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Tea: Types, Etiquette, and History

A guide for those interested in everything about tea.


Tea is a wonderful drink to have any time of the year and there are countless ways to enjoy it. Each one has its own characteristics and is brewed differently. Here are several types of teas:

Black Tea is bold, hearty, and slightly bitter. It is the foremost tea sold worldwide. It is made with fresh green tea leaves that are withered, rolled, fully fermented and oxidized, and then put over fire. It has about 40-60 mg of caffeine. According to some studies, black tea can reduce plaque*.

How to Brew:

  • Boiling Water (195-200°F)
  • Tea Bag: Steep 2-3 minutes
    ​Loose-Leaf: Steep 3-5 minutes

Chai ​is a type of black tea. It is made from strong black tea, milk, herbs, and spices. "Chai" is the Indian word for "tea."

How to Brew:

  • Boiling Water
  • Tea Bag: Steep 3-5 minutes
    ​Loose-Leaf: Steep 5 minutes

*Some teas can react with conventional medicines. Always consult with your doctor before consuming tea for medicinal purposes.

Darjeeling Tea only refers to tea that is grown in the areas of the Darjeeling Sadar Subdivision in India, and there are numerous sub-types of Darjeeling. ​It is typically a black tea, however these areas also grow green and white Darjeeling tea. They are experimenting with oolong and other forms as well. Its caffeine content depends if it is black, green, oolong, or white.

How to Brew: Check if the Darjeeling tea is black, green, oolong, or white. Click on the appropriate tab for further brewing instructions.

Green Tea is smooth, fresh, and delicate. It is produced in China, Japan, and Taiwan. Chinese green tea is made with fresh green tea leaves that are withered, pan fired, and rolled and dried. Japanese green tea is made with fresh green tea leaves that are steamed and rolled and dried. It has about 23-35 mg of caffeine. According to some studies, green tea can improve brain function and promote weight loss*.

How to Brew:

  • Short of Boiling Water (175-185°F)
  • Tea Bag: Steep 1-3 minutes
    ​Loose-Leaf: Steep 2-4 minutes

Matcha is a form of green tea where the leaves are finely ground into a powder and dissolved in hot water.

How to Brew:

  • Tea Bag

1. Short of Boiling Water (175-185°F)
2. Steep 1-3 minutes

  • Powder

1. Short of Boiling Water (175-185°F)
2. Fill matcha bowl or cup with warm water and pour out

3. Add matcha powder to bowl or cup

4. Add steaming water (175°F)

5. Using a tea whisk or a hand frother, blend for one to two minutes until the matcha forms a nice top foam

*Some teas can react with conventional medicines. Always consult with your doctor before consuming tea for medicinal purposes.

Herbal Tea varies depending on the specific tea type. Common herbs used are sage, bee balm, chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint, ginger, and dandelion. It has no caffeine.

How to Brew:

  • Boiling Water (205°F)
  • Tea Bag: Steep 5-7 minutes
    ​Loose-Leaf: Steep 5-7 minutes

Oolong Tea is delicate, fruity, and sweet. It has the qualities and appearance somewhere in between a green tea and black tea, and it is produced in China and Taiwan. It is made with fresh green tea leaves that are withered, shaken, partially fermented and oxidized, and rolled and dried. It has 30-50 mg of caffeine.

How to Brew:

  • Boiling Water (185-205°F)
  • Tea Bag: Steep 3-5 minutes
    Loose-Leaf: Steep 5-7 minutes

Rooibos Tea is sweet and nutty. It is made from a high antioxidant herb produced in South Africa instead of tea leaves, but it is processed in a similar way to tea leaves. It has no caffeine.

How to Brew:

  • Boiling Water (205°F)
  • Tea Bag: Steep 5-7 minutes
    ​Loose-Leaf: Steep 5-7 minutes

White Tea is mild, subtle, and delicate. It is appreciated for its complexity and natural sweetness. It is the least processed tea and is made with fresh green tea leaves that are steamed and dried. It has 10-15 mg of caffeine. According to some studies, white tea can help with anti-aging and reduce the risk of cancer*.

How to Brew:

  • Short of Boiling Water (175-185°F)
  • Tea Bag: Steep 30-60 seconds
    ​Loose-Leaf: Steep 2-3 minutes

*Some teas can react with conventional medicines. Always consult with your doctor before consuming tea for medicinal purposes.


