Beginner's Guide to Drinking Tea: Types of Tea (part 2 of 3)

Getting started with tea can be intimidating, aren't you lucky to have a three part beginner's guide to help you along your journey? Today we're going to continue on with an introduction to the different types of tea. If you missed Part 1: Why Switch?, you can check it out here.

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Pictured from Left to Right: Keemun Black, Gunpowder Green, Wuyi Oolong, Bai Mu Dan White, Golden Buds Shu Pu-erh.

If you are like many of the people in America when someone says tea you automatically associate it with the little yellow bags of Lipton that your mother used to make iced tea during the summer, or perhaps even sun tea if your mother was anything like mine. Then again, some of you may also associate it with being ill. How many of you had parent who would bring you a cup of hot tea with lemon or honey to ease a sore throat, or peppermint to sooth an upset stomach? That was how my tea journey began, iced sun tea during the hot Midwestern summers and hot tea with honey when I was sick. It ended up being soothing and always what I needed, which cemented my love for it at a young age.

For many people when you mention tea they associate it with the garden variety bagged tea, such as Lipton, that can be purchased at any local grocer or convenience store. The world of tea is much larger than that, it's an incredibly versatile beverage with many different varieties available. I believe that it is possible for everyone to eventually find one that they enjoy, but figuring out where to begin can be difficult, so let's start out with the very basics.

What exactly is tea?

Tea comes in many forms, but for the most part they can be broken down into two main categories, those coming from the plant Camellia sinensis which I will be referring to as tea in this article, and those which come from other plants which I will be referring to as tisanes. The category of tisanes is a catch-all for everything that doesn't originate from Camellia sinensis and includes herbal teas such as peppermint or chamomile as well as Yerba Maté and Rooibos, which are popular enough to deserve their own category.

Lets take a look at the five main types of tea that come from the Camellia sinensis plant.

Black

The most common variety of tea available is black tea, also referred to as red tea in parts of the world. Most of it is manufactured using the Crush, Tear, Curl (CTC) method where the leaves withered for a period of time, passed through a machine which will crush, tear, and curl the leaves before they are left to oxidize in a controlled environment. They are then dried to halt the oxidation process and graded according to their size. The smallest leaves left over from the CTC process, referred to as dust and fannings, are commonly used in tea bags because their small size ensure they produce a quick steeping, yet dark brew. 

If you have heard of Dian Hong, Keemun, or Lapsang Souchong, then you are already familiar with several types of black tea.

Green

While Black tea may be the most common variety of tea available, green tea is the one which has the most notoriety in the West, due largely in part to its purported health benefits. Like Black tea it originates from the Camellia sinensis plant, but does not go through the oxidation process. Instead it is heated as soon as it is picked, preventing it from withering and allowing it to retain its mellow, sometimes grassy flavor. It is most commonly exported by China although there are a number of varieties exported from Japan. 

Sencha, Matcha, Gyokuro, and Genmaicha are examples of green teas you may have seen available.

Oolong

Taiwan and China typically cultivate this variety of tea. It is a partially oxidized tea, which is withered then hand rolled, before the oxidation process is stopped by pan firing or roasting the leaves. The oxidation levels vary greatly among oolong teas ranging from lightly oxidized to dark roasted, creating a very wide variety of flavors.

Tie Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess), Da Hong Pao (Red Robe), Bai Hao (Oriental Beauty), and Jin Xuan (Milk Oolong) are several examples of varieties you may have heard about.

White

It is very possible that you have never heard of white tea as it is more rare than other varieties. It is made from new leaves or buds which are carefully harvested. It then goes through the minimal amount of processing and oxidation before being dried. Often times the leaves retain some its downy fuzz which give them a unique appearance. They also differ from other teas in flavor as they are the most delicate tasting teas. I find that oftentimes the delicate flavors of these teas are more difficult for new tea drinkers to appreciate, but don't rule them out entirely, because these wonderful teas should not be missed.

Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), Silver Needle and Shou Mei are examples of white teas you may have heard of.

Pu-erh

This category of tea, which is commonly mistaken for black tea due to its dark color, is perhaps the most complex of the teas coming the Camellia sinensis plant. It can be further broken down into two sub categories. Shu, or ripened Pu-erh, which is heated to prevent oxidation and has a slightly sweet flavor. Sheng, or raw Pu-erh is slow to oxidize and has a strong earthy flavor. 

