The Beginner’s Guide to Different Types of Tea and How They Taste
Drinking a cup of tea every day can help you stay healthy and happy. Tea is a complex beverage with different flavors and varieties due to varied cultivation regions and production methods. There are thousands of different types of teas ranging from the classic true tea varieties to endless herbal tisanes and spiced teas.
With so much variety, it's hard to know where to start if you're new to tea or simply trying out new flavors. That's why we've put together this guide to help you understand the different types of tea. We’ve also highlighted the differences in flavors and compositions to more easily distinguish the different types of teas. Read on to learn about the different tea types so you can pick the one that best suits your taste buds.
Let's start by clarifying the difference between true teas and herbal teas. If you're a beginner tea drinker, you may not know that herbal teas aren't actually real teas. Instead, herbal teas are infusions. They are made either from steeping spices, herbs and roots in hot water. These ingredients can also be combine with true teas at which point they’re known as flavored teas.
Real tea, or true teas are made using leaves from the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis. Teas made from any other plants are not technically true teas. When you see people use the term 'true tea', they really mean teas made from this specific tea plant. The only true teas are green tea, white tea, oolong tea and black tea. In some cases pu-erh tea is considered a true tea, but we'll get to that a bit later.
The leaves of this plant contain naturally occurring caffeine that is actually higher in concentration than in coffee beans. Coffee is only stronger than tea because it is more concentrated when brewed. The actual caffeine content in a cup of true tea varies largely depending on the production method. White tea tends to have the lowest caffeine content of the true teas while black tea and matcha green tea have the highest concentrations of caffeine. The different levels of caffeine make tea a great choice for both energy and relaxation. It can help you reduce your caffeine intake or replace your morning cup of Joe with an alternative that won't make you feel jittery or affect your sleep cycle.
White tea is the least processed of the true teas and undergoes a simple manufacturing process that consists of only one step. Tea leaves are harvested and then immediately dried outdoors in natural sunlight. All white teas are produced in the Fujian province of China. Only baby tea leaves are used to produce this delicate tea.
White tea consists of two popular varieties including Silver Needle and White Peony. Silver Needle is made using only the buds of the tea leaf plant and offers a sweet honeysuckle taste. White Peony is made using both the buds and leaves from the tea plant resulting in a more robust flavor that is both sweet and mildly sharp.
Flavor and Aroma
Delicate, naturally sweet and rounded flavors lend this tea its soft and subtle flavor profile. In appearance, it is a light yellow tea although some varieties can have hints of green as well. White tea has floral and fruity undertones that add a natural sweetness, which can be played up by adding a slice of lemon or honey. White tea is one of the more mild true teas when it comes to flavor. As a result, white tea is a universally good choice for tea drinkers. White tea is good addition to your tea repertoire whether you're an expert or just getting into true teas.
Green tea leaves do not undergo an oxidation process, just like white tea. However, they do undergo a multi-step production process. Green tea leaves are harvested and then withered in order to reduce moisture content. The leaves are then pan fired or steamed at high temperatures to induce drying. During the drying process, tea masters roll the leaves into pearls or long twigs depending on the green tea varietal.
Popular varietals of green tea include gunpowder, matcha, genmaicha and sencha green teas. Sencha green tea is the most popular tea in Japan and typically consumed in loose leaf varieties. Matcha tea is made by grinding the green tea leaves into a fine powder before adding hot water. Genmaicha is a unique Japanese blend that combines green tea leaves with roasted grains such as brown rice. Chinese gunpowder green tea is characterized by its pellet form that is similar in appearance to bullets.
Flavors and Aroma
As a rule of thumb, Chinese green teas are pan fired in order to produce roasted, nutty flavors while Japanese green teas are steamed to preserve vegetal and herbaceous flavors. Most green teas are light green or slightly yellow in color. Matcha tea features a more vibrant, lime green hue. Sencha tea is light green in color with a fruity flavor profile that lends a fuller and riper taste than Chinese green tea. Matcha green tea offers a vegetal flavor that is described as grassy with a sweet after taste. Genmaicha green tea offers a roasted flavor that balances out the mild astringent flavors of strong brewed green teas.
Oolong tea, is called 'wulong tea' in China, where it had been consumed for centuries. It is a semi-oxidized tea with a flavor profile that is stronger than white tea, but milder than black tea. Leaves are harvested and undergo a process of withering, rolling, short-term oxidation and drying. Leaves are withered and then gently bruised in baskets to expose enzymes to oxygen, which results in oxidation. While oolong tea leaves do undergo a fermentation process, this process is stopped early by applying heat to the leaves.
Oolong teas are produced solely in China and Taiwan and are often named based on the region in which they are cultivated. In Taiwan, it is particularly common to name oolong varieties after the mountains in which they are grown. Flavor profiles of oolong teas can vary dramatically due to terroir—the impact of soil composition, sunlight, rainfall and geographic conditions on the tea plant.
Flavors and Aroma
Oolong tea is deep amber or light green in color. This tea offers a floral flavor with a smooth finish that results in medium-bodied taste. The least oxidized oolong teas are known as pouchongs. These oolong types feature the most floral notes and are similar in taste to green teas. One of the most heavily oxidized oolong teas comes from China and is known as Da Hong Pao. This type of oolong tea boasts a strong yet smooth partly malty flavor.
