With a history of nearly 5,000 years, tea is one of the oldest beverages. Since its first discovery in China, it has retained its popularity for centuries. Hot or iced, it makes a wonderful refreshment before, during, or after any meal.
But tea is so much more than leaves in water. The reasons it endures as one of the world’s most prominent beverages go far beyond what’s at the bottom of your mug.
What is Tea?
Not all tea is the same, and understanding what tea is will help you choose the one you’ll adore. There are true teas, herbal teas, and flavored teas all differentiated by the plants that are used to make them.
From there it gets a little confusing since there are subcategories of these main categories. But we’re sure what will perplex you all the more is that herbal teas and flavored teas aren’t really teas at all. Feeling lost now? Don’t, for further below, you’ll learn all about what makes any tea a real TEA (which is having plant parts from Camellia sinensis, incidentally).
History of Tea
Tea goes all the way back to 2737 B.C.E. when Shen Nong, a Chinese emperor accidentally discovered it. The tea leaves fell into his boiling pot of water as the story goes and thus, tea came into existence.
Naturally, though, there’s a bit of argument about where it originated from though researchers believe the tea plant came from China’s Yunnan province though some evidence shows that Tibet and Northern India may also have been where tea plants grew natively.
Tea went from China to Japan where the Ming Dynasty was credited with tea production processes that are still used today. It wasn’t until the 17th century when tea made the journey to the West thanks to global trade. In the US, tea made the journey to Britain when the colonies were formed.
And we all remember what happened at the Boston Tea Party, but despite this, even in the US, tea is a cherished beverage that you can think of like a happy accident, one that came about from a tea leaf falling by chance into a pot of boiling water.
How Tea is Made
We briefly discussed how Japan revolutionized tea cultivation. The first stage of making tea is cultivating the tea plant. It comes from Camellia sinensis, an evergreen bush. Patience pays for tea plants take about 3 years before they can produce leaves that can be used to make tea.
After cultivation comes the harvesting. From there the leaves are transported for processing. And this is where true teas become different from one another even though they come from the same leaves. During processing, they can be dried, withered, oxidized, or fired and shaped. In the case of green tea leaves, they can also be ground to make what you may already know and love as matcha, a potent green tea powder.
Types of Tea
As mentioned previously, three main types of tea exist. While they all come from the leaves of that one same Camellia sinensis plant, they can differ to the extreme in their aroma and flavor, not to mention the way they look. How does this happen? It’s all from the production process we touched upon above.
Now read on and learn more about the 6 types of tea you should know about.
Of all the true teas, white tea undergoes the least processing. Therefore, it retains its natural appearance and taste. Hand-plucked, the youngest leaves are left to dry in the sunlight.
Overall, white tea has a subtle flavor that is quite dainty with a slight natural sweetness that gives way to florals and fruitiness. You may find you like white tea best with a hint of raw organic honey or a squeeze of lemon.
White teas are mostly produced in China’s Fujian province though there are other white tea plantations to be found in Africa and Sri Lanka. Among white tea varieties, Silver Needle is one that you’ll find that only uses the buds of the tea leaf plant. It has a flavor that tastes a lot like honeysuckle.
White Peony is another popular white tea. This one uses the buds and the leaves from the plant, giving it a wide flavor that remains sweet yet contrasted with a mild sharpness.
Green tea is another option that is minimally processed. Green tea doesn’t undergo any oxidization though it takes longer to produce than white teas. When they harvest green tea leaves by hand, they take them immediately to production where they are spread upon large mats of cloth or bamboo to wither. Doing so reduces the moisture content, leaving them limp.
After the moisture is reduced, they are hit with heat to keep oxidation from occurring. Sometimes they are pan-fired while other times they are steamed in a drying process. As they dry, tea producers will shape the leaves. You’ll see them in pearls, balls, and other shapes.
To add further distinction, you’ll note that green tea is most often produced in either China or Japan. As such, they have unique differences that make each country stand out. For China, the majority of green teas are dried in some kind of roasting method, giving them an earthy and toasted flavor. For Japan, they most often steam dry the leaves to give it a grassier flavor that turns out sweeter.
Matcha is a type of green tea that is stone-ground into a fine powder. Not only used for brewing tea, perhaps you have seen it in lattes or as a garnish for desserts. Drinking matcha is a more potent way to get the benefits of pure green tea, brimming with antioxidants that support your health overall, especially for matters of the heart and aging concerns. Another popular green tea blend is genmaicha tea which takes the leaves with popped rice kernels that give it a toasty flavor.
