Tea is more than a beverage. For many, it’s almost a religion just as coffee is. Tea provides a bridge that connects us with the earth and one another while opening a window of time to look within our own selves.
Let’s begin your journey into the world of tea!
Basics Of Tea
There are many different types of tea. Each type is grown in different regions of the world where the climate and soil interact with the tea plant to create a unique flavor. The way a tea is processed also lends to its uniqueness. So, we start at the very beginning; the tea plant.
The Tea Plant
There is only one tea plant. It is Camellia sinensis (a species from the genus Camellia.) Two subspecies (varieties) from Camellia sinensis are the sole sources of the world’s teas.
Camellia sinensis var. sinensis
- Green tea
- Black tea (except Assam)
- Oolong tea
- Yellow tea
- White tea
Camellia sinensis var. assamica
- Assam tea (a black tea)
So, how do so many different kinds of tea come from just two tea plants? You would think that all teas would taste the same because they come from one of these two plants. However, they don’t.
This is where the beauty of tea growers comes in because they are the ones that cultivate the tea plant to prosper and be its best while absorbing the specific nutrients in the soil below. The “frosting on the cake” is the kiss of clouds, rain, snow, and sun.
Now that we know tea comes from one of two plants, the region where those tea plants are cultivated determines the type of tea it will be. Different parts of the world refer to a tea crop as a tea plantation or a tea estate. In Asia, you may even see a crop called a tea garden.
If you go into a tea shop to purchase tea or do so online, you will notice the origin of the tea is almost always mentioned. The tea market trades various teas, which are priced, graded, and exported based on where that tea came from. A “single origin” tea comes from one region only. “Multiple origin” tea is a blend of one or more teas (such as English Breakfast or Earl Grey.)
The predominant origins where tea is grown are China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. Many other countries grow and export smaller amounts of tea. Each country is unique in the region, climate, and conditions where the tea is grown. Tea may grow in the lowlands where the climate is tropical, or it may grow at elevations that reach above the clouds.
Tea is marketed in three different forms to consumers.
- Loose-leaf tea
Loose leaf tea is the most preferred form of tea by those who are traditional tea drinkers. This form of tea is considered the highest quality with the best flavor.
Teabags are made from fannings and dust and are often considered the lowest quality form of tea. More expensive tea leaves which are broken may come in teabag form, and in this case, the tea isn’t regarded as low quality.
Fannings and dust are the remaining leftovers of a processed tea. The dust-like particles are used to fill tea bags which go on to be boxed up and sold under leading brand names we are very familiar with. Teabags often have a more bland taste compared to loose leaf tea.
Loose leaf tea is the best way to enjoy tea because the integrity of the tea leaves is preserved to provide the best flavor. Unlike fannings and dust, a loose leaf tea is much stronger with various hints of other flavors.
Steeping is the marriage of hot water and tea (tea bag or loose leaf.) During this time, the tea becomes infused into the water, releasing the various chemicals and constituents that benefit our body.
Flavor also develops during steeping. The best method to steep any tea is to cover it and let it sit undisturbed. Various teas require different steeping times. Green tea, for example, is more delicate, so a shorter steeping time is ample to produce the desired taste.
There is a dedicated tea flavor wheel used to describe the hundreds of different flavors detected in tea. When taking the time to fully enjoy and appreciate tea, you’ll begin to notice the various dimensions of flavor.
There are many ways to describe what a cup of tea tastes like. In the tea industry, there are base flavors with various hints and nuances that branch off.
- Wet Wool
- Nut-like nuances
- Tree/Vine Fruit
The Different Types Of Tea
Now we come to the “meat and potatoes” of learning about tea. To understand tea, it helps us to know what type of tea it is. Now remember, all of these teas come from only two tea plants that we mentioned earlier (except Rooibos.)
Fermentation scale: Fully Fermented
Flavor: Strong, robust, intense with variable hints, nuances, and aroma.
We have listed the most common black teas. These teas may go on to be blended with other black tea. An “infused” black tea has herbs, flowers, fruit, or essential oils added to create a unique flavor.
- Lapsang Souchong
Origin: Sri Lanka
Blends of Black Teas:
- Earl Grey
- Lady Grey
- English Breakfast
- Irish Breakfast
Infused Black Teas:
- Earl Grey
- Lady Grey
Fermentation Scale: Unfermented
Flavor: More earthy, herbal, with variable hints, nuances, and aromas.
Green tea is the largest group of all types of tea. Here are just a few of the hundreds of green teas on the market. Asia is the predominant origin of green tea.
- Pinhead Gunpowder
- Marrakesh Mint
Fermentation Scale: Semi-Fermented
Flavor: Delicate, mild with variable hints, nuances, and aromas.
Oolong tea is a green tea typically cultivated in Asia. It is categorized as a type of tea.
- Dong Ding
- Jin Xuan
- Ti Kuan Yin
- Phoenix Dong Cong
- Xing Xuan
Fermentation Scale: Slightly Fermented
Flavor: Very mild with variable hints, nuances, and aromas
White tea is harvested from the first buds of tea leaves. Green tea, on the other hand, is harvested from the second budding. Its extremely mild flavor is a result of minimal processing. White tea is often infused with fruit, flowers, or essential oils to enhance the flavor.
