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The Guide to Tea

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By

Favy

on December 02, 2022

There’s no denying that tea is a popular and essential beverage around the world. It’s enjoyed for its energizing properties (thanks to the caffeine) or relaxing properties (if it’s caffeine-free), cultural significance, and refreshing flavor.

It’s one of the oldest beverages, supposedly first being enjoyed in 2737 BC by Chinese emperor Shen Nung. As the legend goes, his servant was boiling drinking water when some leaves blew into the water. The emperor, being a renowned herbalist, tried this new concoction and thus, tea was born.

While tea is easy to make — simply soaking dried leaves in water — there are numerous ways to brew a delicious cup. From chai to matcha, there is something for everyone.

Tea is typically made from the camellia sinensis plant, which originated in southern China. In the wild, it can grow up to 60 feet; however, it’s typically kept around three feet when cultivated for harvest.

There are two main types of this plant: camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is grown mostly in East Asia and has a mild, mellow flavor; and camellia sinensis var. assamica, which is primarily grown in India and comes with a more robust flavor. All of these teas have roughly the same amount of caffeine, although caffeine content varies based on how much of the leaf you use, how long you steep them, and the temperature of the water.

However, some types of tea — such as herbal tea (which includes chamomile, ginger, hibiscus, peppermint, and rooibos) — do not come from the Camellia sinensis plant. While they technically aren’t “true” teas, they do fall under the umbrella of teas. Most of these are also caffeine-free since they aren’t made from the Camellia sinensis plant.

Tea can come in two forms: tea bags and loose leaf.

Tea bags have the cut tea leaves already in the bag and don’t require a strainer. These are convenient but can lose some of the natural aromas and essentials oils of the tea, along with having the flavor affected by the material used in the bag (if it’s bleached).

Loose leaf tea is dried, high-quality whole-leaf tea that expands in water and allows you to customize your tea experience. It comes in airtight packaging to keep its flavor and freshness. While it’s not as convenient as a tea bag, it gives you a strong flavor and aroma.

There are thousands of teas, which are set apart by the growing conditions, environment, and processing methods. Many of these are also named after the region in which it is grown, such as Assam tea, which is named after the Assam region in India. However, the classifications are broken down into a few main types.

Types of Tea

There are many types of tea: black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, pu-erh tea, dark tea, yellow tea, rooibos tea, purple tea, and herbal infusions.

Black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, pu-erh tea, dark tea, yellow tea, and purple tea are made from the camellia sinensis plant — rooibos tea and herbal infusions are not.

All of these teas are classified based on specific characteristics, which are due to the different harvesting and processing methods: they can be steamed, pan-fired, and oxidized. The tea leaves can be picked in spring, summer, or fall; they can be dried in their natural state, cut into smaller pieces, or rolled into small balls.

Tea can be mixed with herbs, fruits, flowers, and spices to create new blends and flavor experiences. These flavored teas include popular ones such as Earl Grey and masala chai.

Here are the main types of tea you will come across:

Black Tea

Black tea is the most popular and common type of tea in the western world. In general, it has higher caffeine content (around half as much as a cup of coffee) due to brewing time, darker color, and stronger flavor than other types of teas – a robust, full-bodied, brisk taste with notes of fruit or malt that pairs well with other ingredients to create drinks like chai or Earl Grey.

Black tea is produced mainly in China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Vietnam. Each of these teas has its own special quality: for example, black teas from India tend to be stronger and robust (which makes it ideal for adding milk and sugar), while black teas from China are lighter with less caffeine.

Black tea is made by harvesting tea leaves and allowing them to dry, wither, and fully oxidize into a dark brown-black color before being crushed. It can also be cut even smaller through a method called CTC (crush-tear-curl), which is used in teas like Assam and Irish Breakfast.

The most popular types of black tea include teas from India such as Assam, Darjeeling, and Masala Chai; Chinese teas like China Keemun and Golden Yunnan; and Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Irish Breakfast.

Breakfast Teas

Breakfast teas (contrary to the name) can be enjoyed at any time. Breakfast teas and breakfast blends are strong, caffeinated, and steep quickly; it also takes cream and sugar well without being watered down. They typically feature teas from South Asia and Africa due to the full-bodied earthy flavor.

Masala Chai

Masala chai (sometimes simply called chai) is a traditional tea from India that is made of black tea, milk, spices, and sugar. While there isn’t an exact recipe, chai tea uses these ingredients and a blend of spices (cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger, and occasionally others) called masala.

