a pleasant temperature.

    Don’t squeeze the tea leaves or tea bag, since this will release extra tannins, which gives your tea an astringent taste.Removing tea after steeping

  5. Serve and enjoy

    Adding milk and/or sweetener is a matter of personal taste.

    Some teas that match specially well with a little added sweetness or creaminess are black tea, blends (as chai, earl grey and lady grey), matcha and roasted green tea (hojicha).

Video showing how to make tea properly

In this 2´40´´ video you can see an example on how to make tea, both using loose leaf tea, tea bags, a tea pot or tea bags:

FAQs about making tea

The ideal water temperature to make tea depends on a variety of criteria, including personal preference.
To begin, try following the instructions in your tea package; if you’re not happy with them, consider brewing at a lower temperature or for longer/shorter.
As a rule of thumb, choose a lower temperature when unsure.

For general guidance, use this chart:

Chart with recommended brewing times

The steep time depends on the type of tea you’re using and your own preferences; the longer you let a tea steep, the stronger it becomes.

Also, the bigger the leaf, the longer it takes to release all its flavor (meaning, tea bags need to steep for much less time than loose tea leaves).

For some broad recommendations, check this cheat sheet.

Warming teapot before making tea

Originally, teapot or cups were warmed up to prevent them from breakage. Specially when made with delicate materials, teapot and cup could crack when pouring boiling hot water into them.
But another important reason to warm the teapot is to keep the water temperature from plummeting too quickly during steep time, as your teapot will absorb heat from the boiling water you just poured into it if it is at room temperature. This will cause the tea to steep in water that isn’t hot enough to extract all of its flavor.

Teapot with cover

Covering your tea is a recommended practice because this will keep the desired temperature in your tea pot or cup.
This ensures that the leaves of your tea unfurl fully, allowing to get a full extraction of the flavors.

You can re-steep almost any kind of loose leaf tea.
Tea bags are generally only steeped once, but if they contain whole tea leaves, you may steep them twice.

Used black tea tea leaves to re-steep

For a second steep:

  • use fresh water that has been heated to a somewhat higher temperature than the first
  • extend the original steeping duration by 1-2 minutes

The number of times you can re-steep tea depends on many factors like type, size and processing.
Green or white teas are typically ideal for re-steeping (better than darker teas).

When it comes to how long you can re-steep your tea, err on the side of caution and avoid leaving your leaves out for too long.
Avoid using tea from the previous day, and if the tea smells odd, throw it right away.

What are the best tea types for beginners?

By now you might have realized there are so many varieties of tea and tisanes, it almost feel daunting to pick one!
But don’t worry, here I’ve picked some suggestions on how to choose tea that suits your preferences:

If you want a tea with caffeine, try:

  • matcha (powdered green tea)
  • mate (a herbal tisane)
  • black tea – the strongest sorts are Assam and Breakfast blends

Rooibos is a herbal tea that makes for a fantastic substitute for real tea; it has a comparable flavor but is naturally caffeine free.
Most herbal teas are also caffeine-free.
There is also decaffeinated tea, which has practically no caffeine.

Tea blends that contain fruit, candy tea (stevia leaves), rooibos, licorice root (to avoid if having high blood pressure) or star anise have a mild sweetness.
Some green teas also have a delicate “sweetness”.

These tea sorts are great candidates to make milk tea and tea latte:

  • Black tea
  • Tea blends with black tea (as earl grey and chai)
  • Rooibos
  • Hojicha
  • Matcha

White and green tea taste generally less intense than darker types.
If you are looking for a dark tea that still tastes mild, oolong tea and pu-her tea might be good choices, since these sorts taste robuster than green tea, but not as strong as black tea.
The mildest varieties of black tea are usually Keemun and Darjeeling.

There are certain kinds of green teas that have a hue that is Instagram-worthy without the need for extra ingredients.
Some examples are:

  • Sunrouge, which is pink
  • Matcha (has a vivid green)
  • Butterfly pea tea (a herbal tea with deep blue that changes to purple)
  • Hibiscus tea (crimson color)
The basics about making tea
5 from 2 votes

How to make a hot cup of tea

New to tea? Fear not; here you’ll learn how to make tea properly
Print Recipe
Prep Time:5 mins
Steeping:4 mins
Total Time:9 mins

Equipment

Ingredients

Instructions

  • Bring freshly taped water* to a boil**.
    Fresh boiled water in water cooker
  • Optional – Warm the cup for better results by rinsing it with hot water and then discharging this water.
    Warming tea cup
  • Place the tea in the cup. Add the freshly heated water.
    Let the tea steep.
    Optionally, cover.
    Steeping tea
  • Remove tea after steeping time** is over.
    Removing tea after steeping
  • Add milk and/sugar if desired and enjoy.
    Adding milk to Okinawa milk tea

Video

Notes

*Fell free to use tap water, filtered water or bottled non-carbonated water
**Water temperature and steeping time vary depending on the tea type. Use this chart as a general guideline (here for a bigger image):
Chart with recommended brewing times

Nutrition

Serving: 8oz. | Calories: 1kcal
Course: Drinks
Servings: 1 Cup
Calories: 1kcal

I hope this article has helped you decide which type of tea is best for you and how to make the most out of your experience with it.
For other to-the-point guides about tea, check this post on Matcha for Beginners or this alphabetical guide with different types of tea.
Happy sipping!

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2 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    I love Rooibos, and I’m relieved it doesn’t have any caffeine in it. Thank you for providing such thorough information about tea.

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