Tea - Varieties, Brands, and Buying Tips

by cazort

All about tea: types of tea, tea companies and places to buy tea, how to select the best tea, etc.

I'm a tea lover, and the creator and editor of RateTea. Tea is a remarkably diverse and exciting beverage, and perhaps more importantly, the culture and traditions associated with it are also highly diverse.

On this page I will talk about the various kinds or types of tea. Black, green, white, oolong, and Pu-erh tea all come from the same plant, but are processed in different ways.

You will also find information on various tea companies and brands of tea. And of course, I will give you general tips on how to choose the best tea. I'm a huge advocate for loose-leaf tea, but you will also find tips for selecting tea bags as well.

Tea Culture is Incredibly Diverse

These photos show the range of tea culture, from artisan tea through a typical everyday Chinese tea, bargain-priced tea bags in a dollar store, to a cozy tea shop.
Loose-Leaf Green Tea, from Imperial Tea Garden
Loose-Leaf Green Tea, from Imperial T...
Modern Green Oolong Canister, and a Tea Mug
Modern Green Oolong Canister, and a T...
Lindsay Gardens Tea Bags, in a Dollar Store
Lindsay Gardens Tea Bags, in a Dollar...
Cups & Chairs Tea Shop, Philadelphia
Cups & Chairs Tea Shop, Philadelphia

Kinds, Types, or Varieties of True Tea

An overview of the broad categories or classes of true tea

True teas are made from the Camellia sinensis plant.  These include:

  • Black tea - The typical "tea" in most of the world, black tea is a fully-oxidized tea, giving it a rich, dark reddish-brown color, and a bold flavor.
  • Green tea - The most popular tea in much of China and Japan, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, green tea is heated to stop the oxidation that would lead to the creation of black tea.  Green tea has a green color to the leaf and produces a lighter-colored cup.  It often has a grassy or vegetal flavor.
  • Oolong tea - A complex type of tea popular in China and Taiwan, oolong teas range in oxidation from very light, like green teas, to very dark, like black teas.  They are also roasted to varying degrees.
  • White tea - The least processed of teas, white teas are a little mellower in flavor than green tea.
  • Pu-erh and other post-fermented tea - Pu-erh and other so-called "dark teas" are aged, or post-fermented.  Whereas most teas are best consumed soon after their production, Pu-erh is often rather edgy and too strong to be enjoyable shortly after it is made, and it mellows and becomes more desirable with age, like a fine wine.

 For more info on varieties of tea, you can visit RateTea's pages on styles and varieties of tea.

Herbal teas are distinct; they are made from any plants other than the tea plant, and they include mostly caffeine-free infusions, but there are a few caffeinated examples, including Yerba mate and Guayusa.

My Favorite Brands and Tea Companies

There are hundreds of tea companies in the U.S. alone, even more when you look globally.  How do you decide which companies to buy from?

My first advice to people serious about drinking high-quality tea is to look beyond the brands commonly available in mainstream supermarkets.  For most people, this necessitates looking online.  Because tea is relatively lightweight, it is easy and relatively inexpensive to ship, so virtually all tea companies sell their product online.

Here are some of my favorite companies:

  • Upton Tea Imports - If I had to pick a single favorite tea company, it would be Upton.  Their prices are extremely reasonable, and the company offers affordable sample sizes of each and every one of their offerings.
  • Rishi Tea - Rishi is one of the leading tea companies in terms of sustainability.  A huge portion of Rishi's catalogue is both fair-trade and organic certified, and the company has also been at the forefront of the development of new varieties of artisan tea.
  • Adagio Tea - Adagio is one of the tea companies with the largest online presence, being the company behind TeaChat and a variety of other interactive websites.  My favorite aspect of Adagio's teas is the fact that their samplers (which are also reasonably priced) come in adorable little metal tins, which are immensely useful.  Their teas are also quite good, and the company's website has one of the better user experiences of any of the online tea companies.
  • Arbor Teas - Arbor teas is a newly started company that is another leader in sustainability.  The company uses compostable packaging, and has some interesting offerings, with a high portion of organic and fair trade certified offerings.

I also do buy teas in stores.  Some of my favorite brands of tea to buy in stores include:

  • Ahmad Tea - A London-based company, Ahmad tea specializes in middle-eastern style teas, selling a variety of pure black teas and some flavored teas, as well as a few green teas.  Ahmad Tea is one of the most popular teas in Iran, and is also widely available in middle-eastern grocery stores.  Its straight black teas are, in my opinion, the best black teas available in their price range, offering exceptional value.
  • Foojoy Tea - Foojoy is best known for being a brand of inexpensive Chinese teas in teabags, widely available in Asian markets.  However, the company also sells high-quality loose-leaf tea as well.  If you're lucky enough to come across its loose-leaf tea, I recommend buying it.