Chai tea is made by boiling the black tea, spices, and sugar; milk is then added, boiled a second time, then strained before it’s served.

Tea is a popular drink now, but it initially wasn’t received well. It became this way when “kadha,” or milk and water boiled in spices, was added to the drink to enhance the flavor by local vendors, causing chai masala to take off in popularity.

Lemon Ginger Black Tea

Lemon ginger black tea is touted by many as helping with digestion, and ginger tea in particular has a history that dates 5,000 years back to its use in China as a health tonic. It’s made using black tea (often those from Sri Lanka or China), ginger, lemongrass, pineapple, calendula, and sunflower petals.

Earl Grey

Earl Grey is a black tea blend that has been flavored with bergamot oil. It’s the most popular flavored tea in Britain today, although the blend was initially created in the 1800s to mask the taste of cheaper black teas. However, you can now find Earl Grey that uses premium black tea and bergamot.

Green Tea

Green tea is one of the many teas made from the camellia sinensis plant and brews a light green or sometimes yellow-ish color. It has around half the caffeine of black tea and typically has a milder taste and lighter body with mild astringency.

Green tea is believed to have originated in China, but it’s grown all over the world today – primarily in China and Japan, but also India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, New Zealand, the US.

Green tea is made by immediately steaming or pan–firing the leaves once harvested in order to stop the enzymes from oxidizing them, which is what gives green tea its light color and vegetal, earthy flavor. Many other teas undergo a firing process, but this is used as the first step for green tea. After this, the tea leaves are pressed or rolled and then dried.

Many times, green tea from different countries are processed differently. For example, Japanese green tea is steam-fired after harvesting to stop oxidation, and the plant yields a savory bright green brew. It may also be shade grown for a few weeks before it’s harvested, increasing the caffeine, chlorophyll, and l-theanine content. Well-known green teas from Japan include Gyokuro, Kukicha, and Sencha.

Chinese green tea, however, is usually pan-fired (using dry heat) to stop oxidation; it’s milder than Japanese green tea, with a delicate flavor, light body, and golden (rather than green) color. Popular green teas from China include Chun Mee, Dragon Well, and Gunpowder.

The way the leaves are processed help preserve the health benefits of green tea, such as the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It’s usually enjoyed without milk, but many add lemon or sugar to enhance the flavor.

Green tea has a few popular variations and flavors, including:

Jasmine Green Tea

Jasmine green tea is the most popular scented tea in china. It’s infused with jasmine flowers, giving it a floral aroma and flavor. This process can take several days, since the tea and jasmine blossoms are kept in a room with a specific humidity, and also done at night when the jasmine blooms and is most fragrant.

While it’s most often made with green tea, other types of tea (white, black, and oolong) are sometimes used.

Matcha Tea

Matcha tea is a type of powdered green tea that originated in China but has been a part of Japanese culture for hundreds of years. It was first produced in China during the Tang Dynasty and brought to Japan by the 12th century, growing in popularity with Buddhist monks and eventually spreading to the upper classes by the 15th century and establishing its place as part of a rich cultural history.

Matcha has a rich and smooth texture and a slightly grassy, nutty, and umami flavor. While it was commonly served during a Japanese tea ceremony, it’s now a versatile ingredient that can be used simply by blending in water to create matcha tea or added to baked treats, lattes, and smoothies.

Matcha is shade grown for at least three weeks before harvesting, which increases the chlorophyll in plants – resulting in its deep green color – as well as the caffeine, l-theanine, and umami flavor. The leaves are steamed after harvest to stop oxidation, and the leaf material (called Tencha) is removed from the fibrous veins and stems. The Tencha is milled between two stones until it becomes a fine powder – matcha.

White Tea

White tea is the least processed of all teas and has a delicate, mild, well-rounded flavor, light body, and a clean, crisp finish. It typically doesn’t become bitter or astringent easily. The flavor is comparable to green tea but a tad creamier and sweeter, and it’s usually enjoyed without any additives. It’s lower in caffeine than other types of teas (with the exception of silver tip tea, which may contain more caffeine), and it has a higher level of antioxidants.

White tea is mainly produced in China (primarily in the Fujian province), where it originated, but it’s also grown in northeast India, eastern Nepal, Taiwan, Thailand, and southern Sri Lanka (in the Galle region).