Both types of tea have very complex flavors which vary widely depending on processing conditions. After processing most pu-erh is pressed into cakes or bricks, however some of it is sold loose. Properly store pu-erh can be kept for years and the flavors change dramatically as it ages, making it highly collectible.

This is a very bare bones summary of Pu'erh, as I mentioned earlier it is a very complex tea and I could dedicate a whole series to it. If you are interested in reading more I suggest starting with the Wikipedia article as it contains very in-depth information.

Then of course we have herbal tisanes and their sub-categories

Herbal

This category makes up any non-caffeinated tisane made from dried plant material. These are often consumed for their medicinal benefits. 

Common varieties of herbal teas include peppermint and ginger (commonly used for stomach upset and digestion issues), chamomile and valerian (used as a sleep aide) and horehound (used for soothing sore throats.)

Women who are pregnant and anyone taking prescription medication need to take great care when consuming herbal tisanes as some contain ingredients that are not considered safe during pregnancy or when combined with other drugs. My doctor was able to provide me a list of what was not considered safe and I used herbal teas throughout my pregnancy to relieve some of my discomfort. Peppermint tea was a life saver!

Yerba Maté

The South American plant that Yerba Maté is derived from, Ilex paraguariensis, is a member of the holly family. The leaves and twigs are harvested then dried over a wood fire, which imparts a somewhat smoky flavor to the leaves. It is steeped in hot water and served in a hollow gourd with a metal straw.

Rooibos

Aspalathus linearis, a member of the gourd family, is grown in the Western Cape province of South Africa and is also referred to as red bush tea. The leaves are processed using two methods, oxidized (red rooibos) which gives it its distinctive dark redish-brown color and deep woody flavor, and unoxidized (green rooibos) which produces a lighter somewhat grassy flavor.

Rooibos is caffeine free and has a wide variety of traditional medicinal uses. It is renowned for its its anti-inflammatory capabilities, ability to provide relief from colic, as well as a whole host of other ailments.

There are of course other types of tea not on my list, but we're only going to cover the basics today. Check back next week for the third part of the beginner's guide to drinking tea. We'll be talking about what, if any, gadgets are necessary to brew yourself a perfect cup and where you can purchase tea online.

This is a three part series, follow the links below for parts one and three.

Beginner's Guide to Drinking Tea: Why Switch? (part 1 of 3)

Beginner's Guide to Drinking Tea: What Do You Need to Brew Your Perfect Cup of Tea? (part 3 of 3)

References

19 Lessons on Tea: Become an Expert on Buying, Brewing, and Drinking the Best Tea. 27Press, 2012. E-book.

Gascoyne, Kevin, Francois Marchand, and Jasmin Desharnais. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. Firefly Books, 2011. Print.

Zak, Victoria. 20,000 Secrets of Tea: The Most Effective Ways to Benefit from Nature's Healing Herbs. Dell, 1999. E-book.

Beginner's Guide to Drinking Tea: Why Switch? (part 1 of 3)

It's the beginning of a new year and for many people it's a time for change and new beginnings. Many of you have likely made resolutions, most of which, if you're anything like me, will be forgotten within the first 60 days. If your resolution for the new year was to lose weight, or to make changes in your diet, I would love to help you out. Just keep in mind that like any successful endeavor you need a plan and the dedication to stick with it. You also need a starting point for these changes.

Had you considered taking a look at what you have been drinking lately?

Your first step should be knowing what you are currently consuming, you need a baseline. According to the Dr Pepper website, a 20oz bottle of Dr. Pepper contains roughly 250 calories and is considered not 1, but 2.5 servings. The average Grande (16oz) latte from your local Starbucks also contains roughly 250 calories. 

If you frequently consume one or more large, half caf, 4 pumps not 5 of cherry not raspberry, skim, no whip berry white mochas with three shots not two or some other similarly complicated drink, then of course tea is going to be more healthy just from a caloric standpoint. According to Caribou Coffee's website the average, much less complicated, Large Berry White Mocha contains 680 calories. Yes, you read that correctly, nearly 700 calories in one drink. I was surprised as well.

