An Introduction to Types of Tea
Believe it or not, all true teas are harvested from the same Camellia sinensis plant. That means white tea, black tea, green tea, oolong tea, and others all originate from the exact same leaf. While black tea and white tea are certainly very different, their origin is the same. It is the differences in processing methods, not the tea plant itself, that create different types of tea.
This is true only for classic teas, made from tea leaves. Other tea types include herbal teas (hibiscus, cinnamon, chamomile, etc.), root teas (kudzu, etc.), spice teas (chai), yerba mate, and others. These alternative teas do not contain tea leaves at all, and most are caffeine free. There are a tremendous number of unique teas available, but we'll try to cover the big categories...
Camellia sinensis Teas
The Camellia sinensis plant is a small shrub about 3 to 6 feet tall, though it will grow taller if it is not pruned back. In the fall, the tea plant will flower with small white blossoms that have a delightful scent. These plants are often grown as ornamentals. For planting, Camellia sinensis likes well-drained, sandy soil that is on the acidic side.
Tea leaves are typically harvested after the Camellia sinensis plant is around 3 years old. Once the tea leaves are harvested, the tea must be processed. The subtle differences in how each tea is processed determine what type of tea is made.
Made from young tea leaves and leaf buds from the Camellia sinensis plant. Once picked, the tea leaves are rolled until they start to darken and turn red. Next, the darkened leaves are spread out and allowed to ferment in contact with air (in a cool location) for 2 to 3 days. Once allowed to ferment for a specific amount of time, the leaves are quickly dried and the finished black teas are transferred to airtight containers for storage.
POPULAR BLACK TEAS: Keemun, Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong, Assam, Yunnan, Nilgiri
Made from young tea leaves and leaf buds from the Camellia sinensis plant. Oolong is processed a little less than black tea, but still much more than green tea. Tea leaves for oolong tea are allowed to ferment for about 45 minutes in the sun, turned frequently to allow air to reach all of the leaves. After the sun time, the leaves are moved and allowed to sit in the shade for a few hours at room temperature. As the leaves dry, their edges begin to turn red. Once the leaves have changed color, the leaves are quickly dried and stored.
Made from young tea leaves and leaf buds from the Camellia sinensis plant. Green tea is not allowed to ferment like Black or Oolong teas. Once picked, the green tea leaves and buds are allowed to dry slightly in the cool shade for a few hours. After the leaves have cooled and dried slightly, the green tea leaves are quickly steamed or roasted for a couple minutes (or less, depending on the method). Once steamed, the leaves are quickly dried and stored. Green tea retains more of teas natural antioxidants because it is not allowed to ferment. Also, the caffeine content of green tea is less than Black or Oolong teas for the same reason.
POPULAR GREEN TEAS: Sencha, Dragon Well, Macha, Gunpowder, Jasmine, Genmaicha
Black tea has been fully fermented during processing, and Green tea has not been fermented at all. Oolong teas are somewhere in the middle. So what is White Tea? White tea is harvested from the Camillia sinesis plant like the others; White tea is harvested before the tea leaves open fully, when the flower buds are still covered by thin white hairs (giving this tea its name). White teas are scarcer than any other tea (and more expensive). White tea is similar to Green tea in that it undergoes very little processing and no fermentation. White tea is highly sought-after because it contains the same or better antioxidant power as Green tea, without the "grassy" flavor that some Green teas have. White tea has even less caffeine than other teas (about 15mg per serving versus 20mg for Green and 40mg for Black).
POPULAR WHITE TEAS: White Peony, Golden Moon, Silver Needle, White Cloud
Other Teas / Common Names
Chai (pronounced "Ch-eye") is an Indian word meaning tea, so "Chai Tea" is actually redundant. Chai is a milky, sweet, spicy beverage made from Black tea, milk, sugar, and a variety of exotic spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper.
Rooibos (Red) Tea
Technically Rooibos is not a true tea because it is harvested from Aspalathus linearis instead of Camellia sinensis. Rooibos is named after the African slang for the Dutch words meaning "red bush". Rooibos tea has a unique taste with a very sweet and slightly nutty flavor. Popular in Eastern Europe and South Africa.
A fermented tea drink reputed to cure health problems like eczema and other skin problems, hair loss, hypertension, digestive disorders, and much more. While the scientific proof behind these lofty claims is scarce, Kombucha tea is nonetheless regarded as a powerful remedy.
Olive Leaf Tea
A pleasant, balanced tea similar in taste to mild Green tea. Olive Leaf tea is made from ground olive leaves (not from tea leaves). It takes a little longer to infuse Olive Leaf tea than regular (real) teas, but many people think the sweeter taste of Olive Leaf tea is worth the wait.
Unlike other teas, Pu-erh tea gets better with age. Made by a unique fermentation process, Pu-erh tea is claimed to help reduce cholesterol by helping digestion of fatty foods.
A popular herbal tea in South America, usually consumed through a straw. Harvested from the Yerba Mate tree (Ilex paraguarensis), is common in countries like Argentina and Paraguay. Yerba Mate is caffeine free but contains a related compound called "mateine", a similar stimulant.
Kudzu is a non-indigenous vine that grows wildly in the Southeastern United States. Many regard Kudzu as a pest by many because it overcrowds and kills native trees. Others, however, recognize Kudzu for its nutritional value. Teas are made from young, tender Kudzu leaves or dried ground Kudzu tubers.