Tea has been around for almost 5,000 years. It was first discovered in China and has since become a staple of the human diet across the globe. The hot and iced beverage rose from humble beginnings into one of the most consumed beverages on the planet.
Since tea leaves were first infused in China thousands of years ago, its delighted us with its range of flavors and potent health benefits. The flavors and aromas offer something for everyone, whether you prefer spicy or sweet, mild or bold.
Drinking tea is so much more than simply drinking leaves in water. The history of tea, its importance in cultural ceremonies, and the myriad varieties all deepen the tea drinking experience. Discover the world of tea and find out everything there is to know about this dazzling drink.
What Is Tea?
To truly understand tea, you need to know what actually constitutes a tea. There are three main categories of tea: true tea, herbal tea, and flavored tea. These teas are differentiated by the plants that are used to make the tea. There are also subcategories within each of these categories, to further make the distinction between different types of tea.
Many new tea drinkers are surprised to find out that herbal teas and flavored teas aren’t really teas. That’s because these types of tea don’t contain any plant parts of the tea plant known by the scientific name Camellia sinensis. Herbal teas and flavored teas infuse spices, herbs, and flowers in water to make what’s called a tisane. Read on to find out more about these different categories of tea.
Types of Tea
There are three main types of tea. True teas are infusions made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. These teas are the traditional teas that were discovered thousands of years ago. There are five true teas: white tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea, and pu-erh tea. These are the teas most scientists refer to when doing research on the health benefits of tea.
Even though these teas come from the leaves of the same tea plant, they differ wildly in flavor, aroma, and appearance. White tea is delicate and airy while black tea is intensely pungent and bold. How can these tease vary so much when they come from the same leaves? The answer lies in the production process.
Some true teas like oolong and black tea are oxidized. This process exposes enzymes in the tea leaves to oxygen, which results in a darkening of the leaves. Other true teas such as white tea and green tea are prevented from oxidizing. This results in a milder, more natural and earthy flavor. Here, we’ll break down difference between the true teas.
White tea is the least processed true tea. It undergoes the simplest production process, which is designed to maintain its natural look and flavor. Tea leaves are plucked by hand and then immediately dried outdoors in natural sunlight. Only the youngest leaves of the tea plant are used to make white tea. Typically, producers harvest just the first two leaves of each tea shoot.
Most white teas are produced in the Fujian province of China. Recently, white tea plantations have been developed in Sri Lanka as well as Africa. These new white teas are sold as White Ceylon and African White to differentiate from the traditional white teas produced in China.
The two highest quality white tea varieties are Silver Needle and White Peony. Silver Needle is made using only the buds of the tea leaf plant. It boasts a sweet flavor that is reminiscent of honeysuckle. White Peony is made using both buds and leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. This white tea has a robust flavor that is sweet and mildly sharp.
Flavor and Aroma
White tea overall has a subtle flavor profile that is delicate and naturally sweet. This tea is mild enough to suit the taste buds of new tea drinkers and nuanced enough to be beloved by tea connoisseurs.
White tea is light yellow in appearance, although some varieties made with stems and larger leaves may have a slightly green hue. In addition to the sweet flavor profile, white tea contains undertones that are floral and fruity. This tea is often consumed with a slice of lemon or a small amount of honey to accentuate the sweet flavor profile.
Like white tea, green tea is made from leaves that are only minimally processed. Green tea leaves are not oxidized, but they do undergo a slightly longer production process than white teas.
Green tea leaves are hand harvested and immediately transported to an onsite production facility. Here, the teas leaves are spread out on large bamboo or cloth mats where they are withered. This step of the production process helps to reduce moisture content of the tea leaves.
Once the leaves are limp, they are blasted with heat to prevent oxidation. In general, green tea leaves are either pan-fired or steamed during the drying process. As the tea leaves are being dried, tea masters begin to shape the tea leaves. Popular green tea leaf shapes include pearls, spindles, balls, and cakes depending on the varietal.