The most well-known green tea is sencha, made with steamed and rolled leaves that create this tea. If you’ve had green tea before but aren’t sure what type, it’s most likely that you’ve had sencha.
Oolong tea is only partially oxidized, but just for a little bit. It has a stronger flavor and coloring than green tea though if you find black tea too strong, this one might be more to your liking.
To make oolong tea, the leaves are plucked and then withered and bruised on bamboo. Doing this exposes the enzymes contained in the tea leaves to the oxygen in the air so they begin to ferment in a controlled way to change the color and flavor.
Only in China and Taiwan are oolong teas cultivated. They have a classification from the regions they grow in, much like wines. This helps identify the flavor profiles of the unique terroir in each area. As such, oolong tea can be vastly different from one area of cultivation to the next. Think of it as the wine of teas!
Generally speaking, oolong teas have a floral taste that finishes smooth and showcases a medium body. When you look in your cup, you’ll usually see an amber or pale green hue, depending on where your oolong was cultivated. To try something less oxidized, choose pouching tea. It has a floral taste that is more similar to green tea. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Da Hong Pao is the most heavily oxidized. Taste it and discover a strong malty flavor with a smooth finish.
Of all the true teas, black tea undergoes the most processing. This lengthy production process makes it very bold and distinctive, much like your favorite morning cup of coffee. In addition to being produced in China, other countries like Africa, India, and Sri Lanka also thrive with black tea production.
When it comes to India, you may have come across a box of black tea labeled with “Darjeeling.” This is one of the largest black-growing tea regions of India. Assam is another, and in Sri Lanka, Nilgiri and Ceylon are not far behind in terms of production numbers for black tea.
That should lend a clue that black teas are most commonly named for the regions from which they hail. They have different levels of oxidization to boot so for example, those cultivated in Assam are fully oxidized and are deep black while in Darjeeling, they are only semi-oxidized because of the area’s climate.
In Sri Lanka, the Ceylon black tea is known for having a long and wiry shape. But in China, most of the black teas have a stronger, malty flavor compared to those from India.
When you brew black tea, they tend to come out with amber or dark brown tone. Try Assam and you’ll enjoy more of an earthy aroma followed by a malty taste. Seeking something more delicate? Darjeeling is where it’s at with a dainty floral and fruity taste. And for something a bit more exotic, Ceylon is reminiscent of chocolate with a bold and full-bodied style.
Pu-erh Tea – Farmented Tea
Pu-erh teas (sometimes called Pu’er) come from the leaves of Camellia sinensis and are post-oxidized. To further complicate matters, there are raw and aged varieties of this dark or fermented tea. The raw version is produced in a way that is more like green tea. So the leaves get hand-picked and are then withered, then heated to prevent oxidization.
The aged variety is post-oxidized through a carefully controlled process that might remind you of how fine wines age. The leaves age and go through a natural oxidation process for about 10 to 15 years. Some of the finest ones you’ll see may be aged up to 50 years!
What do they taste like? Raw pu-erh teas are much like green tea in taste, aroma, and color. They often have a roasted plant-like flavor. Aged varieties taste more like black tea and have a similar dark hue with a robust taste. You can find pu-erh tea in bags, loose, blocks, or pearls.
Herbal tea isn’t really a tea. That’s because it doesn’t have those leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal teas are made with spices, flowers, herbs, and twigs that get boiled in hot water to unite their flavors and healing powers.
There are thousands upon thousands of varieties of herbal teas. You may even have some handy for when guests drop by. Of the spice teas, ginger, peppermint, and turmeric seem to be the most popular. Floral teas abound as well with options like chamomile that feels silky with a clean and delicate floral flavor that soothes with every sip.
Rooibos is another floral tea that exhibits wonderful flavor with a bit of a sweet and smoky taste tempered with florals and sweet vanilla with caramel. On the opposite end, hibiscus tea is very fruity with a contrast of sweet and sour that is likened to cranberry.
Whichever herbal tea you choose, even though it isn’t a true tea, you may find benefits from drinking it. These types of teas have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries.
What About Flavored Tea?
Things get all the more confusing when you talk about flavored teas. That’s because they are made by mixing true tea with herbal tea. For example, a true tea like green tea is used as the base, and herbs, spices, and flowers are added for a truly spectacular treat.
Jasmine tea is just one such tea that falls into the flavored tea category. It’s slightly sweet and incredibly fragrant, making it a lovely beverage. Earl Grey is popular among British teas. It’s made with black tea and bergamot, revealing citrusy and malty flavors in one.
