All true tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant of China, and one of its cousins in the Assam tea region in India. The varying styles of the teas are the result of their growing regions, their freshness, and the way they are picked and processed.
Tea connoisseurs snub tea bags and prefer to drink only loose full-leaf tea. If they are passionate, they learn about individual tea plantations and buy only what is known as "single estate" tea, all of it hand-picked on one plantation so that each leaf has reached the proper maturity.
The rest of us are content with widely available full-leaf loose teas, and if those aren''t around we look for tea bags that are labeled as carrying full-leaf tea. If it doesn''t say "full-leaf" then it likely contains what is known in the tea trade as "dust," the finely broken pieces that aren''t considered top grade but do brew more quickly because of their broken state. It''s the tea most of us drink, and although it isn''t high grade, it still can make a tasty "cuppa."
What is it?: Tender new buds picked from the top of the plant. White tea is barely processed. Formerly rare, white tea is more widely available in specialty shops and upscale grocers now. It is considered to best retain many of tea''s health-giving properties.
Taste: A delicate tea that is very pale in color and light in flavor. "For some it is almost like drinking water," Stewart says. Often found flavored with citrus or melon.
Brewing: Use 2 teaspoons per 8-ounce cup. Don''t use boiling water. The water should be about 180 degrees, about the temperature the water reaches when small bubbles first appear. Steep up to 7 minutes.
What is it?: Tea leaves that have only been lightly processed.
Taste: Brewed properly of good-grade leaves, it is a refreshing, light tea with no bitterness. Japanese green teas have a more "grassy" taste and scent than Chinese green teas. One common Japanese green tea is called Sencha; one popular Chinese green is known as Dragonwell.
Brewing: Use 1 teaspoon per 8-ounce cup. Use water that is below the boiling point and steep for only 2 to 3 minutes, otherwise the tea may taste bitter.
What is it?: Oolongs undergo more heating and drying than green tea and less than black. Taiwan is known for its fine oolongs.
Taste: More full-bodied than green tea and less "stout" than black, oolongs are known for a fruity and flowery aroma. Processing differences produce three main types: the strong dark oolongs, medium-bodied jade oolongs and pouchong, an oolong that is close to green tea.
Brewing: Pouchong and jade oolongs: One teaspoon per 8-ounce cup prepared with water that is below the boiling point and steeped for 2-3 minutes. Darker oolongs taste best with up to 2 teaspoons of tea steeped for 7 minutes.
What is it?: This is a large group of teas that go through more processing, including more heat, to produce the black color of the leaves. The tea liquid ranges from amber to deep red. It is the most common tea imported from India, China, Kenya and Sri Lanka (still called Ceylon in the tea trade), the world''s leading tea-producing countries.
The following popular teas are black teas:
Assam: Traditionally a dark, rich tea from northeast India known for having a smooth and malty taste. This tea region is now also producing green and oolong teas.
Chai: Any black tea prepared with milk, a sweetener and a combination of spices that often includes cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and peppercorns.
Darjeeling: A tea from the foothills of the Himalayas in India. Known for its bouquet, its reddish color and its delicate, almost fruity undertones, Darjeeling, if it is of the first spring crop known as "first flush", is called "the champagne of teas."
English breakfast: Any robust black tea sturdy enough to be served with milk and sugar.
Earl Grey: A black tea scented with bergamot oil from the peel of a Mediterranean orange-scented fruit.
Irish breakfast: An Assam tea suitable for adding milk and sugar.
Orange pekoe: A black tea that does not taste of oranges. "Orange" is an honorary nod to the Earl of Orange, and pekoe refers to the size of leaf.
Knight Ridder U.S.A JESSIE MILLIGAN