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Getting into Chinese Tea: A Beginner's Guide

Chao Zhou gongfu cha
Chao Zhou Gongfu Cha

Chinese tea can seem pretty complicated, what with all the different tea regions producing 6 different categories of tea (White, Green, Yellow, Oolong, Red and Dark) with a countless array of different teas within each category, all of these teas having different grades and coming in at different price points. And t
his is all before you even think about how to actually brew the tea itself.

Although it all seems pretty complicated at the beginning, once you get started, you’ll find that everything evolves naturally as you curiously explore the vast world of tea. The thing is – how does one get started? Well, you can try out these tips.

Tip 1 – Finding your tea type

What sparked your interest in Chinese tea in the first place? What tea did you try that made you think – you know what, I want to learn more about all this? For me, it was a Dian Hong, a Chinese Red tea that originates from Yunnan province. It started around 10 years ago, during a trip to China to visit Dawn’s family. I was a bit of a coffee addict back then and coffee wasn’t really widely available in China at the time so I had to substitute that habit with tea whilst I was there and grew a bit of a taste for it.

Just before I came back to Australia, Dawn and I decided to stop by a small tea shop in Dawn’s hometown to buy some tea to bring back with us. At the time, it was hard to find good Chinese tea in Sydney. We wanted a red tea as that’s what we’ve been drinking most during our time there, and so we went in and asked “do you have any red teas, like a Dian Hong?” The vendor pointed to a shelf where a whole bunch of red teas laid out. None looked particularly interesting to us and so Dawn asked, “good Red tea like Dian Hong should have a lot of golden tips right?” To which the vendor replied, “You seem to know what you’re looking for.” And he proceeded to open up a hidden drawer and pulled out a large bag of golden tipped black tea – a Dian Hong Red tea.

We didn’t get a chance to try it at the shop as we were in a bit of a rush but we bought a big bag anyway and tried it when we were back in Australia. For me, it was a huge revelation – I had no idea that black teas could taste like this. I had drunk other red teas during this trip to China but there was something different about this one. Maybe the tea itself was of better quality as it did have a lot of golden tips; or maybe it’s the context and the fact that I’m back home in Australia, having a little more time to myself and really being able to concentrate on this tea. Who knows. And before this, the only black tea I knew of was English Breakfast, that I would have with or without milk. But this was something else. The flavours were sweet, malty with some slight floral notes. It was perhaps the most complex type of tea that I’ve had at the time and it spurred me to start exploring the tea world even more. I started the journey by trying to find the same Red tea here in Australia. As I visited different shops, I then soon discovered the wonders of all the other types of teas and well, fast forward 10 years later, and my tea journey continues on.

Diang Hong Red (black) tea
What a typical Dian Hong Red tea looks like

So the first question you should ask yourself is – what was the tea that sparked your interest in wanting to explore the world of Chinese tea? Maybe it was a particular type of green tea that you had whilst travelling; if so, then maybe you’ll want to start looking into the different types of Chinese Green teas available; or maybe a friend served up a complex Oolong tea to you that really caught you by surprise – maybe it was a Tie Guan Yin or a Phoenix Dancong. Start looking for more of those to try and then branch out to other Oolongs as well. Or maybe you’re just a fan of a simple English Breakfast – in which case, like me, you could start with trying different types Chinese Red teas to see how they differ to an English Breakfast. I mean after all, the old English Breakfast blends did use the Chinese red tea Keemun as it’s base.

The point here is, if you’re not sure where to begin your tea journey, think about what tea it was that sparked your interest in the first place, then look for ways to explore that type of tea first before expanding your horizons to other types.

Now that you have a tea or at least, a category of teas in mind, how do you go about exploring these teas? Well, that leads us to…

Tip 2 – Finding a trusted vendor

I mean, that’s kind of obvious isn’t it? But how do you find a tea vendor you can trust? Well, you can always start by asking an experienced tea drinker that you may know for recommendations on where they get their teas from.

If you don’t know any serious tea-drinkers, then if possible, visit some Chinese tea shops in your city and try out some of the teas they have on offer. Usually, a lot of shops will sell small samples of different teas or better yet, if you have the time, sit down at the main tea table at one of these shops and have the owners brew up something for you to try – it’s an experience in and of itself. Tasting different teas is still the best way to judge because you can pretty much tell almost immediately whether it’s going to be something you enjoy or not.