Why Drink Tea Every Day? 5 Health Benefits of Drinking Tea
Now that you know more about teas (the true varieties as well as the others), you may be thinking about making yourself a cup of it. Or perhaps you’re still sitting here reading this wondering why you should add another beverage to your daily intake.
Tea has some pretty fantastic health benefits that you’ll only get if you start drinking it daily. Here are just 5 of them to help motivate you to drink more tea.
1. Protect your heart
Heart disease is a killer that is one of the leading causes of death in the world. Sadly, it’s a silent one since most people don’t know it’s already intent on striking. Studies have found that drinking tea could make a major impact when it comes to reducing your risk for heart diseases and may prevent heart attacks and blood clots. And it can also help you keep your blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels too!
2. Get to a healthy weight
When it comes to tea, green tea may be your new BFF in weight loss efforts. Because it has amino acids that help your body burn fat stores and caffeine, you’ll burn more energy and fat all at once. Sure, you could take a supplement but green tea is incredibly hydrating so you’ll always give your body what it needs for good health.
As another bonus, it has somewhat of a sweet taste that can help curb your cravings for desserts. You can drink as much of it as you like without harming your health, making it an ideal replacement for sugary beverages and treats.
3. Help your mental health
When you drink tea regularly, you may get to avoid having neurological diseases later on in life. At the very least, your stress levels will be reduced since tea has naturally calming compounds that encourage you to unwind.
And all tea has antioxidants that halt oxidative damage to your cells. You come into contact with them from pollution for example and simply drinking tea can help cleanse these toxins away to promote your best mental and physical health.
4. Keep blood sugar on the level
Type 2 diabetes is sweeping the world at an alarming rate. Whether you have it or are at risk, you may find help in a daily cup of tea. Black tea in particular has shown reduced blood sugar levels, providing this lowering effect for as much as 120 minutes post-meal. Because of the polyphenols tea naturally possesses, they are believed to be the reason why tea helps reduce this type of inflammation in the body.
5. Better digestion
Because the gut functions as a second brain in the body and is linked to immunity, you may want to do all you can to improve digestion. That’s where tea can be your best helper. For digestive issues, ginger tea is the top herbal tea that people drink in both China and India to get relief. In the Western world, it’s often given to pregnant women to curb nausea. Likewise, peppermint tea helps upset stomachs.
Since teas contain tannins, these are wonderful for quelling inflammation in the intestines. You may find that drinking tea leads to a more regular function of your digestive system.
How to Get Started with Tea
As we’ve discussed so many teas, you might be wondering how to begin drinking them. The real teas all come from the same plant but they will all have variances in flavor. That means that if you don’t like one type of tea, try another one and it may be a better match for your taste buds.
The easiest way to get started is to try something you can brew with ease. This is likely why flavored teas are so popular. They require little skill to brew and can handle any wrong temperatures whereas pure teas take a little know-how to get right.
For pure teas, your best entry is something that is not too bitter. Oolong’s Formosa is hard to mess up, even if you brew it too long. The same goes for green tea’s Ti Kwan Yin which can be steeped for longer.
Tempting as it is, you can’t predict whether you’ll like a tea by the way the leaves smell when dry. Some tea won’t have much aroma when you sniff the dry leaves but as soon as you brew them, your whole kitchen will be enveloped with a delightful scent.
It may help to get a good teapot or tea set to use with your teas. You can do tastings with your family and friends much as you would with wine to discover a flavor that matches your liking. The best part about getting started with tea is that there are so many to try. Just as you would with new cuisine, take a new try each time. Surely, there will be some you dislike but more often than not, you’ll find new teas to adore.
With all the true teas, there are unique flavors to enjoy even though they come from the same plant. Even the teas that aren’t technically true can give you much satisfaction in every cup. If you’re looking for something new to discover, consider tasting teas the way that fine wines and spirits undergo.
Tea offers something for everyone, making a wonderful start to a hectic day ahead or a refreshment mid-day to brighten your mood. And of course, tea is a divine experience after a meal to aid in digestion and calm your spirits. It also makes an elegant gift for just about every occasion.
Which teas will you fill your cup up with first?
About the Author
Lori Bogedin is a health and wellness writer and editor of TwigsCafe.com. She is in the restaurant business since 1999. In 2016 she was named one of the "Top Women in Business" by Northeastern Pennsylvania Business Journal.