White teas are processed differently from each other. Typically only the unopened buds and young leaves covered in silver fuzz are used. White teas such as silver tip and silver needle teas are harvested when the first buds and tips of the plant appear, even before it begins to form full leaves; however, other teas like white peony tea are harvested after the leaves have grown. The leaves are left to slowly wither and dry on their own, which results in little oxidation, reduced moisture, and the ideal white tea aroma and flavor. The finished product of white tea are leaves that are big and bulky,

Depending on how it’s processed, you might enjoy white tea with a bright, fruity, herbal flavor or a more oxidized version that is spicy and nutty. There are only a handful of different white tea styles: Bai Mu Dan (“white peony“), Yin Zhen Bai Hao (“silver needle“), Shou Mei (“noble, long life eyebrow“), Gongmei (“tribute eyebrow“), and DaBaiCha/DaHoaCha (Fujiann new craft). Popular varieties of white tea include white peony and silver needle teas.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea, also called wulong in Pinyin, is a partially oxidized tea produced in Taiwan and China. It has a floral and fruity taste with a thick mouthfeel; some oolong teas have a grassy flavor, similar to green tea, but the taste is always light.

Oolong tea flavors can vary depending on where the leaves are grown and how they are processed. It can even be re-infused multiple times, resulting in small differences in flavor. The tea leaves are picked (usually later in the season than green tea), then harvested and wilted before undergoing partial oxidation by being tossed or shaken; they are then heat-treated to cease oxidation. The leaves are then tightly rolled before they are dried and packaged. However, the exact process can vary based on the farmers and the region it’s harvested in, which results in many different and unique flavors.

The color of oolong can be light to dark yellow and full-bodied in appearance depending on the level of oxidation, and falls between black and green tea in terms of oxidation (ranging from 10-80%). Oolong can be oxidized for a short or long period of time, with the leaves usually exposed for 2 to 4 hours before they are heated up to cease oxidation. The longer it has been oxidized, the darker it is.

Taiwan is known for its specialty oolongs, which includes the popular Milk Oolong, that are cultivated from the special varietal of the plant for many years to result in the delicious and particular flavor.

China has three main regions that produce oolong tea, each with its own unique and distinct styles thanks to the local traditions: the Wuyi Mountains and Anxi in the Fujian province (which produces Wuyi Rock Tea and Anxi Tieguanyin respectively) and the Guangdong province (which produces Guangdong Dan Cong).

Chinese and Taiwanese oolong teas are traditionally made in the gongfu style, which has large amounts of the tea leaves steeped for a short time in smaller steeping vessels, such as a gaiwan.

Pu-erh Tea

Pu-erh (also called puerh and spelled “puer” in Pinyin) tea is an aged and partially fermented tea. It’s a rich, earthy, and full-bodied tea that can be green or dark brown-black in color (depending on the oxidation level) and high in caffeine – around the same amount as black tea.

Pu-erh is processed in a unique way. It’s made by plucking tea from wild trees rather than cultivated bushes. The leaves are harvested and then steamed or pan-fired to stop the oxidation process before being shaped and dried. Once dried, the leaves undergo microbial fermentation by pressing the raw leaves together and storing it underground, often for a few years. It’s traditionally compressed into round tea cakes, although loose styles are available.

Pu-erh originated in the Yunnan province of China in the city of Pu-erh (which it is named after). It’s mostly produced in the same region and only teas produced in Yunnan can be officially called pu-erh, although other provinces such as Guangdong and Hunan produce similar teas.

Pu-erh has two basic styles: sheng (“raw”) pu-erh and shou (“ripe”) pu-erh.

Sheng pu-erh is processed through a traditional method in which the leaves are aged using a longer and more gradual process. It’s often marketed by noting the year in which it was made, and the teas often taste different. Younger pu-erh teas have a brighter and sometimes floral or fruity flavor, while older pu-erh has a more earthy and rustic profile.

Shou pu-erh starts off the same as sheng pu-erh but eventually undergoes a more modern process that accelerates the fermentation process to a matter of weeks. It tends to have smooth and earthy characteristics.

Both sheng pu-erh and shou pu-erh are aged for several years to bring out the earthy, rich flavor.

Dark Tea

Dark tea generally refers to any type of tea that goes through a post-fermentation process – such as pu-erh tea – but the main tea that comes to mind is Hunan dark tea.

Hunan dark tea is a pile-fermented tea; it’s named after the Hunan province, which has a history that goes back to ancient trade routes – specifically, the tea horse road and silk road.

