I love tea. Black, green, white, oolong or blue, hot or iced, with or without milk, tea-infused simple syrup mixed in a cocktail or fizzy water. Anytime, anywhere. Looseleaf or a simple tea bag. Earl Grey baked into shortbread. There are more than 3,000 varieties, and after water, tea is the most-consumed beverage in the world. Even if you don’t normally drink tea, chances are you’ve turned to it when you are feeling less than stellar.

I’ve have had many conversations, laughter and a few tears over tea. It’s about gathering around the table, being together. All made perfect with a good cup of tea.

My journey into looseleaf tea began with a little box called Tea Aficionado containing five tubes of loose tea, gifted to me by my daughter. Who knew what an interest it would spark?

I began to try new teas and steeping methods, learned about the health benefits, and about tea entrepreneurs like Steven Smith, who started Tazo and Stash Teas. I also started visiting tea houses for Afternoon Tea.

This is an experience not to be rushed. It is a time for a quiet chat, or raucous laughter with friends and family, a break from all that is the rest of your life. It is a time to enjoy a hot cup of your favourite brew (or perhaps try something new), eat some fancy, tasty finger foods, and take a big, deep breath.

Instead of lunch out with friends, why not organize a Tea? Most teahouses are happy to customize a gluten-free, vegetarian, or dairy-free option to suit a particular diet, and if arranged prior to arrival, all you have to do is sit back and relax.

Or host a Tea at home. I have done this for years. All you need is fresh scones, a few sandwiches and some sweet treats.

A few suggestions for your at-home tea

afternoon tea party
  • Sandwiches: Egg salad rolled into a spiral with a piece of gherkin or olive at the centre, then sliced is fun; try thinly sliced cucumber layered with cream cheese mixed with dill; pimiento cheese in a soft multigrain; chicken salad, smoked salmon, shaved roast beef, or ham and cheese are all great choices.
  • Scones are a must. Plain, with raisins or currants, mixed with dried fruit, crystallized ginger, vanilla bean or cheese are a few options, but always serve with jam, butter and, if possible, double or clotted cream. A tart lemon curd is a welcome addition.
  • Desserts: Tea desserts are always tiny. Try chewy, rich chocolate brownies, airy madeleines, creamy fresh-fruit tarts, ethereal macarons with the perfect combination of shattering outer shell and soft-inside chewiness, darkly caramelized canelés, choux filled with pastry cream, or any tiny decadent sweet.
  • Make it a potluck and ask everyone to contribute. Hosting is so much easier when the prep is divided.

Types of Tea

Black teas such as Assam, Ceylon, Keemun, Earl Grey, and Darjeeling come mainly from India, Sri Lanka, Africa, and China. Black tea is fully oxidized and brews a dark amber colour. It is higher in caffeine, approximately 50 mg per 180-ml (6-oz) cup. Brew 3-7 minutes.

White tea contains withered and dried leaves with slight oxidation. The result is a mild and sweet tea with low caffeine (15-20 mg) and light colour. One of the nicest white teas is Silver Needle. Brew with 75-80 C (165-175 F) water. Brew 1-3 minutes.

Green teas like Jasmine, Sencha, Gyokuro, Mao Feng, Gunpowder and Genmaicha are not oxidized and brew to a pale green or gold colour. Most originate in Japan or China. Green teas are mild and delicate and can have a light grassy or vegetal flavour, or even, in the case of Gunpowder, a smoky taste. Be careful to use boiled water that has cooled for a minute or two, to 75-80 C (165-175 F), otherwise the leaves will be burned and cause the tea to have a bitter taste. Caffeine content is low, about 20-30 mg per cup. Brew 1-3 minutes.

Matcha is a type of finely-ground green tea, usually from Japan. It is made not by steeping and removing the tea, but by whisking the powder into hot water and drinking the brew as is. Use not-quite-boiling water as for green tea.

Oolong is a partially oxidized tea and lies somewhere between green and black. It can be re-steeped several times. Caffeine content is between 30-40 mg. Steeping temperature is 90-100 C (195-210 F). Brew 1-3 minutes

Purple tea is relatively new. Discovered growing in the Assam region of India, it’s now grown commercially in Kenya. It has a pleasant, sweet taste, not unlike green tea, but without the vegetal or grassy notes. It is low in caffeine, somewhere between white and green. Steep in 75-80 C (165-175 F) water. Brew 2-4 minutes.

Pu-erh is a fermented tea and has an earthy flavour. It is also higher in caffeine, approximately 30-100 mg per cup. Also use boiling water. Brew 3-5 minutes.

Herbal teas, also called tisanes, do not contain any tea or caffeine. They are an infusion of boiling water and botanicals like herbs, flowers, roots and berries. Brew 5-7 minutes.

Blue is a caffeine-free herbal tisane made from the butterfly pea flower. It steeps into a beautiful blue colour and has a light taste. Try adding a squeeze of citrus, which turns the tea’s colour to a pale mauve. Steep and brew as for herbal tea.

Rooibos, also called red tea, is an herbal tisane made from fermented leaves of a shrub called Aspalathus linearis, usually grown in South Africa. It does not contain any tea or caffeine. Use boiling water to brew. Brew 5-7 minutes.

All tea comes from one plant. Teas have different levels of caffeine and flavour depending on oxidization and fermentation periods. Because of the different oxidization periods, brew temperatures and times vary as well. Pouring the correct temperature water over the leaves is important to brew properly.

Generally, use 5 ml (1 tsp) looseleaf per 180 ml (6 oz) cup of boiling water in a pre-warmed pot.