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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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)
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.