The Go-To Guide for Tea Basics
The world of tea is large and complex, but most people don't realize how nuanced tea can be. They simply pour a cup of whatever tea they find at the grocery store and carry on with their day. Tea connoisseurs know that the world of tea is so much more than a hot cup of water. It's a world of cultural and historical significance as well as an important social tool.
If you want to learn more about tea, you've come to the right place. This guide is designed to offer a glimpse at the different types of teas, the most popular varieties, and tips for brewing the perfect cup. Get a quick introduction to the world of tea with this handy yet brief guide.
Types of Tea
While there are thousands of different tea flavors, they typically fall into three categories: true teas, herbal tisanes, and flavored teas. True teas are teas made using the leaves of the tea plant known by the botanical name Camellia sinensis. All other teas are not technically true teas, thus they are called herbal tisanes — or more commonly: herbal teas. Flavored teas are teas that use true tea as a base and are combined with herbal flavors to produce unique blends.
True teas consist of green tea, white tea, black tea, oolong tea, and pu-erh tea. These are the only teas made using the leaves of the tea plant. In China, black tea is commonly called red tea, though the term refers to what Americans know as black tea leaves. These teas are made using the same exact leaves, but eh differences in flavor and aroma arise from the production process.
White teas are minimally processed resulting in delicate nuanced flavor. These teas are floral and subtly sweet with a mild aroma. The leaves are harvested and sun-dried. They are then packaged for sale with little processing. The majority of white teas are produced using spring leaves — the youngest leaves and buds of the tea plant. Some of the most popular varieties are Silver Needle and White Peony.
Green tea is widely regarded for its health benefits. The tea contains high concentrations of antioxidants including EGCG that have demonstrated heart health and weight loss benefits. Green tea has long been used in traditional medicine to treat ailments and the tea has become one of the most well-researched teas in the Western world including the United States.
Green tea is also minimally produced but undergoes a drying technique that results in stronger flavors than white teas. Green tea leaves are harvested and dried using steaming or pan-firing techniques. There are two main types of green tea: Japanese green teas and Chinese green teas.
Japanese green teas are steamed during the drying process. This produces a sweet, vegetal flavor with grassy notes. These green teas often contain hints of seaweed and slightly nutty undertones. The most popular green teas are matcha tea, Sencha, and Genmaicha.
In China, green teas are roasted or pan-fired to dry the leaves. This produces a toasted and earthy flavor that is bolder than Japanese green teas. Some of the bestsellers include Gunpowder Green tea and Longjing. For the best green tea taste, brew with hot water, not boiling water to avoid turning the tea bitter.
Oolong tea is a semi-oxidized tea — that means the leaves are exposed to oxygen and enzymes that alter the flavor and color of the leaves. The oxidation process causes leaves to turn brown and produces strong flavors.
Oolong teas vary wildly in tastes because they can be oxidized anywhere from 8 to 80 percent. Lightly oxidized oolong teas feature a floral and sweet flavor while heavily oxidized oolongs are bolder and earthier. The most popular oolong teas include Milk Oolong tea, Iron Goddess of Mercy, Se Chung, and Formosa.
Black teas undergo the longest oxidation process, which turns the leaves their characteristic black color. Black teas boast a strong flavor similar to the taste of coffee. Most black teas are produced in India, Sri Lanka China, or Great Britain. Indian black teas include Darjeeling and Assam, which are commonly used in masala chai tea. Chinese varieties include Keemun, Dianhong, and Lapsang Souchong — a unique black tea that is roasted over open pine fires. The most popular Sri Lankan black tea is known as Ceylon black tea. British black teas include Irish Breakfast, English Breakfast, and Earl Grey.
Pu-erh tea is a unique true tea in that it is an aged tea. The leaves are harvested and dried. They are then subjected to an extended aging process when micro bacteria are used to ferment the leaves and elicit deep flavors.
The leaves are typically wrapped in a wet cloth, which encourages the growth of healthy bacteria. As the leaves age, they are stirred and rotated. The highest quality pu-erh teas are aged for more than 50 years. Most aged pu-erh begins to develop exquisite flavor after four to seven years of aging.
Herbal teas are teas that are made using plant parts from plants that are not the tea plant. These teas are best brewed using boiling water as the high temperatures allow the herbs to fully infuse flavor. Some of the most popular herbal teas include peppermint tea, which is invigorating and refreshing and chamomile tea, which is calming and soothing. Other flavors include spicy ginger tea and yerba mate, which is famous for its high caffeine content.
Tea Bags Vs. Loose Leaf Tea
There is a lot of discussion in the tea world on whether tea bags or loose tea are of better quality. Tea bags typically contain the dust and fannings of tea leaves. That means they may not have all of the healthy compounds and flavor that whole loose teas contain. Tea bags also constrain the leaves, preventing them from fully infusing flavor. The benefit of tea bags is that they are easy to brew and don't require the use of any special tea tools. When it comes to flavor and quality, it's almost always better to choose loose tea instead of tea bags
Delve Into the World of Tea
When it comes to tea time, picking the best tea depends on your flavor preferences. Whether you prefer earthy green teas or lightly oxidized oolongs, understanding the basics of tea is essential to brewing the perfect cup of tea. Opt for organic tea whenever possible to enjoy the true flavor and characteristics of different tea leaves. If you're not sure which flavors to try, opt for a tea gift set that includes multiple flavors in smaller amounts.
Try a tea as a hot brew or whip it up as an iced tea to cool off and refresh during the hot months. If you decide to make cold brew tea, make sure to double the amount of tea you normally use and let it steep for several hours since cold water doesn't develop flavors well.
Want to learn more about tea or stay on top of the latest tea news? Follow along at our blog where we document everything from tea brewing tips and recipes to health benefits and uses of different types of tea from exotic tea blends to household names.