Bruce Richardson, tea master and co-owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas
Elmwood Inn Fine Teas owners Bruce and Shelley Richardson steep tradition and tranquility into every cup. Here, tea master Bruce provides a primer on the various types of tea, as well as advice on how to brew the perfect pot.
From tea’s sacred roots in China, to watching the steam curl into the air above a favorite tea cup, making tea is a true art form that takes time. It begins, Bruce says, with the hand-picked leaves.
The majority of tea imported into the United States comes from Argentina, where long rows of tea plants are harvested with a mechanical harvester, Bruce says. This produces the lighter tea many Americans know in their iced teas. He calls this the supermarket tea.
Elmwood Inn specializes in gourmet teas. Each leaf is hand-picked from tea plants in well-groomed, higher-elevation tea gardens. Teas are grouped into families—white, green, oolong, black—which are determined by what happens to the leaves once they are picked. “You could go into a bush throughout the year and pick tea and make it into any of the families,” Bruce says.
White tea is produced when a worker picks the uppermost leaves from any given tea plant and lays the leaves in the sun to dry.
Green tea is produced when the leaves are picked, placed immediately into a heated situation to kill the enzymes, and then laid out to dry. In Japan, the heat comes from a steamer. In China, the tea gardens often use a wok to heat up the tender leaves. There is no oxidation involved, and the tea stays in its “green” form.
Oolong teas, Bruce explains, are like a crossover from green to black, meaning that oolongs have properties of both families.
Black teas are the boldest family of all. Black teas are oxidized for about four hours before they are dried. “The process is similar to cutting into an apple. The apple is peeled or sliced, and what happens to the apple after it is left in the air for a bit? It turns brown. Same process with tea,” Bruce says. Tea leaves are gently crushed right there in the tea garden, producing a slight bruise to the leaves. Then they are exposed to the air for four hours, and this turns the leaf from green to brown or black. The leaves are then dried completely.
Other families of tea—herbals with ingredients such as lemongrass or chamomile, or infusions with ingredients such as dried fruits—are called teas simply because they go through the process of being steeped in water for a period of time.
Tips from the Tea Master
“The biggest mistake that people make is putting boiling water on green tea,” Bruce says. “Since we are about educating people as well, we also teach people as they are in the store about times and temperatures that make the different teas taste the best.” To facilitate this teaching, the Richardsons share a “Cup of Serenity” card with specific instructions on how to make the most of the specialty teas:
Five Steps to Good Tea
- Fill kettle with cold filtered water and apply heat.
- Warm teapot with a bit of hot water. Discard before adding tea.
- Add one teaspoon of tea per cup to the pot. An infuser basket or t-sac is often best to contain leaves.
- Pour hot water over the leaves.
- After four minutes, remove the leaves.
- White or green teas – 165 to 175 degrees
- Oolong teas – 200 degrees F
- Black teas/herbals/infusions – 212 degrees F
“We tell people, we will give you the guidelines, and then you figure out what works best. Become your own teacher,” Bruce says. “Some people ask me, how do you become a tea master? I say, ‘You drink tea, you drink tea, you drink tea.’ You have to put in the hours.”