I was talking to my sister a while ago, and I asked her, “What kind of tea do you like?”  Her answer: “Tetley.  Or chamomile.”  Hmmm.  So my question is: How do you educate someone about tea and encourage him / her to branch out?  What kind of tea could serve as a bridge from grocery-store tea bags and herbal tisanes to the wonderful world of tea we all love so much?

I think there are two factors at work:

  1. The convenience of a tea bag
  2. The enormous number of choices people face when trying to find a tea they like

One of the best ways to learn about tea, of course, is to find a good local tea shop that stocks a wide variety of loose-leaf teas.  In most of the local tea shops I’ve visited, the staff have been more than helpful, and genuinely interested in helping someone to find an enjoyable tea.  Alternatively, you can find a tutor to take you around and teach about tea! 

Unfortunately, since my sister and I live thousands of miles apart, I can’t be her tutor, except by proxy.  And in terms of convenience, going to a good local tea shop can’t really compete with the tea bag.  Yes, you can brew tea in a filter cup, but many people don’t even want to make that much effort.  Fortunately, there are some great brands making full-leaf tea pouches now, many of which are available in the grocery store.  So I suggest trying to find a flavor that appeals to you, and start with that.

After starting with a flavored green, black, or (shudder!) oolong tea pouch, you could move on to unflavored or natural teas.  One of the greatest discoveries I’ve made as I have learned about tea is the wide range of tastes available without any kind of additional scent or flavor added.  I always thought that black tea was pretty much the same across the board, but then I discovered the beauty of Darjeeling teas.  From the delicately fruity, first flush teas to the mellow, winey autumnals, they have such a range and depth of flavor that it seems impossible that they come from the same plant!

Oolong teas also have an incredible range of tastes and aromas – from creamy milk oolongs to fresh, light Phoenix oolongs, and everything in between.  That came as a huge surprise to me when I took the Specialty Tea Institute class on oolongs – my previous experience had been strictly with the more vegetal types that I thought tasted a bit like broccoli!

My advice to novice tea explorers is this: start with something you like, and then either try to get some advice on similar types of tea, or simply try some new ones that sound interesting to you.  You might not like every one, but you can probably find someone else who does and give it to them!  And if you’re lucky enough to have a good local tea shop near you, take advantage of it!  You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how open and welcoming tea people are (really not scary at all!), and they’ll love helping you develop a love for tea.