High Tea is often a misnomer. Most people refer to afternoon tea as high tea because they think it sounds regal and lofty, when in all actuality, high tea, or “meat tea” is dinner. High tea in Britain tends to be on the heavier side. American hotels and tea rooms, on the other hand, offer tidbits of fancy pastries and cakes on delicate china when they offer a “high tea.”

Afternoon tea (because it was taken in the late afternoon) is also called “low tea” because it was usually taken in a sitting room or withdrawing room where low tables were placed near sofas or chairs generally in a large withdrawing room. There are three basic types of Afternoon or Low Tea:

Cream Tea: Tea, scones, jam, and clotted cream
Light Tea: Tea, scones and sweets
Full Tea: Tea, savories, scones, sweets, and dessert

In England, the traditional time for tea was four or five o’clock and no one stayed after seven o’clock. Most tea rooms today serve tea from three to five o’clock. The menu has also changed from tea, bread, butter, and cakes to include three particular courses served specifically in this order:

Savories: Tiny sandwiches or appetizers 
Scones: Served with jam and Devonshire or clotted cream
Pastries: Cakes, cookies, shortbread and sweets

Holding a Tea Cup:

Originally, all porcelain teacups were made in China, starting around 620 A.D. These small cups had no handles. In order for one not to spill onto oneself, the proper way to hold a cup with no handle is to place one’s thumb at the six o’clock position and one’s index and middle fingers at the twelve o’clock position, while gently raising one’s pinkie up for balance. Tea cups with a handle are held by placing one’s fingers to the front and back of the handle with one’s pinkie up again allows balance.

Never wave or hold your tea cup in the air. When not in use, place the tea cup back in the tea saucer.

If you are at a buffet tea, hold the tea saucer in your lap with your left hand and hold the tea cup in your right hand. When not in use, place the tea cup back in the tea saucer and hold in your lap. The only time a saucer is raised together with the teacup is when one is at a standing reception.

Pinkies:

Typically, one should not hold their pinky out while lifting tea cups with handles.

Using Teaspoons:

Do not stir your tea with your teaspoon in sweeping circular motions or clink your cup. Place your teaspoon at the six o’clock position and softly fold the liquid towards the twelve o’clock position two or three times.

Either place the teaspoon on the side of another plate or ask the server or hostess to remove the spoon from the table. Never leave the spoon in the glass especially when actually drinking your tea.

Serving Tea:

Milk is served with tea, not cream. Cream is too heavy and masks the taste of the tea. Although some pour their milk in the cup first, it is probably better to pour the milk in the tea after it is in the cup in order to pour the correct amount.

Tea should be brewed in a pot using loose-leaf tea or stringless tea bags and served in tea cups. Tea bags should not be used for Afternoon Tea, especially in the individual tea cups. However, if using this method, remove the tea bag from the cup and place it on a side saucer or in a slop bowl. Do not use the string to wrap around or squeeze the tea bag.

When serving lemon with tea, lemon slices are preferable, not wedges. Either provide a small fork or lemon fork for your guests, or have the tea server neatly place a slice in the tea cup after the tea has been poured. Be sure never to add lemon with milk since the lemon’s citric acid will cause the proteins in the milk to curdle.

Drinking Tea:

Do not use your tea to wash down food. Sip, don’t slurp, your tea and swallow before eating.

The saucer is the tiny plate the teacup is placed on. If you are sitting, the saucer always stays on the table. The proper time to pick up the saucer is while you are walking around with your tea because the saucer is meant to catch the tea if it spills. 


Originally a medicine, tea has become the second most frequently consumed beverage in the world. Most tea is made from the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, and was one of the first plants to be cultivated. Camellia sinensis (China tea) is a tree that  can grows up to 30 feet tall. Commercially cultivated plants are pruned into shrubs about six feet tall, and the harvesting of the leaves keeps them closely clipped. Assamica (India tea) is a variation of Camellia sinensis and is the other main type of commercially grown tea. It has larger leaves and grows up to 60 feet. The leaves of both are a glossy dark green, and the plant produces small, fragrant white flowers.