Green tea is most commonly produced in China and Japan. The green teas from both of these nations are distinct due to the differences in production. Most Chinese green teas are dried using pan-firing or other roasting methods. As a result, Chinese green teas tend to have a toasty flavor that is earthy.
On the other hand, Japanese green teas are typically steam dried. This creates green teas that are grassy and vegetal in flavor. Japanese green teas tend to have a milder and sweeter flavor than Chinese green teas.
Popular varieties of Japanese green tea include sencha, matcha, and genmaicha. Sencha green tea is the most widely available Japanese green tea. It is mildly sweet and typically sold in delicate spindles.
Matcha tea is a stone-ground tea that is sold in a fine powder form. It is popularly brewed in lattes and as a culinary food additive. Genmaicha tea is a blend of green tea leaves mixed with popped rice kernels. It is an affordable tea that taste similar to Chinese green teas because of its toasted notes.
Flavors and Aroma
Chinese green teas have roasted, nutty flavors while Japanese green teas are vegetal and herbaceous. Green tea is typically light green or pale yellow in color. Depending on the variety, green tea may have fruity undertones or grassy notes. Green teas may have astringent flavors, but this can be avoided if you brew green tea the right way.
Oolong tea, known in China as “wulong tea,” is a semi-oxidized tea. The tea leaves are allowed to oxidize, but only for a short period of time. The flavor and color of oolong tea are stronger than green tea, but more mellow than black tea.
Oolong tea leaves undergo a moderate production process consisting of: hand harvesting, withering, rolling, short-term oxidation, and drying.
The plucked tea leaves are withered and bruised in bamboo baskets or on bamboo mats. The bruising exposes enzymes in the tea leaves to oxygen. These enzymes begin a controlled fermentation process that alters the flavor and color of the leaves.
Oolong teas are cultivated exclusively in China and Taiwan. Most oolong teas are classified by the region in which they are grown.
This helps to reflect the different flavor profiles caused by terroir—the idea that soil composition, climate, and other regional factors impact the way foods taste. The flavor of oolong teas can vary dramatically depending on where they were grown.
The flavor of oolong teas also differs depending on how long the leaves are oxidized. Oolong teas can undergo anywhere from 8 to 80 percent oxidation.
The least oxidized oolong teas are called pouchongs. Pouchong tea is floral and tastes similar to green tea. The most heavily oxidized oolong tea is a Chinese creation known as Da Hong Pao. It offers a malty flavor that is strong yet smooth.
Flavors and Aroma
In general, oolong teas feature a floral flavor with a smooth finish. These teas typically have a medium body. Oolong tea can appear pale green or amber in color.
Black tea is the most processed of the true tea varieties. It undergoes a process of withering, rolling, oxidation, and drying. The lengthy production process produces a tea that is bold and reminiscent of the flavor of coffee.
Black teas are most commonly produced in China, India, Sri Lanka, and Africa. The largest black tea growing regions are the Assam and Darjeeling areas of India. This is followed by Nilgiri, Sri Lanka—the third largest growing region in the country formerly known as Ceylon.
Black teas, like oolong teas, are typically named after the regions in which they are produced. Black teas cultivated in Assam are made using the tea variety called Camellia sinensis var. assamica. These teas are fully oxidized and appear deep black in color.
Tea plants in Darjeeling are of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis variety. Darjeeling teas are only semi-oxidized due to the climate of the region.
Ceylon black teas cultivated in Sri Lanka are characterized by the long, wiry shape of the leaves. Most Chinese black teas including Keemun are cultivated in Yunnan province. Chinese black teas are typically stronger and maltier than Indian varieties.
Flavor and Aroma
Black teas are dark brown or reddish amber when brewed. Assam black tea features a malty flavor with earthy aromas. Darjeeling black teas are more delicate with floral, and fruity flavors. Ceylon black tea features hints of chocolate and has a bold, full-bodied flavor.