Chinese tea house
Visiting a Chinese tea house is a great way to sample some teas

That being said, many of you out there may not have the luxury of living close to, or even in a city or town that has a Chinese tea house. In those cases, you’re probably now trying to look for something online. Now, it can be tough finding the right online tea vendor for you, but a great place to start is with the many tea-related forums and local MeetUp groups or Facebook pages to check out some recommendations. Once you have a list of potential websites, there are a few things you can look out for when deciding who to go with:

  • Find vendors that are open and transparent with how they source their teas.
  • Check out their website as well as their social media pages; do they talk about where they get their teas from and how they source the tea?
  • Are they constantly learning about the different regions their teas come from and what makes their teas unique? Do they share this information with you?
  • Do they provide thorough descriptions of their teas? Not just where they’re from but also the flavour profiles and how to brew the teas? The more they can describe, the more likely it is that they really know their teas, which is a good sign for quality

Here at Tea Angle, we travel directly to the different tea regions where we source our teas from to try and get a better understanding of what the essence and character of these different teas are. We want to offer teas that are a true reflection of their origins. Once we have that benchmark set, we then feel confident to be able to source teas that match, or even exceed what we initially tasted. This is by no means an easy task and there are definitely much easier ways out there to source tea – but we feel that this is the only way that we’re able to bring teas that are unique and a true reflection of their origins to share with all you tea lovers out there. It’s a slow process, which is why at this stage, we don’t have a whole lot of teas on our site – but you can rest assured that what we do have are a reflection of the lands that they come from. Our aim is to slowly build the range as we discover more about different tea regions.

Tea fields in the Wuyi Mountains
Tea fields in the Wuyi Mountains in northern Fujian
Getting ready to shake some Phoenix Dancong Oolong leaves
Getting ready to shake some Phoenix Dancong Oolong leaves


Tea Pricing

Another thing to consider when looking for a trusted vendor is in the pricing of their teas. There’s a bit of a saying in the tea world – “not all expensive tea is good, but good tea is expensive (relatively speaking).” Once you start to dive into this complex world of Chinese teas, you’ll soon realise that pricing for different teas – even teas with the same name – can range dramatically – anywhere from 10s of dollars to 100s, even 1000s of dollars. For example, in a recent video, we tasted an authentic Jin Jun Mei Black tea with our friend Adeline, which cost $220AUD for 50g. Check out the video to see what we thought of it. At the same time, doing a quick search for Jin Jun Mei online will show some places selling this tea for as little as $12.95 for 70g. Same name, but definitely not the same tea.

Nothing against spending lots of money on something that you love, but if you’re just starting out, rest assured, you don’t need to spend stupid amounts of money to enjoy good tea. As a rough guide though, expect to spend around $15 – $30 for 50g of good tea. It’s a bit of a jump from the supermarket tea bags for sure, but once you realise how expensive this type of tea can get, and all the hard work that goes into making it, it’s not bad at all. Think of it like buying a bottle of wine – a Pinot Noir can cost $9 a bottle or $100 a bottle or more.

Authentic Jinjunmei Red tea
This here Jinjunmei Red (Black) tea costs a whopping $220AUD for 50g

Tip 3 – Just Start

We’ve given you a lot of things to consider and think about but I think the best advice we can probably give is – don’t overthink it and just start. The best way to understand more about tea is to drink more tea. Good tea and yes, even bad tea. Because how will you know something is good if you don’t have the bad to compare it to? Don’t stress too much about how to brew tea the “correct” way to begin with. Most tea that you’d buy would have some brewing instructions with it. Start with that. Then you can slowly adjust the brewing parameters as you go to suit your tastes. There’s no right or wrong. Good tea can be fairly forgiving so if you follow the tips we’ve mentioned and:

  • Start with what you already like and explore the areas around that
  • Find a trusted vendor, whether it’s a physical shop or an online shop
  • Just start – don’t spend too much too fast at the beginning. Try out some teas that you think are interesting and things will evolve from there

The world of Chinese tea is a vast, interesting and complex world to explore. Take your time and enjoy the journey. There is much to discover. Be warned however – once you go down the rabbit hole, there is no turning back.

Happy brewing :)


Tea Angle are based in Sydney Australia. We are purveyors of fine Chinese teas and the teas that we source are single origin and have no added flavourings. Click here to see our tea collection 

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