FOODOctober 12, 2021

Tea 101: A Beginner’s Guide to the Major Types of Tea

tea 🍵 >>>>> coffee ☕

Tea might be one of the most versatile drinks out there. Iced or hot, sweetened or plain, there are a million different ways to enjoy the world’s second most widely consumed beverage (after water, of course!). 

Fundamentally, all tea is made from the leaves of the same plant: Camellia sinensis, a small, warm-weather shrub native to Asia. The differences, then, between the major categories of tea come from how those leaves are processed after they’re picked. This definition of tea means that your cup of ginger or chamomile tea isn’t technically a “true” tea, but these drinks are still brewed and consumed in the same way as real-deal tea, so it would be remiss to not include them in this guide. Let’s go ahead and dive in then!

Green Tea

To produce green tea, tea leaves are immediately pan-fired or steamed after they’re picked to stop them from oxidizing. Oxidation causes color and flavor changes in the tea leaves — it’s the same process that turns apple slices brown after sitting out for a while — so the leaves need to be heated as soon as possible to preserve their vegetal flavor and green color. 

Green tea tends to taste fresh, grassy, and even slightly sweet, but beyond that, there’s a lot of nuance between the flavors of different green teas. These differences are mostly due to where the tea leaves were grown and how exactly they were processed. For example, most Chinese green teas are pan-fired and have more toasty or nutty notes, while many Japanese green teas are steamed and taste more grassy. No matter which green tea you choose, be sure to not steep it for too long or at too high of a temperature, which can make the tea taste bitter.

Green tea in Chinese gaiwan
Jia Ye / unsplash.com

Black Tea

Black tea is like the opposite of green tea: the tea leaves are fully oxidized. Once the tea leaves are picked, they’re first withered to reduce their moisture content and then carefully crushed, torn, or rolled to release their enzymes and essential oils and jumpstart the oxidation process. Afterward, the leaves are left to oxidize, where they change color from green to dark brown or black. Once the right amount of oxidation is achieved, the leaves are finally dried, preserving all the new flavors and aromas that have developed during the oxidation process.

The flavor profile of black tea tends to be stronger and more full-bodied than green tea. Because of this, black tea pairs well with added milk, sugar, and/or spices, like in a cup of masala chai or Thai iced tea. Of course, black tea on its own is also full of flavor — you might taste some fruitiness or maltiness, depending on the particular variety you’re drinking.

Close-up of loose leaf black tea
Oleg Guijinsky / unsplash.com

White Tea

Out of all the “true” teas, white tea is the least processed and has the most delicate flavor. To produce white tea, tea buds are plucked before they’ve even unfurled into leaves. These buds are covered in a fine, silvery-white fuzz, which is what gives white tea its name. After harvest, the tea buds are immediately dried, either naturally in the sun or in a carefully controlled environment.

Because white tea undergoes almost no oxidation, it has a rather mild flavor. You might notice some subtle fruity or floral notes, and it may taste slightly sweeter than green tea because white tea tends to be harvested earlier in the year. Two popular varieties of white tea are Silver Needle, which is made only from unopened tea buds, and White Peony, which has a more robust flavor because it includes both young tea leaves and buds.

Cup of Silver Needle white tea
Margarita Komine / gettyimages.com

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is a semi-oxidized tea, which means that it encompasses everything that lies between barely-oxidized green tea and fully-oxidized black tea. The exact level of oxidation varies widely between different oolong teas, and this leads to a rich diversity of flavors: one oolong might have a delicate fruitiness while another might have a much stronger, earthier taste. Oolong teas also have distinct “recipes” for how they’re produced. Timing, temperature and humidity, and the way the leaves are handled all play a role in reaching and maintaining a specific level of oxidation.

Oolong teas that are oxidized less will have a lighter color (like green tea), while those that are oxidized more will have a darker color (like black tea). One popular variety of oolong is Tie Guan Yin (“Iron Goddess of Mercy”), which has slight floral and honey notes and itself comes in a range of oxidation levels.

Cup of oolong tea on a tray
Yusuke Murata / gettyimages.com

Pu-erh Tea

Although pu-erh starts out much in the same way as the other “true” teas, it undergoes a major additional step: fermentation. Pu-erh can be classified as either sheng (“raw”) or shou (“ripe”).

Sheng pu-erhs are naturally fermented over a long period of time. Tea leaves are harvested, pan-fired, pressed into discs, and then left to age for multiple years or even decades. On the other hand, shou pu-erhs are produced by heaping together tea leaves in a large pile, mixing in a small amount of previously fermented tea to introduce the required microbes for fermentation, and then regularly turning the pile until the leaves are fully fermented. The dense pile of tea leaves produces its own heat that speeds up the fermentation process, so it takes much less time to produce shou pu-erhs than sheng pu-erhs.

In terms of taste, pu-erh tea tends to have a strong earthiness to it. Shou pu-erhs may have a little less depth of flavor than sheng pu-erhs because of the accelerated fermentation time, but it’s definitely worth trying out both types.

Brick of pu-erh tea
Ignat Gorazd / flickr.com

Herbal Tea

The term “herbal tea” essentially describes any beverage that is prepared in a similar way to Camellia sinensis teas but doesn’t actually contain Camellia sinensis leaves. Many of these herbal teas are made from flowers (e.g. chamomile, hibiscus, and lavender), herbs (e.g. peppermint, ginger, and lemon balm), or grains (e.g. barley, buckwheat, and corn silk), but there are plenty of others that don’t fit into those categories. One example is rooibos tea, which is made from the leaves of the rooibos plant in South Africa and has a distinct reddish-orange color when brewed. 

In addition to herbal teas, there are also “herbal infusions,” which are combinations of true tea leaves and other flavors. These teas include jasmine tea (green tea + jasmine flowers) and many fruit teas. Even if true teas aren’t your jam, there’s probably a herbal tea out there with whatever flavor profile you’re seeking out!

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