The choices are numerous. Even the tea selection at the local supermarket can leave the average consumer in a quandary. Black tea, jasmine tea, herbal tea, green tea, Darjeeling, orange pekoe…How do you choose? To help you eliminate infusion confusion, here’s a summary of the main tea varieties and their differences.
What Is Tea?
Tea is an infusion of hot water and the leaves, buds, or twigs of the tea plant, Cameilla sinensis. All “true teas” are made only from this particular species of plant. There are four major types of tea: Black, Oolong, Green and White. Although derived from the same plant, these varieties of tea are vastly different in flavor, aroma and color. The unique qualities of each variety are mainly due to how tea leaves are processed, or fermented.
When tea leaves are bruised or crushed, enzymes within the leaf cells are exposed to oxygen, and a chemical reaction (oxidation) takes place that causes the leaf to darken, or ferment. When tea leaves are fully fermented, the end product is black tea.
The Four Main Types of Tea
Black Tea (fully-fermented): This is the variety of tea that most of us are familiar with. It comes in many forms, based on the region where it is grown, or the herbs and flavorings added to the tea leaves. The infusion is a reddish brown-colored beverage that has a strong flavor and aroma that is flowery and fruity.
Oolong Tea (semi-fermented): Pronounced “woolong”, and also known as “Black Dragon”, Oolong tea is only partially fermented. The fermentation process is stopped prematurely, once the leaves are slightly yellowed. When steeped, Oolong tea produces golden or light brown tea with a very delicate flavor resembling neither black nor green tea.
Green Tea (unfermented): By heating tea leaves as soon as they are harvested, fermentation is avoided, and the result is green tea. This type of processing preserves the teas healthful benefits; a high level of antioxidants, Vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals. The infusion is pale greenish yellow in color and tastes light and grassy.
White Tea (unfermented): White tea is also unfermented, but rather than being made from mature tea leaves, only the unopened bud of the tea leaf is used. The flavor is light and does not have the grassy notes of green tea, but still packs all the same healthful benefits.
Flavored and Blended Teas
Many teas are concoctions of scented, flavored or blended teas, produced using one of the four major types of tea as a base. Add jasmine flowers, and you have jasmine tea. Earl Grey is a combination of bergamot oil and a strong black tea. Chai is a western term for a sweet spiced black tea from India, where it is known as masala chai.
Since true tea only comes from the tea plant Camellia sinensis, strictly speaking, herbal teas do not qualify as actually being a type of tea. Products marketed as herbal tea are either tea bags containing only herbs (like chamomile or peppermint), or are tea-based with herbs added.
Caffeine in Tea
Pound for pound, tea has about the same level of caffeine as does coffee, but since tea leaves are not as dense as ground coffee, less is used, resulting in a lower caffeine content per cup; about half that as a cup of coffee. Teas that undergo more fermentation have the most caffeine; black, followed by Oolong. Being unfermented, green and white tea infusions have very low levels of caffeine. When exposed to hot water, caffeine quickly infuses out of the tea leaves. The amount of caffeine in a cup of tea can be dramatically reduced by discarding the first infusion and drinking the second.
Whichever variety of tea you choose, this healthful beverage offers a range of flavors to please all palates.
* Article originally published in Suite101 online magazine.