Tea is made from the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis plant and was likely first cultivated in southeast Asia. Although it’s believed that tea has been enjoyed since 2700 BC, it wasn’t introduced to the western world until the early 17th century when the Dutch East India Company brought back its first export of Chinese tea.
Since then, tea has evolved to become the second most popular drink after water, and developments in growing and processing methods have produced an abundance of variations.
Black tea is an authentic tea, indicating that it is harvested from the Camellia sinensis plant. What makes it unique is that after the leaves are picked, they are fully oxidized, or exposed to oxygen. When the desired level of oxidation is reached, the process is halted by exposing the leaves to heat. The result is a tea that is rich, robust, and tannic in flavor. Despite its name, black tea has an amber hue when brewed, which is why in certain countries like China, it’s referred to as red tea, or hong cha.
Two kinds of oxidative methods are used, and each result in products with different price points. Conventional processing requires that the leaves be first withered and then rolled before oxidation. This is a more time-intensive technique, so the resulting tea tends to be a higher grade and more costly. The cut, tear, and curl or, CTC process uses machinery to do just that—cut, split and curl the leaves before they are oxidized, resulting in a tea that tastes strong and consistent between batches. This is the black tea you’ll most often find sold in bags, as its leaves are much too small to be steeped.
CTC processed black tea is best for strong brews like masala chai or for those occasions when you’d like to add some cream, too. Processing techniques aside, the region your black tea was grown in is also an important feature. In fact, many popular varieties of black tea are named after the area they’re from. Take Assam, Ceylon, and Darjeeling teas, which are from India, Sri Lanka, and India, sequentially. Assam tea imparts a malty flavor, which is both nutty and sweet and has a bright amber color when brewed. Ceylon tea is citrusy and mild in taste and carries a floral aroma, so it adds a lovely hint of complexity to drinks like Thai iced tea. Darjeeling tea is a more complex character, as it’s further categorized as either first, second, or autumnal flush varieties, with the first flush harvested in the spring, second flush during the summer, and dry during the fall. As a rule, the later Darjeeling is collected, the darker it’s color, and the more full-bodied its flavor will be.
Unlike the black tea, green tea is either steamed or pan-fired as quickly as possible after harvest to preserve its original characteristics. Chinese green tea is most often pan-fired in large woks, while Japanese green tea is typically steamed in bamboo trays, and each style yields a different taste. Pan-firing the leaves results in a lighter, almost toasted flavor while cooking the leaves creates a more vegetal, brisk brew. The leaves will then be rolled and dried after they’ve been heated, regardless of the method. In Japan, the most common green tea variety is Sencha, which is grown in direct sunlight and carries an astringent taste and near golden color when brewed.
By distinction, matcha is another Japanese green tea that is grown partially under the shade to intensify chlorophyll levels and, thus, the umami, grassy taste that’s so characteristic of Japanese green tea. Popular Chinese green tea varieties include Long Jing, or Dragon Well, and Liu An Gua Pian, or Melon seed. Both taste mellow and sweet and have a light jade color when brewed, so they prove easier for blending into more complex beverages, like sangria.
The main differences between the two countries are that Chinese growing methods rely more on the natural terroir to impart both character and flavor, while Japanese methods are more controlled. One is not objectively better than the other, it’s merely about choosing which you enjoy.
White tea is a particularly sensitive variety of tea, as it’s harvested before the plant’s leaves are fully open. This means that the season for white tea is short, and it’s a bit more costly than other teas. White tea is also minimally processed, meaning that it is neither rolled nor heavily oxidized, and makers take great care to balance both heat and moisture to dry the leaves. This method, combined with the young age of the leaves means that white tea is one of the varieties highest in antioxidants, polyphenols, and flavonoids. When brewed, white tea carries a light, fresh flavor and is yellow in color. As such, white tea doesn’t get its name from its color when brewed, but its white hair covers the young leaves of its plant when harvested. Apart from enjoying a cup of white tea, as is, try chilling it and tossing in a few herbs and berries for a refreshing beverage.
Oolong tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, but it’s processed in numerous methods, so oolong has a broader range of flavors and colors than most other tea categories. Unlike white or green tea, oolong varieties are harvested from mature leaves, allowing them to adopt their terroir qualities and complexity in flavor. That said, what really sets oolong apart is the full range of oxidation it is exposed to, which generally runs anywhere from 8 to 80 percent.
Popular oolong varieties such as Dan Chong, or Phoenix tea, are less oxidized and taste more floral and light, while a variety like Da Hong Pao, or Wuyi tea, is heavily oxidized, has a full-bodied flavor and darker hue. Another critical factor in differentiating between oolong varieties is whether their leaves have been rolled or twisted. Typically, the roll will be lighter in flavor and greener in color, as less of their surface area is exposed to air. Twisted oolong varieties are less commonly found, but they steep easier and faster since their leaves haven’t been as tightly wound as rolled varieties. Due to its different features, oolong provides the tea-lover room to explore.
Originating in Yunnan, China, Pu-erh tea comes from the large-leaf Assamica variety of the Camellia sinensis plant, and its heritage and classification are protected by the government. There are two main categories of Pu-erh tea, known as sheng, or raw Pu-erh, and shou, or ripe Pu-erh. Raw Pu-erh tea is first withered and then heated in batches to slow the oxidation process and reduce water. It’s then dried in the sun, pressed into cakes, and aged from 3 months to more than 30 years. Aging the tea allows its flavor to mature and mellow, so a quality raw Pu-erh should taste full-bodied but not astringent.
Ripe Pu-erh is a recent invention in terms of tea production, starting in the 1970s when makers developed a method to speed up processing. After the leaves are sundried, they are piled and left in temperature-controlled conditions, allowing them to ferment before they are compressed. This matures the flavor of the tea in a matter of months, not years, and although ripe Pu-erh is often made with lower quality leaves, it can yield a unique, earthy flavor often sought out by tea-lovers.
Although technically tea must come from the Camellia sinensis plant, realistically speaking, many herbal infusions are also categorized as tea. Popular varieties of herbal tea include mint and chamomile. Each herbal tea is as unique as the blend of ingredients used, so it is quite extensive. Herbal teas are not only enjoyed for their flavor and aroma but their medicinal qualities as well. Take sage tea, which is proclaimed to have wound healing and mood-lifting effects, or turmeric tea, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Another benefit to herbal tea is that many varieties are caffeine-free, so if you’re prone to the jitters, this category of teas is a good option.