(A special thanks to the person who ordered this drink while I was struggling to come up with a complicated drink example. It meant I didn't have to bother my favorite barista with yet another odd question, although by now I think she expects it of me.)

This might be a good area for you to look at so you can start to cut back and in fact this was the area I targeted last year. By only drinking one small latte every Wednesday I started consuming 1500 fewer calories per week. I filled the void by increasing my tea consumption because I've always enjoyed tea.

You may have heard about the additional health benefits of tea.

I'm not a doctor or medical professional, which means I don't feel qualified to make some of the claims you may hear associated with increased tea consumption. You won't hear me bandying about words like antioxidants, flavonoids, and free radicals or making claims of weight loss and decreased risk of cancer. There are certainly studies that show drinking tea does have health benefits and there are also studies that show they may not have all of the health benefits that have been claimed. For every study done someone has likely done another study to disprove the findings in the first making coming to any conclusions confusing. Can someone please remind me if eggs are good or bad for me today? My point is, you shouldn't switch to drinking tea because you read a study or article touting it's health benefits. You should drink it because you enjoy it, or think you might enjoy it, otherwise it will be a difficult habit to sustain. If you don't enjoy tea you can still reduce the amount of calories and sugar you consume by switching to water. 

This is a very controversial topic in many circles and I've been following several discussions about the health benefits of tea and the FDA's ruling about making claims about said benefits. It isn't that I don't think drinking tea has additional health benefits, I could give you a laundry list of things I've noticed in the last year in regards to my personal health, but this is a topic I could write a whole series on in and of itself. Perhaps I will do that at a later point, until then, if you want to debate the topic feel free to contact me directly or leave a comment. I love to hear the views of my readers, especially on such a controversial topic.

For now, I'll stick with my simplified point that you should drink tea because you enjoy it and it can be a good way to consume fewer calories.

The many misconceptions of tea and paying homage to Lord Starbucks...

Tea, isn't that what my grandmother drinks? It's a little, uh, girly.

Ah, you're picturing dainty bone china tea cups painted in assorted shades of pink, perhaps decorated with flowers, aren't you? This is a concern I've heard from several of my male friends and I've told them that they won't have their man card revoked for drinking tea. Dainty bone china isn't my style either, but I'm not knocking it if it is your thing. I have a few friends who are collectors and I love admiring their dainty cups that I'm totally terrified of dropping.

I'm pretty sure they don't bounce. In my life, I need things that bounce, I have an energetic toddler running around.

If you aren't comfortable telling everyone that you've switched, then don't. No one is going to notice what is in your travel tumbler anyway, unless you point it out. If you happen to work in an office who prefers to pay homage to our Lord Starbucks, just buy yourself a Starbucks branded travel mug so you fit in and put tea in it. You can even order it from Starbucks. I did that every day for years and no one ever noticed. 

Did you know that Starbucks owns not one, but two tea companies? Tazo has been owned by Starbucks since 1999 and Teavana was purchased in 2012. 

Not all tea is created equal and some can be as unhealthy as a bottle of soda.

Like anything else, you really need to read the label, be informed of what you are consuming, and ask questions. There are many teas that contain as many calories as soda. Bottled tea is one example, many of them are loaded up with sugar to help "improve" the flavor. Flavored teas and teas containing fruit pieces are another key area you'll need to watch and ask questions about. Some blends contain Stevia, such as Organic Blueberry Jam from DAVIDsTEA. Some blends contain added sugar in the form of candied fruit, such as Maharaja chai/Samurai chai blend from Teavana. If you are worried about your sugar intake try starting with an unflavored oolong tea (my personal favorite) or perhaps green tea. 

If you have no idea what that even means, check back next week for the second part in the beginner's guide to drinking tea. We'll be talking about the different types of tea you may encounter on your tea drinking journey. In the meantime be informed, be healthy, and enjoy a good cup of tea. 

This is a three part series, follow the links below for parts two and three.

Beginner's Guide to Drinking Tea: Types of Tea (part 2 of 3)
Beginner's Guide to Drinking Tea: What Do You Need to Brew Your Perfect Cup of Tea? (part 3 of 3)