I've always been frustrated by the fact that tea is dismissed as a boring, ordinary drink in the US while coffee has risen to the heights of a luxurious item. It's pretty cool that Starbucks has educated the American consumer about coffee as a diverse drink that can take multiple shapes, be that of a macchiato, a latte, an expresso, or a mocha. Unfortunately, most people aren't aware that tea can also offer a variety of drinks that are very different in taste and texture.

I think the basic delights of tea are well known to everyone. It is a hot drink that offers a purifying experience with its metallic, acidic, but slighty tangy taste that cleanses the palate of its post-dinner spicy, sweet, and sour sensations. The bitter taste of each sip overwhelms all other tastes and sweeps them away; the only other drink that is similarly cleansing is water itself.

However, that up there was only the description of your classical black tea. But tea does offer other taste experiences. For example, one of the best hidden secrets of the tea world is the Keemun black tea that tastes as sweet as cocoa. That is a totally different experience from the classical black tea. You see, in this case, the tea doesn't serve as a post-meal cleansing drink with a metallic, acidic, bitter taste but as a sweet desert. The downside of course is that the sipping experience gets killed in the process. A sweet-tasting variety like Keemun encourages a person to drink it down quickly as all pleasant tastes do. You do need a bitter, acidic classic tea for slow sipping. Not to mention the fact that if you like to take sweets along with your tea, you never want the tea itself to compete with the taste of the pastry.

But in case you are looking for other things, you can also find a tea that's as spicy and musky as tobacco. It has one of those invigorating sensations that are reminiscent of char-broiled meats and smells like tar or wood consumed by the flames in a fireplace. I am talking about the Russian Caravan tea, a mix of Lapsang Souchon and added flavors . Its burned, musky aura is so strong that the teapot that you make it in will retain the smell for years to come. I do adore this tea, but for the love of god, if anyone brews it in my teapot while staying at my house, I will throw the teapot away and make the guest buy me a new one.

Now, the three types of tea experiences I've described - acidic and bitter, sweet and chocolaty, burning and spicy - produce endless combinations. The teas that combine these various sensations are the ones that are most interesting. Malty Assam teas have the taste of licorice while retaining a very intense bitterness. A chinese black tea, Yunnan, isĀ  fascinating because it is rather acidic and metallic but also has a slightly spicy and burned note. Yalta Ceylon is also acidic and bitter, but these flavors are drowned out by its creamy and flowery notes. Sometimes it even tastes really sweet and vanilla-like. That of course depends on how you brew it. Other Ceylon varities also have the sweet aspect to them, but it's very muted.

The brewing is the secret factor that determines which taste will dominate in a tea. For a Yalta Ceylon tea, a 5 minute long brew will bring out the acidic/bitter taste and weaken the vanilla-like, creamy one. That's a rule that applies to most teas in general. Longer brewing creates more bitter, acidic teas and is therefore appropriate for those times when you want to sip your tea slowly and have it purify your palate of left-over dinner tastes. The very sweet teas like Keemun often retain their sweetness despite long-brewing.

I will close this writeup with a mention of one type of black tea that seems to have the most complicated taste pattern: Darjeeling. I don't drink this bitter, sweet, and musty tea often myself because its contradictory tastes don't jibe too well with each other and confuse my poor, unsophisticated palate that yearns for something more harmonious. But, it's perfect for one of those days when you are looking for an exciting treat.