Choosing the Best Teas: Tips from a Tea Enthusiast

Experiment, buy from a company's strengths, and consider switching to loose-leaf tea.

I've sampled over 700 teas from a wide range of companies, from the largest mainstream brands to tiny, one-person businesses run as side operations.  You can read my reviews on RateTea if you want specific recommendations.  Over time, I've learned how to easily locate and discern the quality and value of tea from different retailers.

Here are some of my basic tips for selecting high-quality teas:

  • Try different types of teas.  You can't tell the difference between good tea and bad tea if you always drink the same type of tea.  Start experimenting...buy your favorite but also try new kinds.  Trade with friends.  Read reviews online to get ideas.  Find a company that you like and start sampling all their teas.  My favorite companies selling loose-leaf tea offer all their teas in small, affordable sample sizes.  Buy these samples and try them!  But experiment with different companies as well...you will find that some companies are better priced than others, and some cater more to your particular tastes.
  • Buy from a company's strengths, not their weaknesses.  There are many different types of tea culture, which can be somewhat disjoint.  British companies don't do the best job of selecting green teas, and a Chinese or Japanese company is unlikely to sell the best English Breakfast or Irish Breakfast blend.  Find what a company is good at, and buy those teas from that company.
  • Consider getting into loose-leaf tea.  There are reasons why most tea connoisseurs frown upon tea bags and drink exclusively or almost exclusively tea brewed from loose-leaf.  Not only are you saving money and promoting sustainability by reducing the amount of money spent on packaging (and to a degree, marketing), but the best teas are usually only available in loose-leaf form.  With loose-leaf, you get both the best value and best flavor!

More Pages on Tea

Visit these pages to learn more about high-quality loose-leaf teas.
RateTea is a social and community website where anyone can rate and review teas.
Teas that are naturally low in caffeine, including green tea, black tea, oolong, white tea, and naturally caffeine-free herbal teas.
A comparison of Teavana vs. Adagio Teas, comparing price, value, quality, company ethics, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of both companies.
Chun mee, or precious eyebrows, a Chinese green tea. About this tea, tips for buying it.
Updated: 02/21/2013, cazort
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jptanabe on 06/13/2013

I'm a tea lover - enjoy reading about different teas and drinking them of course!

cazort on 05/26/2013

Thank you!

MikeRobbers on 05/26/2013

Although I'm a coffee lover, I do like tea every now and then. Enjoyed reading your article and the information you have gathered are quite interesting.

cmoneyspinner on 01/31/2013

When it comes to teas, I don't need convincing about the benefits, the taste, the diversity, etc. I just someone who is brave enough to stand up to me and break my coffeemaker! :)

cazort on 01/21/2013

Wow! I'm excited that this page can inspire people to try something new! What company did you order from and which teas did you try, if I may ask? That's really exciting too that you were able to figure out how to brew it better by lowering the water temperature! I just bought some loose-leaf green tea from Foojoy, from an Asian market last night and I'm excited to brew some to drink with my breakfast.

JeanBakula on 01/20/2013

I tried some of the loose leaf tea samples you suggested, and love the little samples! I never liked green tea, but wanted to take advantage of it's health benefits. I realized I was using boiled water and burning the leaves! Now I see what it really tastes like. Thanks for the info!

katiem2 on 01/17/2013

I'm a firm believer in organic tea made with all natural organic ingredients, such as the bag. I love green tea and oolong with the occasional earl grey. Great tips on varieties and brands.

cazort on 01/02/2013

I've also composted tea when I've had a garden...another advantage of loose tea! Some tea bags are made from nylon, or have plastic sealants which don't decompose, so I think if a tea bag is not certified biodegradable, it's safest to break it open if you want to use the tea inside it for compost.

dustytoes on 01/02/2013

Thanks cazort for the recommendations. I should look into buying my tea online and trying more varieties with the tea basket infuser.

cazort on 01/01/2013

One of the easiest ways to brew loose-leaf tea is a basket infuser. I like the Finum Brewing Basket best (I recommend the Medium size)--place the loose-leaf tea in the basket, which can sit inside a mug or teapot, and then you can remove it, filtering out the steeped leaves. Upton Tea Imports is a company I recommend starting with--they offer outstanding prices, and they have samples of all their teas. Buying online is the best bet for many people, as local stores don't always stock the best-quality tea, but if you're lucky to live near a good source, buying in person can be a great option too.

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