Tea or coffee? How many times have you heard the same question?
If you accept a cup of tea, there is a chance you will either love it or give up on having it ever again. Why? Because there are thousands of different teas, millions in fact, and if you start by trying the „wrong“ one, you may not want to have tea ever again.
Our guide should help you understand what is tea, what are the main tea types and varieties, and what can you expect from each and every cup.
What is tea?
Tea is a drink made from different herbs, plants, fruits, spices or flowers. There is a difference between the „real tea“ and all other „herbal infusions“. Real tea is always made from the same plant – Camellia sinensis. Camellia sinensis has different varieties. The Chinese sinensis and the Indian assamica varieties are the most common varieties used for making real tea. Next, there are many cultivars too, and each of them has a different flavor profile and different characteristics.
Therefore, tea can be divided into:
- Real tea made from Camellia sinensis
- Herbal tea, made from all other plants, herbs, flowers, spices or fruits except from Camellia sinensis
All real teas contain caffeine. However, some herbal teas may contain caffeine too, but not many of them.
How is real tea made?
Real tea is made from leaves of Camellia sinensis plant. Leaves are harvested a few times per year depending on the tea plant and area. Tea plants can grow on plantations or in the wild. Once the leaves are harvested, they undergo a number of steps that turn them into white, yellow, green, oolong, black or dark tea. Same tea plant can be processed into different types of tea.
Once the loose leaf tea is made, it’s sorted and packed. Tea dust and small particles are usually used for tea bags.
White tea is the minimally processed type of tea. Leaves are only withered outdoors, dried indoors and then sorted. Although the production process sounds very simple, it takes a lot of knowledge to make a high quality tea in only a few steps. This tea is rich in antioxidants, can have both low and high caffeine content and is usually very light in flavor. You can brew white teas using very hot water and re-steep the same leaves for at least 3-5 times.
The most popular types of white tea are:
- Silver Needle from China made from young buds. When dried, buds look like little „needles“ covered with silver hair. Very light, slightly sweet floral fresh flavor.
- Pai Mu Dan from China, a unique tea that contains buds, leaves and stalks and has a stronger flavor than Silver Needle. Expect delicate dry hay notes, light flowery tones and subtle sweetness.
Red more about white tea here.
Yellow tea is the most mysterious category of tea. It’s rare and made almost exclusively in China. This type of tea is lightly fermented. Fermentation results in a mellow flavor. This type of tea is unlikely to be available in tea bags.
The most popular yellow teas are:
- Junshan Yinzhen or Junshan Silver Needle tea, made with buds.
- Huoshan Huangya yellow tea that looks very similar to green tea and has a light and mellow flavor.
Read more about Chinese yellow tea here.
Green tea is the second most consumed type of real tea. This is the unoxidized type of tea. It can have a range of flavors – from very light and grassy to strong and smoky, toasty and nutty or floral. Green tea is often considered the healthiest type because of the high levels of catechins. The most important catechin in green tea is EGCG. Green tea is processed differently than black tea. Once harvested, tea leaves are usually withered, then steamed or pan fired. This step stops the oxidation process and preserves the color, flavor, and benefits. Next, leaves are rolled and dried.
The most popular types of green tea
- Japanese sencha tea is the most popular type of Japanese green teas. This tea has a slightly sweet, slightly bitter and very fresh vegetal flavor. Leaves are steamed to stop the oxidation.
- Dragon Well tea from China is a very popular, unique type of tea with flat tea leaves. Flavor is very light, slightly sweet and nutty.
- Mao Feng tea from China with a very fresh, green and slightly sweet flavor.
- Japanese Gyokuro tea with strong umami or savory flavor is one of the most expensive Japanese teas in the world. Leaves grow in shade before harvesting.
- Japanese Matcha tea is a tea powder made from shaded green tea leaves that are de-veined and de-stalked before being grounded.
- Biluochun tea from China with a slight astringency, fruitiness and smokiness.
- Gunpowder green tea with leaves shaped into small pellets and has a strong, nutty and smoky flavor. Gunpowder is one of the strongest green teas, and one of rare green teas you can use for making green tea lattes.
Read more about green tea here.
Oolong tea is a half-oxidized type of tea. This means it only undergoes a partial oxidation. The level of oxidation can vary greatly, making it either green or dark. Green oolong tea is lighter and has a flavor more similar to green tea – but usually without astringency, no grassiness and floral notes. Dark oolong tea is closer to black tea. It usually has roasted, floral and ripe fruit notes. The production of oolong tea can contain even a few dozen of steps.
The most popular types of oolong tea
- Tieguanyin tea is the most popular and the most exquisite Fujian oolong tea. Leaves are shaped into small balls and contain no stalks. Tieguanyin is usually divided into two categories – a modern Tieguanyin with greener, more floral light flavor and traditional Tieguanyin with stronger roasted flavor.
- Red Robe oolong is the best representative of Chinese Wuyi rock teas. This is a heavily oxidised oolong with rich fruity, mineral and roasted notes.
- Dancong teas from the Chinese Guangdong province are famous for their flavors. They are harvested from tea trees, each having unique notes.
- High mountain Taiwanese oolongs grown on high altitudes above 1000 meters. Leaves and whole branches with two or more leaves are shaped into small balls. They have unique floral, milky and smooth flavor.
Read more about oolong tea here.
Black tea is fully oxidized tea. It’s the most consumed type of tea in the world. Once the tea leaves are harvested, they are withered, rolled, oxidised and dried. Withering is a common step in producing tea, used to reduce the moisture content of the leaf. Rolling will break the leaf and speed up oxidation. The last step drying – reduces the moisture content to a minimum and give the final flavor.
Black tea usually has more caffeine than other tea types. You can brew many black teas using boiling water. Read how to brew black tea here.
The most popular types of black tea
- Assam tea from India with its strong and malty flavor and high caffeine content is one of the most popular black teas in the world.
- Darjeeling teas from India are considered some of the best black teas in the world. This champagne of tea is lighter than most black teas, slightly floral, with hints of honey and molasses.
- Dian Hong Chinese tea or Chinese Yunnan black teas with sweet and smooth flavor
- Lapsang souchong tea from China, traditionally smoked over pine wood with a distinct smoky flavor
- Keemun tea from China with sweet, smooth, malty and floral notes.
- Ceylon teas or teas from Sri Lanka with a lighter floral, clean flavor.
The most popular black tea blends are:
- English Breakfast blend made with different types of black tea, but usually containing Assam. These blends have a strong flavor suitable for adding milk and sugar.
- Earl Grey black tea scented with bergamot essential oil
- Chai tea – Indian milk tea made with strong black tea, sugar and milk. Another type is Masala Chai tea, with the addition of spices.
Read more about black tea here.
Dark tea or heicha is a special type of tea originating in China. This tea is oxidized and fermented and often aged throughout many years to achieve mellow flavor. The most popular type of dark tea is Pu’erh. Pu’erh is produced in China, only in Yunnan province. Pu’erh can be raw or ripe. Raw pu’erh will be more similar to green tea, while the ripe pu’erh will be closer to black. Raw pu’erh can be very bitter and usually needs to be aged. Ripe pu’erh is almost never bitter and you can drink it without aging it first.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It’s not intended to replace medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Every person is different and may react to different herbs and teas differently. Never use teas or herbs to treat serious medical conditions on your own. Always seek professional medical advice before choosing home remedies.