The best international teas I’ve discovered around the world, that you need to know about.
And you don’t even have to travel there to get them!
(But you could.)
As the days get shorter and Fall finally arrives in San Francisco, I find myself cozying up in a big blanket and taking hygge to heart.
For me one of the best ways to slow down, be more mindful, and even connect with others is to brew a pot of tea. Although I can’t live without my morning espresso and I’m the first to suggest opening a bottle of red wine, there is something simple, elegant, and timeless about enjoying a hot cup of tea.
My love affair with tea began as the best do….by accident. Tea is an ancient beverage with cultural significance across the globe. The words for tea are similar in nearly every language to either: te, cha, or chai, which reflects the history of tea distribution from its origin in China. After water, it is the most consumed beverage in the world.
There isn’t a strong tea culture here in the United States. As I began to travel more, I slowly began integrating bits of tea drinking into my daily life — mostly without realizing it. What began as a daily ‘cuppa’ of English tea in the afternoon or a foray into green tea from Japan in place of my coffee became an exploration of the world of tea and the many tasty varieties and benefits that come along with it.
I had the chance to explore tea in more depth this past year. Stops in Sri Lanka and Southern India led from me to rolling tea plantations to tea factories, tastings, and even a tea class. Learning and seeing all that I did about where tea comes from and how it plays such a large part in different cultures made me appreciate tea even more. I’ve included a bit of what I learned for you below.
Tea teaches us to be in the moment. It beckons us to be patient while the water boils, to sit a bit longer as the leaves brew. Lastly, we must sip it slowly. Noticing the aroma, temperature, steam rising from the cup…we use all of our senses to truly enjoy a cup of tea.
Here are a few of the best teas I’ve found in my travels. My hope is that by knowing about them, you can both enjoy them at home and perhaps…plan a trip to discover some more for yourself.
Types of Teas Around the World
First, an overview of the different types of teas.
Black: The most popular tea worldwide. Milk and/or sugar are often added to stronger brews, but a fine black tea is more reddish in color (it’s called red tea in China,) and it has a delicate flavor that’s actually best on its own!
Green: Often celebrated for its many health benefits. Slightly less caffeine than black tea, and with range of flavors from more bitter to light and grassy. Popular in Japan and China.
White: A rare tea made with the young leaves of the tea plant, and minimally processed. Very delicate flavor, and often more expensive due to the labor involved (it’s traditionally hand-picked.) Slightly less caffeinated than green tea.
Herbal: Herbal teas are made from exactly what they’re named for: herbs. Plants from peppermint to flower buds and spices, they’re also called tisanes. Caffeine free. Great for sipping or to wind down before bed!
Rooibos: An herb native to South Africa (where it’s called ‘bush tea,’) it’s gaining popularity elsewhere in the world. It has a fruity and earthy flavor, and touts a variety of health benefits, too. Caffeine free.
Mate: The national beverage of Argentina, yerba mate is traditionally sipped from a gourd and shared socially. This custom can be found all over South America. I personally love it when I need to focus! Caffeine level nearly as much as coffee.
Oolong: Oolong is semi-oxidized tea leaves stemming (see what I did there?) from Taiwan and southern China. With its very often complex flavors and delightful aromas, it is my personal favorite tea. Caffeine in between green and black tea levels.
World’s Best Teas (Or, Best Known)
If you’re behind on the matcha trend, it’s time to catch up! Although it’s becoming massively popular in other parts of the world, it has a long and beautiful history and culture in Japan. With matcha you consume the actual green tea leaf, which has been shade grown, carefully cultivated, and ground finely. It’s the best energy boost (without the withdrawals) that I know of, and it’s also used to flavor some very tasty treats! (Get to know matcha!)
Served in: United Kingdom
Tea is like the lifeblood of the UK, and the tradition of a cuppa and a biscuit is one that I find soothing and comforting even as a non-English person. I like my cup with a dash of milk — or better yet, served in its highest form with baked treats (or even champagne!) at afternoon high tea.
It’s hard to imagine a tea that’s gets so much better at its source than Indian chai. It’s nearly impossible to replicate how good it tastes to have a chai in a clay cup (that’s often how it’s served streetside,) with its array of spices and the perfect blend of creamy milk and sugar. Masala chai is named for the spices used to create it. And while the drink has found some mass appeal, there really is no substitute for this Indian classic.
Moroccan Mint Tea
Another area-specific tea that’s found some worldwide recognition, Moroccan mint tea is a blend of gunpowder green tea and fresh mint leaves, often served with sugar. Again there’s no substitute for the original (and the pomp and circumstance and culture that comes with it,) but this is a blend that’s easy to recreate at home that’s especially tasty.