Black tea is known in the Western world as 'black tea' and in China as 'red tea'. This true tea is the most processed of the tea varieties. It undergoes a process of withering, rolling, oxidation and drying that results in a dark brown or reddish amber hue when in liquid form.
Black teas are most commonly produced in China and on the Indian continent. The growing regions in India that produce the largest amounts of black tea include Assam and Darjeeling. The third largest growing region is Nilgiri in Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon. Black teas named after these regions are popular across the world. The regional name characterizes the different flavor profiles, which are influenced by the various growing regions and techniques.
Flavor and Aroma
Black teas cultivated in Assam come from the tea variety known as Camellia sinensis var. assamica while tea leaves cultivated in Darjeeling are of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis variety. Assam black teas are allowed to fully oxidize whereas Darjeeling black teas are technically only semi-oxidized due to a shorter fermentation window. Assam tea offers a malty flavor that is dark brown and exudes earthy aromas. Darjeeling black teas are more delicate, which results in a lighter tan and green color with floral, fruity and muscatel flavors.
Ceylon black teas cultivated in Sri Lanka can vary from the color of sun-drenched honey to a burgundy brown. Ceylon tea leaves are easy to recognize thanks to their long, wiry appearance. Featuring notes of chocolate, spice and citrus, Ceylon black tea is described as having a bold, full-bodied flavor complemented by a brisk finish. Chinese black teas consist of Keemun and varieties produced in Yunnan province. Chinese black teas typically boast strong flavor profiles and a slightly astringent finish that is preferred by strong tea drinkers.
Other popular black teas include chai tea infusions and British breakfast teas such as Earl Gray. Famous for its infusion of bergamot, Earl Grey offers citrusy spin on traditional black teas that feature bold flavors and potent aromas. Chai tea is a popular spiced tea made from cardamom, pepper, ginger and cinnamon. Although chai tea is technically not a black tea, it is commonly brewed with black tea leaves.
Revered in Asia for its health benefits, pu'er or pu-erh teas are actually post-oxidized. There are two types of pu-erh tea consisitng of raw and aged varieties. Raw pu-erh tea is made by harvesting tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant and immediately subjecting the leaves to high temperatures. The heat destroys the enzymes that typically oxidize when exposed to oxygen. This process results in a tea that is technically a green tea varietal.
Aged pu-erh tea on the other hand, is post-fermented and aged just like fine wines to develop more robust flavor profiles. These tea leaves are allowed to age anywhere from 10 to 15 years. The highest quality aged pu-erh teas can be aged for up to 50 years. As the tea leaves age, they are exposed to naturally occurring oxidation, which is why pu-erh teas are considered post-fermented teas or post-oxidized teas.
Flavor and Aroma
Raw pu-erh teas are most similar in flavor and aroma to green teas while aged pu-erh teas are closer to black tea in composition. Aged pu-erh teas tend to have a dark reddish color while raw pu-erh tea is a bit lighter. Pu-erh tea is available in a variety of forms including tea blocks, melons, mushrooms, tea bags, loose leaf teas and pearls.
Unlike these true teas, rooibos tea is made using the leaves from the Aspalathus linearis plant. Rooibos tea is almost exclusively cultivated in mountainous region of Cederburg in South Africa. Rooibos leaves undergo a withering, rolling, oxidation and drying process. The oxidation process turns the vibrant green leaves into a deep red that lends its colloquial name, 'red bush tea'. These plant leaves are naturally caffeine-free, making rooibos a good base tea for infusions such as our rooibos masala chai without side effects of insomnia or jitters.
Flavor and Aroma
Rooibos boasts a refreshing yet nutty flavor that is full-bodied. It's often described as having hints of caramel, vanilla and honey. This tea features a woody and spicy flavor profile and is deep vibrant red in color. Rooibos offers a tea drinking experience that is both visually pleasing and delicious.
An herbal tisane, or herbal tea, is a tea made without using any leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. These teas are generally caffeine-free and can be made using unopened flower buds, stems and roots from different plants. Herbal infusions are made by combining flowers, herbs and spices with true tea leaves. Examples of herbal infusions include jasmine green tea and chai black tea. Herbal tisanes are often consumed as flavored iced teas and can be enhanced by adding chopped fruit and herbs to each cup.
Flavors and Aromas
The flavors of herbal tisanes vary widely depending on the plants and spices used. There are floral tisanes such as hibiscus and chamomile, which result in sweet flavors. Alternatively, citrus tisanes such as bergamot and lemon offer a tangy, tart flavor and refreshing aroma. Root teas such as ginger, dandelion root and valerian root teas boast earthy and spicy properties that make these tisanes pungent and powerful.
Experience a World of Flavor
Drinking tea opens up a world of tastes and aromas that can please your senses and offer a host of health benefits. Whether you stick to true teas or opt for herbal tisanes, the flavors and aromas are nearly endless. Even true teas can boast new flavor profiles depending on where the leaves are grown and the process with which they are produced. Don't be afraid to experiment and try different types of tea, with thousands of flavors, you're sure to find one you enjoy!