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Have a special cup of tea

  • Story Highlights
  • Teas have different flavors and brewing requirements
  • Expert: Best cups are wide, flat and glass
  • Spoon-shaped infusers don't have enough room for leaves to unfurl
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Real Simple

(Real Simple) -- Steep yourself in know-how with these masterful tips on tools and techniques.

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Four main tea categories

All true teas (infusions made from herbs are technically called tisanes) start from the fresh green leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. The way they're processed accounts for the differences in color and flavor. Below, the four main categories of tea and how to brew each. For the best flavor, experts say, use filtered water.

Black tea

What it is: Accounting for 80 percent of all tea sold worldwide (90 percent in the United States), black tea is brisk and full-bodied enough to stand up to milk and sugar. Like oolong, it has half the caffeine of coffee (green and white teas have about a third).

How it's made: It's fully fermented, meaning the leaves are dried long enough to oxidize fully, which produces the dark color and flavor.

How to brew: Bring the water to a rolling boil. Steep one teaspoon or bag per cup for three to five minutes.

Green Tea

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What it is: Popular in Japan and China, and the tea most studied for its potential health benefits, this yellow-green brew has a light, earthy, sweet taste.

How it's made: It's unfermented. Leaves are heated to destroy the enzymes that cause oxidation.

How to brew: To avoid bitterness, heat the water to just below the boil (when a few bubbles start to rise), or let it boil, then set it aside for 10 minutes. Steep one teaspoon or bag per cup for one to two minutes.

Oolong Tea

What it is: A cross between black tea's strength and green tea's freshness, oolong is medium-bodied, smoky, and a bit fruity. Some connoisseurs believe that adding milk or sugar to oolong masks its particular appeal.

How it's made: It's partially fermented  the leaves oxidize for a shorter period than with black tea.

How to brew: To avoid bitterness, heat the water to just below the boil (when a few bubbles start to rise), or let it boil, then set it aside for 10 minutes. Steep one teaspoon or bag per cup for one to two minutes.

White Tea

What it is: The rarest of teas, and expensive, this usually comes from two regions in China and has a very brief picking season. It's a fragrant, almost colorless brew that's lighter-tasting and sweeter than green.

How it's made:: It's unfermented, made from the unopened silver buds and outer leaf tips, which are simply air-dried. Since white is the least processed of all teas, it preserves the most antioxidants.

How to brew: Heat the water as you would for green tea, then steep one teaspoon per cup for 3 to 10 minutes.

The best tea kettles

Whether you can't be bothered with anything fussier than a bag of Lipton or you love watching the chrysanthemum blossoms in your tea bloom, a perfect cup starts with equipment that performs two crucial functions: It brings the water to the right temperature and steeps your tea to the right intensity.

Stovetop kettle

In the kettle kingdom, stainless steel reigns. It lasts longer than glass, and it doesn't taint the flavor of the water the way leaching copper can.

"You're dealing with a subtly flavored product," says Joe Simrany, president of the U.S. Tea Association, a trade group. "If anything interferes, it will lessen your enjoyment."

RS Pick: Oxo's eight-cup Uplift Tea Kettle -- steel coated in enamel (nine colors and two finishes available) -- offers a rubberlike handle that keeps its cool, a spout cover that lifts when you tip the kettle (so escaping steam doesn't scald knuckles), a whistle that starts out softly, and a wide top for easy cleaning.

To Buy: $50, www.oxo.com (http://www.oxo.com).

Electric kettle

To boil water much faster than with stovetop models or for pick-me-ups at the office, go electric.

RS Pick: The seven-cup Krups Electric Cordless Kettlein stainless steel, boiled four cups of water in three minutes (the Oxo took almost 10). The automatic shutoff makes boiling the pot dry impossible, a water-level window lets you see what's happening, and a built-in filter delivers a tasty brew.

To Buy: $70

More Tea Essentials

The cup

"When it comes to cups, tea is like wine: You need a special shape for the best flavor," says Xavier de Leon, owner of Athélier Tea Workshop, a tea bar in New York City.

"With wide, flat cups, from the moment you pour the tea, it starts to get cold and the flavor goes away." And to appreciate the lovely color (and stop the brewing when it's just how you like it), you'll want glass.

RS Pick: The Bodum 12-ounce De Chine Tea Glasses are the right narrow shape, and they're made of borosilicate glass, which is more heat retentive and durable than regular glass.

To Buy: $30 for six, www.bodumusa.com (http://www.bodumusa.com).

The strainer

If your teapot doesn't have an infuser, you'll need a strainer that sits atop your cup to avoid a mouthful of leaves. Be sure it's stainless steel, which won't rust or alter your brew's flavor.

RS Pick: The RSVP Tea Strainer With Cup (to keep things tidy) has mesh to stop small leaves and "dust" from making it into your cup.

To Buy: $4, www.artofcookingnyc.com (http://www.artofcookingnyc.com).

The infuser

When a pot is too much, loose-tea aficionados can brew right in the cup.

RS Pick: The RSVP two-inch Mesh Teaball is simple, made of stainless steel, and the perfect size for one cup of tea. (Spoon-shaped infusers typically don't leave enough room for leaves to unfurl and properly flavor the water.)

To Buy: $3, Broadway Panhandler, 866-266-5927.

The teapot

Borosilicate glass pots let you eyeball your brew's color as it progresses and are second only to ceramic at retaining heat. A pot with a removable infuser works for both loose tea and bags.

RS Pick: The six- to seven-cup Bonjour Harmony Glass Teapot comes with a stainless-steel infuser plus a scoop and a trivet (not shown). The tightly fitting metal lid didn't fall off as testers poured out the last drops (other lids wobbled when the pot reached a 45-degree angle).

To Buy: $40, www.bonjourproducts.com (http://www.bonjourproducts.com). E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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