I have a soft spot for Turkish tea, as I think I’ve never had so much tea in one country as I did there. As its a token of hospitality (and the Turkish are unbelievably hospitable,) I felt like I had a tiny cup of reddish tea in my hand for the duration of my travels there. It’s called Çay (pronounced ‘chai’) and can be brewed at home, but I highly recommend going to Turkey to experience it. They also have an apple tea that’s incredible — and of course, Turkish coffee!
Specialty Teas I Love
The Best Discoveries From My Travels That I Now Drink At Home
Green tea with bits of roasted brown rice…hmm? Although originally it was created (as a lot of tasty things are) to disguise or add to the flavor of less quality tea, I find that for me it enriches the flavor to the point I enjoy drinking it more than green tea alone.
Because the rice is roasted, you get a light but robust roasted flavor that’s slightly nutty (almost like a hint of popcorn.) It’s one I didn’t know about for years that I definitely recommend trying.
Tulsi (Holy Basil) Tea
Tulsi is the Sanskrit name for this basil plant that grows wild in India. Brewing the leaves gives you an herbal tea that’s refreshing and soothing. Most people try it for its health benefits, as it’s a known adaptogen, or natural substance that helps the body adapt to stress. Yet another I wish I had found sooner!
High Mountain Oolong
This might be my favorite tea in all the land! The top quality oolongs I have tasted come from the mountains of Taiwan, and a good oolong (while expensive) can be brewed up to six times and still produce the incredible flavors it is known for. Depending on the leaf and preparation, you can get everything from citrus and floral notes to buttery richness. I highly recommend going loose leaf tea with this one — the leaves are often rolled and expand when you add the hot water. Beautiful and delicious!
Origin: Sri Lanka
One of the most renowned teas in the world, it took a trip to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) to appreciate the art form that is the quality of Ceylon black tea. Unlike most black teas, which can be strong and even bitter when brewed, Ceylon tea is light and subtle. Similar to wine, the terroir or soil and even weather conditions, affect this tea differently, so it’s easy to become a connoisseur or even tea snob about it!
A high quality Ceylon tea should be minimally processed (ideally sun dried,) and the more in tact the leaves are the highest quality taste you’ll get (orange Pekoe is a good one to remember — and it’s the leaves quality, not the flavor that it’s named for.) Not sure which one is best? It’s usually going to be the more expensive one, so that’s one way to know.
Butterfly Pea/Lemongrass Tea
Like so many other things in Thailand, the first time I saw this tea I actually thought it was magical. Brewed from the butterfly pea flowers, and often tastily blended with lemongrass, it’s a blue tea with a unique flavor that turns deep purple or red with the addition of lemon juice. In addition to being flavorful, it’s also a great party trick!
Pu-erh is the most unique tea I’ve ever tasted. It’s also the most prized tea in China. The tea cakes, a compacted wheel-like formation that most pu-erh is sold in, are often buried to encourage the microbial fermentation that sets this tea apart. It is aged for years, sometimes decades, and its flavor is constantly changing and often very complex. Try it if you ever get the chance or, or even are just curious!
Lychee Red/Black Tea
This was my latest discovery on my trip to Guangdong province in southern China. It’s a Chinese black (or red) tea flavored ever-so-lightly with the tropical essence of lychee. It’s a combination I didn’t expect to love, but it’s famous in this area and it’s come to be one of my favorites to drink and serve.
Ah, hibiscus tea. I love it hot or cold, and I’ve had it ranging from Mexican jamaica to brewed in my family’s home…but the most memorable place I really came to appreciate hibiscus tea was in Egypt. I can still picture the barrels of hibiscus flowers for sale in the markets, or the deep reds and purples of a cup of it on the tables there. I really like brewing from the whole flowers, and then you can add honey or sugar as you like to balance out the tartness. Always a favorite!
Other Famous Tea Regions Worth Visiting
Add these to your travel list!
- Darjeeling, India
- Kyushu, Japan
- Yunnan, China
- Munnar, India
- Fujian Province, China
- Assam, India
- Uji, Japan
- Uva, Sri Lanka
I hope that no matter where you are in your tea tasting journey, that you come to try a new one and open up a whole other world.
Tea slows us down — whether we’re sitting idly on a cafe terrace in Paris, by the side of the road in rural Asia, or in the comfort of our favorite armchair at home. It has a number of health benefits, which vary by type of tea. But by far the greatest benefit of tea to me will be the comfort it brings my mind — warming my body, and when it’s really good…stirring my soul a little bit.
a very worthy read: my friend candace’s wonderful essay ‘home is a cup of tea’
my favorite tea accessories:
:: save for later ::