Find Your Perfect Tea

Philly tea blogger and consultant Alexis Siemons gives us tips for what to buy and how to make the perfect cup of tea at home.

So, you liked our guide to Philly tearooms, eh? If you’re a tea neophyte like us, you know finding a good tea shop is only half the battle—what the heck do you order once you’re there?

We asked local tea expert Alexis Siemons, who blogs at Teaspoons & Petals, to give us a crash course in all-things tea—from what to order to how to make it at home. Here’s to steeping with a bit more confidence.

Navigating the Varieties

If you’ve ever shopped for tea, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the choices: black, green, white, herbal, oolong … the list goes on. Here’s what to expect from each variety.

White tea: Siemons says this is a good starter category for new tea drinkers. “It’s really delicate and I think it’s also a taste that people aren’t familiar with,” she says. Bonus: White teas are low in caffeine. Try one that’s blended with fruit, flowers or spices if you’re not immediately keen on the straight-tea-leaf flavor.

Green tea: Most people have probably heard of green tea. It’s by far the most studied variety when it comes to tea’s purported health benefits. And Siemons says its wide range—from country of origin to processing—leaves a lot of room for sampling. Green tea has significantly less caffeine than coffee—up to 40 milligrams in eight ounces of green tea versus about 200 in coffee—but still enough for a pick-me-up. And green tea is often used in cooking, too.

Oolong tea: This is Siemons’s favorite variety. Oolongs “have an interesting flavor,” she says, and they vary in taste depending on how lightly or heavily they’re roasted. “If you like a light, floral taste, there’s an oolong for you,” she says. “If you like smokey roasted flavors—almost like coffee—there’s that, too.” A way to judge flavor is by looking at the leaves themselves; the lighter ones will be green, and the darker ones will reddish brown. One of Siemon’s favorite oolong varieties is a called milk oolong. She describes it as buttery and light—almost like a cookie—and a sure crowd-pleaser.

Black tea: Black teas have the most caffeine of any tea—up to 61 milligrams in an eight-ounce serving—so it’s a good bet if you’re trying to make the coffee-to-tea switch. Black tea is also the most “forgiving” kind of tea, says Siemons: “When people make iced tea, I tell them to start with black because they require the most steeping time.” So if you step away for a minute—or 10—it’s less likely that you’ll screw it up. Black teas are also hardier (less delicate) than other teas, so they’re perfect for adding fruit and other flavorings.

Puerh tea: Siemons describes Puerh tea, a Chinese variety, as having a very earthy, mushroomy flavor—definitely not the tea for newbies. “Puerh’s an acquired taste,” she says. “I suggest starting with others and growing into these.”

Herbal teas: Here’s a fun fact: There’s no actual tea in the herbal teas. They’re just herbs, hence the name—duh—herbal tea. So there’s some debate within the tea community about whether or not these warrant the word “tea” in their name. You might sometimes see herbal teas referred to as “tisanes.” Common herbals include chamomile and ginseng.

Bags vs. Loose Leaf

“I prefer loose leaf tea, but I think there are some really great bag tea companies out there,” says Siemons. For bags, she recommends Mighty Leaf. But if you’re willing to take the dive, loose-leaf teas, she says, taste fresher and are usually better quality. Stored in airtight containers, loose-leaf teas can stay fresh for up to a year. You can either invest in a reusable infuser or use paper filters for steeping.

What about the water?

Siemons likes to use filtered tap water—she runs it through a Brita filter—but she says that’s up to personal preference. “The most important thing is temperature,” she says. You want to make sure you start off with cold water and warm it up; you’ll have better control of the temperature that way. Then, you want to make sure you’re using water at the appropriate temperature for steeping each kind of tea. An easy trick? For black, bring it to a full boil and pour immediately; for oolong, bring it to a boil, then let it sit for two minutes off the burner before steeping; and for green and white, let it sit for five minutes before steeping. Want to get even more exact? Check out this chart for water temperatures and steeping times for various kinds of tea.