Pile fermentation (also used to make shu pu-erh) takes processed tea leaves and adds them to piles before wetting and covering them, then applying and monitoring the added heat and moisture that grows good bacteria. Once fermented, the tea is fire dried and usually compressed into shapes such as bricks, coins, and logs. As the dark tea ages over time, it will also change in profile.

Hunan dark teas are slightly sweet and have a flavor reminiscent of barley, pine, and rye. It’s usually made using gongfu style (like puer), which yields many steepings, but you can use any steeping method you prefer.

Herbal Tea

Unlike other types of tea, herbal tea is not made from the camellia sinensis plant. It’s made by adding botanical ingredients (such as dried berries, barks, herbs, fruits, flowers, mints, seeds, and spices) to boiling water. This drink can be called tea or tisane, which is used to refer to any herbal infusion or non-tea beverage.

The variety of ingredients used results in a hefty range of flavors, ranging from sweet to delicate to fruity and herbaceous. The most commonly used ingredients for herbal tea include chamomile, dried fruits, ginger, hibiscus, lemongrass, peppermint, and rosehips.

Herbal teas are typically caffeine-free (with the exception of guayusa and yerba mate, which both have a good amount of caffeine) so it’s ideal for those who are affected by the caffeine content of regular tea. Commonly enjoyed types of herbal tea include single-ingredient teas such as chamomile, ginger, hibiscus, lavender, peppermint, rooibos, and Yerba Mate, along with blends created by mixing these herbs and other products.

Some popular types of herbal tea include:

  • Blue Butterfly Pea Flowers: Blue butterfly pea flowers are native to Southeast Asia, and are plentiful in Malaysia and Thailand. Floral teas have a pleasant aroma in addition to the added benefits, such as antioxidants and therapeutic effects, and blue butterfly pea is no exception. In addition to its gorgeous blue color, it’s full of antioxidants called anthocyanin. Blue butterfly pea flower tea can be blended with other products, such as chamomile, honey, and lemongrass. You can even add lemon or lime for flavor and to turn the blue into a brilliant purple shade.
  • Chamomile Tea: Chamomile tea is a popular herbal tea made from dried chamomile flowers. It contains plenty of antioxidants and it’s often enjoyed before bedtime to help with falling asleep.
  • Golden Pear Tea: Golden pear tea is high in antioxidants and vitamin C, and it’s enjoyed hot and iced. Fruit tea is made from unprocessed fruits and has a naturally sweet flavor. Golden pear tea contains dried apple, pear, rose blossoms, vanilla, and other flavors.
  • Yerba Mate: Yerba mate is a type of leaf tea and one of the few herbal teas that contains caffeine – nearly as much as Arabica coffee. The leaves are from the South American holly tree, which is found in rainforests. It has a strong, earthy, and bitter taste and a eucalyptus aroma.
  • Rooibos Tea: Rooibos tea (also called African red tea, red tea, or red bush tea) is a popular, caffeine-free leaf tea made from the South African Red Bush. It’s unique due to the fact that the rooibos leaves turn red once they are fully processed, meaning they are ground, bruised, fermented, and dried. However, not all rooibos tea is red; green rooibos isn’t oxidized and fermented, which results in its color. Red rooibos is full-bodied with a sweet, smooth, and earthy flavor; green rooibos tea is lighter, with a mellow and slightly sweet taste. Rooibos can be enjoyed on its own, splashed with milk, or even mixed with other ingredients to create blends like Rooibos Chai and Earl Grey Rooibos.

Purple Tea

Purple tea is a fairly new type of tea that is grown from a rare camellia sinensis plant originally found in the Assam region of India; however, they were taken to Kenya where the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya created a cultivar (called TRFK 306/1) and where it’s now primarily produced, although India, Japan, and China produce purple tea in smaller amounts.

The purple-leaf plant yields a tea with a light reddish-purple color, light body, and mellow flavor. It’s high in antioxidants and anthocyanins – 135 times more than green tea – while also being very low in caffeine.

Purple tea is typically produced similarly to oolong tea. The purple leaves are harvested, wilted, and partially oxidized, then shaped and dried.

Yellow Tea

Yellow tea is a caffeinated and lightly fermented tea that is mainly produced in China. It’s the rarest type of true tea, and it’s produced similarly to green tea (the young leaves from camellia sinensis are harvested, withered, rolled, and dried), although with one major difference. As the leaves are being dried, they are wrapped and steamed, a process that takes many days to get a yellow color, and one that requires the right expertise to reach the preferred level of fermentation and oxidation.

Yellow tea has a slightly more mild and mellow flavor – described as being somewhere between white and green tea.

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