Fermentation Scale: Partially Fermented
Flavor: Mild with variable hints, nuances, and aromas
Yellow tea is often mistaken as white tea because of its delicate taste and translucent pale color.
Fermentation Scale: Fully Fermented With Additional Fermentation
Flavor: Pungent, earthy, and very herbal.
Pu-erh tea’s flavor is an acquired taste but something worthy of trying. This tea is somewhat rare, expensive, and unique in its own right. It typically comes from Asia and is made from a blend of other fermented teas.
Fermentation Scale: Non-Fermented
Flavor: Musty, grassy, honey, woody, floral, caramel
Rooibos tea comes from a grassy-looking shrub, Aspalathus linearis. This plant grows in only one place in the world, which is South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains. It’s neither a true tea as black or green and barely qualifies as an herbal tea. This tea is often referred to as a “red tea.”
Herbal teas are not true teas and, in the tea world, are called “tisanes.” Although it’s called a tea, it’s a medicinal beverage made in the same fashion as true tea by steeping. Some herbal teas are made from herbs, while others are made from flowers or leaves of other plants.
- Butterfly Pea Flower
Bubble (Boba) Tea
The Bubble Tea craze hit the U.S. back in back in the late 1980s after taking off in Taiwan, where it originated. This tea (also known as Boba tea) is a heavy sugar and carb-ladened drink popular among the younger crowd. A base of black tapioca pearls, ice, milk, and some form of tea, flavored drink, or herbal tea (tisane) are combined to create an icy, cold, sweet beverage best enjoyed through a thick straw. It’s often topped with whipped cream, caramel, chocolate, or other decorative, sweet element. (see below)
How Tea Is Processed (Manufactured)
You’d be surprised to know just how time-consuming it is for tea makers to harvest tea leaves and get the finished tea to the consumer. Some teas take up to 12 months to process.
When reading about different teas or purchasing tea, you’ll most likely be met with various terms that are unfamiliar. However, some of these things are important to know when selecting the finest and best quality tea to enjoy.
Harvest times are called “flushes.” Different teas are harvested in a particular flush to produce a tea’s characteristic flavor. To give you an idea of how different flushes apply to different teas, we’ll look at a few teas to explain their flushes.
Assam (Black tea: India)
The tea leaves are present on the tea plant for the longest amount of time.
Flavor produced: delicate with floral notes
Color produced: light amber
Higher in nutrients and antioxidants
Higher in caffeine
The tea leaves spend a shorter amount of time on the tea plant.
Flavor produced: malty
Color produced: amber
High in nutrients and antioxidants
High in caffeine
The tea leaves spend the least amount of time on the tea plant.
Flavor produced: diluted
Color produced: dark
Low in nutrients and antioxidants
Low in caffeine
Darjeeling (Black tea: India)
Flavor produced: delicate, astringent, hints of floral
Higher in caffeine, nutrients, and antioxidants
Flavor produced: muscatel with hints of floral
High in caffeine, nutrients, and antioxidants
Flavor produced: diluted taste
Low in caffeine, nutrients, and antioxidants
Flavor produced: light fruity
Lowest in caffeine, nutrients, and antioxidants
Methods Of Manufacturing
There are two ways to manufacture (process) tea; orthodox or unorthodox. (see image below)
Orthodox processing is the traditional (artisan) way to process tea. This method preserves the tea leaves integrity which results in the finest and best quality tea. The tea leaves are handled by hand as much as possible with little machine intervention. Many tea connoisseurs only purchase orthodox teas because they know the importance of flavor and quality.
The other method referred to as “unorthodox” is a method where the tea leaves go through a series of shredding, cutting, curling, and rolling. Machines often do this work.
Caffeine Levels In Tea
Black tea contains the highest level of caffeine. Green tea also contains caffeine but not as much as black tea.
A study done by researchers found that a six-ounce cup of tea can yield as much as 50 mg of caffeine. The Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. Overconsumption of caffeine can cause unpleasant side effects, so moderation is best for our daily tea consumption.
Shelf Life Of Tea
You may be surprised to know that tea has no expiration date. Tea purchased in grocery stores will have a “Best by” or “Use by” date on the packaging. This date is intended as a reference date for stocking purposes for retailers. Tea doesn’t go rancid, causing harmful side effects, but it will grow stale and lose flavor and nutritional benefits.
According to the USDA Foodkeeper Data, tea can remain palatable for up to 3 years, provided it’s stored in an airtight container, kept dry, and in a dark, cool place.
- Unopened tea bags are drinkable for 18-36 months past the “Best by” date.
- Opened tea bags are drinkable for 6-12 months past the “Best by” date.
Loose Leaf Tea
- An unopened package of loose leaf tea is drinkable for 2 years past the “Best by” date.
- An opened package of loose leaf tea is drinkable for 6-12 months past the “Best by” date.
Basics Under The Belt
So, now you have the condensed version of tea basics to get started on your own tea journey. Selecting a good, quality tea and enjoying the dimensions of flavors is rewarding and fun, providing you have a basic understanding of the types of teas, how they’re processed, and what flavor they’ll deliver.
Stay tuned to our blog as we’ll unveil further educational articles and fun reads! In the meantime, please browse through our wide selection of teas to help you get acquainted with the different types.
We offer a unique monthly tea journey plan for newcomers to tea delivering different teas to your front door to experience.