Green, black, white, red – the vast array of tea varieties can be dizzying. With the sudden upsurge of interest in high-quality loose-leaf teas, where does a newcomer begin? How about starting with the one plant that produces every tea in the world?
The Camellia sinensis is an evergreen native of China. It takes a variety of forms, growing 15 to 20 meters tall, with leaves ranging from smooth and shiny to fuzzy and white-haired. The plant gives rise to more than 3,000 varieties of tea worldwide, which can be roughly classified into six basic categories: white, green, oolong, black (the Chinese call these red teas), pu-erh, and flavored. Some specialists would add another category, blends. And then there are countless herbal infusions, informally referred to as “tea” but entirely unrelated to “real” tea made from Camellia sinensis leaves
White tea is the rarest of all tea types. A specialty of Fujian province on China’s east coast, it was relatively hard to come by outside of China until recently. The name comes from the almost colorless liquor, and from the silvery hairs found on the buds of the plant. Delicate in flavor as well as color, the tea has a subtle, slightly sweet flavor and a mellow creamy or nutty quality. White tea consists of the whitish buds of the tea plant; lower quality varieties contain some leaves as well. The buds (and leaves) are naturally dried using either sun drying or steaming methods. This is the final step in the production process, as white tea is unfermented.
Green tea makes up approximately ten percent of the world’s tea. The production process, like that of white tea, starts with withering, followed by pan-frying or steaming to prevent fermentation. (The two types differ in that white tea has a higher proportion of buds to leaves.) After steaming and before drying, green tea leaves are rolled to give them the desired shape. In China, this consists of eyebrow-shaped or twisted pieces, tight balls, flat needles, or curled whole leaves. Japanese green tea leaves are shiny green blades with reddish stalks and stems. Green tea is greenish-yellow in color, with a grassy, astringent quality reminiscent of the fresh leaves. Scientific studies have shown that both green and black teas prevent cavities and gum disease, and increase the body’s antioxidant activity.
Often referred to as “the champagne of teas,” oolongs are considered to be among the finest – and therefore most expensive – teas in the world. Most oolongs hail from Taiwan; in China they are also referred to as pouchongs. Oolong tea is “semi-fermented,” meaning that it goes through a short period of oxidation (fermentation) that turns the leaves from green to red-brown. The liquor is pale yellow, with a floral, fruity quality – reminiscent of peaches – and a hint of smoke. Due to the delicacy of the flavor, connoisseurs generally prefer drinking it without milk, sugar or lemon.
Though known to most of the world as “black tea,” the Chinese call it “red tea” due to its characteristic reddish-brown color. Black tea is the most common type of tea worldwide. It has a broad range of flavors, but is typically heartier and more assertive than green or oolong teas. It is made by fully fermenting the harvested leaves (for several hours) before the heating or drying processes occur. This oxidation imparts a dark coloring and triples the caffeine.
Pu-erh (or Puer) tea is in a category all its own. Though it could simply be classified as a type of Chinese black tea, it is differentiated from other black teas by the fact that it is fermented not once, but twice. The double oxidation process is followed by a period of maturation, which is often used to develop a thin layer of mold on the leaves. The mold imparts a distinctive soil-like flavor that many people find off-putting. For this reason, pu-erh tea is often consumed for medicinal purposes rather than for pleasure – aside from being known for its strong earthy quality, it is recognized as a powerful digestive aid.
Tea easily absorbs other aromas and tastes. Thus tea drinkers the world over have long enhanced their tea with additional flavors, from flowers and oils to herbs and spices. Flavoring tea is a well-established tradition in China, where, for centuries, people have brewed tea with onions, orange peel, peach leaves, and berries. The Chinese are also known for their flower teas – popular varieties include jasmine, orchid, rose, and magnolia.
In many Arabic nations, mint (plus a generous amount of sugar) is the flavoring of choice. In India, the spicy “masala tea” is a popular beverage. It is made by boiling black tea with spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and black or white pepper; milk and sugar are usually added as well. Beyond herbs and spices, the flavor craze has more recently spurred manufacturers to produce tea with just about every flavor imaginable, from banana to toffee pudding.
Blends are the mutts of the tea world, possessing mixed heritages, so to speak, rather than a single lineage. Tea producers make blends by combining different types of teas, often in order to achieve flavor consistency from one season to the next. Common blends include English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast, and Caravan.
Herbal Infusions and Tisanes
The word “tea” is often loosely used to describe any beverage made with the leaves of a plant. But technically speaking, true “tea” is made from the Camellia sinensis – and everything else isn’t “tea” at all. Connoisseurs and tea professionals will tell you that all leaf-derived drinks other than true “tea” should be referred to as tisanes or herbal infusions.
Tisane (tee-ZAHN) is what many people think of as “herbal tea,” that is, a drink made by steeping various herbs, spices, flowers, etc. in boiling water. The term “herbal infusion” is pretty much the same thing: a drink made by steeping an herb in hot water. These herbal drinks are commonly associated with physical and mental health, and are consumed for their soothing or rejuvenating qualities. They also suit the needs of those who wish to avoid caffeine. Common herbal beverages are chamomile, peppermint, fennel, rose hip, and lemon verbena.
Now that you’ve learned a little more about tea, why not go for tea at one of the tea houses below?
Queen Mary Tea Room
2912 N.E. 55th Street
Seattle, WA 98105
Lovejoy’s Tea Room
1351 Church St
San Francisco, CA 94114
Tea & Sympathy
108 Greenwich Ave
New York, NY 10011
2000 E Rio Salado Pkwy
Tempe, AZ 85281
Vintage Tea Leaf
969 E Broadway
Long Beach, CA 90802