The Chinese first learned the use of tea from observing aboriginal tribesmen living in the hills southwest of the Chinese border, now Southeast Asia. Tribesmen made a brew by boiling the green leaves of the wild trees in ancient kettles over a fire as early as 2700 B.C.E. Many credit the Chinese emperor Shen Nung with the discovery of tea. According to legend, he was resting under a tea tree when some leaves fell into his cup of hot water. He liked the flavor and ensured that tea trees would be cultivated in China from then on. China developed a banking system using tea as currency before the western world was civilized. Bricks of tea were used as payment to aboriginal tribesmen, farmers, and herdsmen. China monopolized tea growing until the nineteenth century.

Elaborate ceremonies have often accompanied the serving and drinking of tea. In ancient China, “tea masters” served tea in tea rooms and were judged on the quality of the tea they brewed. In Japan, a very precise tea ceremony was developed, often nearly four hours long. Special tools are used and every action is carefully planned. The tea ceremony represents harmony, respect, purity and tranquility which are important values in the Japanese culture.

After the Dutch began shipping tea to Europe in the early 1600s, it became a very popular drink among the wealthy: the only ones who could afford it. Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who married King Charles II of England, is credited with making tea popular in that country, which is now the greatest consumer of tea in the world. In the early 1800s, the Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Stanhope, decided to invite friends to share a pot of tea and small cakes and sandwiches with her. They so loved the idea that it quickly became popular with other hostesses and the “English tea” was born. It remained only among the upper classes but as tea became more affordable, all classes enjoyed it.

As in Japan, the English developed rules about the proper way to serve tea. It was usually served in porcelain teapots and poured into porcelain cups, often from China. In the mid 1800s, beautiful silver tea sets were available. The tea itself was stored in airtight wood, china or silver tea caddies. In 1864 the first tea shop opened in England. Patrons could shop, but also sit down and enjoy a cup of tea and refreshments. In America, tearooms, which served not only tea but also lunch and dinner, opened in department stores and hotels. They were designed to be places for light-hearted socializing. Tea rooms were usually decorated whimsically and were often run by women. Their popularity was highest in the 1920s, during Prohibition.

Peter Stuyvesant brought the first teas to the American colonies in 1650. Soon the high taxes the British imposed on it became a point of contention as tensions between the colonists and the king increased. On December 17, 1773, ships carrying a heavily taxed tea cargo were not allowed to unload at Boston Harbor. During the night, disgruntled colonists heaved 342 tea chests into the harbor, and this became known as the Boston Tea Party. After this, drinking tea was considered unpatriotic, and herbal teas began to be used as a replacement for Chinese tea. By 1775, a person’s patriotism was measured by how much he or she enjoyed herbal teas, sometimes referred to as “liberty tea.” It often took the slow ships of the East India Company nearly a year to carry tea from China to London. After the American Revolution ended, the American clipper ships, which were much faster and lighter, began to be used because they could go from New York to China and back in just eight months.

Eighty-five percent of the tea drunk in the United States is iced tea—more than two billion cups per year. The first iced tea was served in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Richard Blechynden, a tea plantation owner, originally planned to give free samples of hot tea to the Fair visitors; but when a heat wave hit the site, no one was interested in hot tea. Blechynden quickly improvised by dumping ice cubes into the brew. While he was probably not the first person to drop an ice cube in a cup of tea, he does seem to have been the first to do it in such a large and public way. In 1908, Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant, wrapped tea samples in small silk bags and delivered them to restaurants around New York. When he called on them later, he was amazed to find that they were brewing the tea in the bags. This gave people the option of loose-leaf tea or tea bags.

The British tradition of morning and afternoon tea has spread around the world, ancient Chinese and Japanese traditional tea ceremonies are still commonly practiced, and modern tea shops have sprung up across America offering these services and tea tastings. Many five-star hotels in America still serve afternoon tea in the traditional English style. After a long stressful week or before the start of a day, a cup of tea offers something that cannot be found anywhere else even today.

The History of Tea


How Afternoon Tea Could
Save the World

Teen Services Librarian

Profile Photo
Sheldon Stevens
Contact:
100 W. Walker
League City TX, 77573
281-554-1133

References:

Campbell, D. (2008). The Perfect Cup. Black Enterprise, 38(11), 198. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=32482688&site=ehost-live

Reich, A. (2010). Coffee & Tea History in a Cup. Herbarist, (76), 8-15. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=79329980&site=ehost-live

Stradley, L. (2017, April 05). Afternoon and High Tea History. Retrieved from https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/HighTeaHistory.htm