Exploring tea is the new cool: a basic guide to tea drinking

More people around the world are opting for tea as their preferred beverage and tea offerings have dramatically expanded in the last few years. “Ready-to-drink” teas, functional teas and speciality teas are now available in all shapes, sizes and flavours.

But with tea becoming so popular, few really know the difference between their teas as most South Africans still refer to all leafy beverages steeped in hot water as tea. Strictly speaking, the word ‘tea’ only refers to a beverage that comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant, which is native to Asia. The most common tea varieties are black, green, white, oolong, purple, Pu-erh and herbal infusions.

Herbal teas are referred to as tisanes (pronounced ti-zahn), since they don’t come from the Camellia Sinensis plant. They can be made from leaves, fruit, flowers, roots, berries, seeds and spices. Popular tisanes include hibiscus, mint, chamomile, lemon balm and our homegrown, Rooibos. They also don’t contain caffeine, whereas traditional teas do, albeit in varying amounts. Both teas and tisanes cater for specific health needs.

Brewing the perfect cuppa

To get the best flavour along with health-promoting antioxidants one must brew each tea correctly:

White and green teas taste better when steeped in slightly cooler water for shorter times. If you over-steep or burn green tea with water that’s too hot, it spoils the sweet and vegetal (botanic) taste and will become bitter. Black tea, on the other hand, can handle the hot water and may be steeped for longer.

  • Black tea (Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Assam, Darjeeling): steep for 5 min at 95 ºC.
  • White tea (Silver Needle, White Peony): steep for 4-5 min at 79 ºC.
  • Green tea (Matcha, Sencha): steep for 3-4 min at 79 ºC.
  • Oolong tea (Ti Kuan Yin, Dan Cong): steep for 3-5 min at 91 ºC.

Keep in mind that water boils at 100 ºC, so it’s best to let it cool for a few minutes before pouring it over the teabag/leaves.

  • Dried tisanes (Rooibos, Chamomile, Hibiscus) can handle hotter water: steep for up to 15 minutes at 100 ºC.
  • Fresh tisanes made from chopped up fruit, roots or spices need to steep for up to 30 minutes at 100 ºC.

Tea terminology

Just like wine, tea also has its distinct tea tasting language. Here’s how you can differentiate between tastes, flavours, mouthfeel and aromas.

  • Astringency – dry, bitter taste, caused by tannin.
  • Earthy – nature-inspired taste and aroma.
  • Floral/flowery – floral taste or aroma.
  • Fruit – rich in colour, dominantly sweet and fruity, but not overpowering.
  • Spicy – strong spicy infusion.
  • Balanced – where aromas succeed each other smoothly, highlighted by flavours and texture.
  • Bite – tastes alive.
  • Body – fullness and strength.
  • Crisp – yielding a clean, refreshing taste.
  • Generous – rich in aromas.
  • Hungry – lacking in cup quality.
  • Intense – strong taste.
  • Long in the mouth – aromas that leave a pleasant and lasting impression in the mouth after tasting.
  • Nose – pleasant aroma.
  • Pungent – astringent effect on the palate without bitterness.
  • Silky – silky and smooth, almost oily taste.
  • Sweet – slightly sweet flavour, with no astringency associated with sweet, vanilla-flavoured aromas.
  • Woody – reminiscent of freshly-cut timber.

Flavour wheel

A flavour/aroma wheel (view here) is a helpful tool that will help you to categorise certain characteristics and aromas of a tea/tisane. The wheel will also help you to point out positive and negative attributes.

Rooibos’ flavour profile is unique. Although it brews into a cup of intense red, the flavour is very different from black teas. Most of us have enjoyed Rooibos in a ‘red’, fermented form, but it’s equally satisfying in its unfermented, ‘green’ guise.

When tasting Rooibos, you will notice three primary aromas i.e. fynbos-floral, woody and honey, followed by secondary aromas: fruity-sweet, caramel and apricot. While red Rooibos has a light, earthy taste, it’s strong enough to hold other ingredients like fruit, herbs, flowers, spices and even chocolate. This allows for it to be enjoyed both hot or cold, in cappuccino, latte or espresso formats.

On the other hand, green Rooibos is more delicate and has a vegetal, yet sweet note.

The sensory lexicon (view here) will give you more detailed information and descriptions of the different types of aromas with both positive as well as negative attributes.

All of these will help you to make the most of your tasting experience by stimulating your taste buds and to explore all the wonderful aromas in a tasty cup of rooibos.

Information supplied by Adele du Toit of SA Rooibos Council.

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