As promised, here’s a post dedicated for you to better understand the different types of tea. “True tea”, as purists would say, are all the teas that come from the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis. Any other tea that comes from some other plant, especially those from herbs and flowers, are considered as tisane.
The C. sinensis plant is by far the most complex type of the Camellia plant family. Namely, it contains unique antioxidants called flavonoids, with the most widely-researched flavonoid being epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). The plant thrives in tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, where it can enjoy plenty of rainfall and long bouts of warm, humid days. These days though, they don’t just grow in the wilderness of China and India. Since it’s the second most consumed beverage in the world after water, the world simply needs more tea. You’ll recognize C. sinensis by their leather-like leaves sprawling across acres of estates and/or tea gardens when driving through the outskirts of any town.
In general, you can tell your loose leaf servings are the finest if it’s got golden- or khaki-colored tip. This means it’s so young the tip of the leaves hasn’t developed chlorophyll content yet, and it’s proof that the young plant was plucked with the gentlest hands. This is where the “two leaves and a bud” saying comes from – the highest-grade teas tend to come from the youngest leaves to sprout. The taste and consistency of your tea is better while they’re still light green in color and tiny (can be processed into fine particles), whereas aged leaves tend to be dark green and take longer to steep because of their size.
Depending on how manufacturers process the tea leaves once it’s plucked, you’ll get a different type of tea. Generally speaking, the more processed they are, the less polyphenol (and therefore flavonoid) content they have, and the stronger it’ll be in both taste and aroma. These highly-oxidized tea leaves will produce deep, rich, reddish-brown liquors whereas the less-oxidized ones will give you light, yellowish-green infusions. The most basic step for all teas is to wither them till they become dry and pliable, but other procedures and their degree of processing will separate one tea from another. Take a look:
1. White tea
This is my favorite, especially when blended with herbs/flowers/roots. In the production house, white teas only go through 2 steps of processing: Only the slightest withering and drying. The result is a light and delicate body with the smoothest consistency and the least bitter taste of all teas. Fully pure and unoxidized, the white tea is widely enjoyed for the reasons I just mentioned – it’s nuanced, very subtle, still got a hint of natural sweetness, and is the least “smoky”-tasting tea of all. Since it’s the least processed type of tea, it’s also the tea with the lowest concentration of caffeine (1-2% of coffee). Least processed also mean the rife polyphenol content in just one sip – this study showed that it’s got the most potent anti-cancer properties compared to more processed teas. So drinking it often can reduce your chances of getting cancer. Since antioxidants pretty much do everything for you in terms of health – from upping your immune system to erasing wrinkles from your face1 – white tea is the panacea to cure every ailment imaginable (at least, for me personally). It’s basically a concentration of antioxidants in liquid form.
POPULAR VARIETY: White Hair Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen 白毫银针). Historically, the Silver Needle white tea is reserved only for the Chinese imperial family to enjoy. Why so royal, you say? These tenderest of tea shoots are fully harvested by hand for only 2 days in a calendar year. Meaning – it’s rare.
2. Green tea
Now the green tea is probably the most studied type of tea of all for its EGCG content, probably because of its cancer-preventing, fat-burning, cholesterol-reducing, brain- and heart-protecting properties, and the fact that it’s the most popular beverage throughout Asia. Almost all green teas come from either China or Japan. Like the white tea, green tea is also unoxidized, with China’s greens pan-fired or roasted to kill of enzymes responsible for oxidation whereas the Japanese ones steamed to do the same. Considering it’s just 2 countries here, it’s ironic that within the green tea category itself there’s so many more types of green tea – there’s just too many (we can do a whole post about it in the future)! My favorites include the everyday sencha 煎茶, the nutty kukicha 茎茶, and the lightest-bodied gyokuro 玉露. But I digress.
The Japanese way to process it is part of the reason why I love their varieties more: Steaming the leaves produces a more vegetal/herbaceous taste (it also retains their moisture more), whereas the Chinese’s roasting/pan-frying method gives you more smokiness, more flavor, and a vast range of undertones. Green teas usually contain little caffeine (10-30% of coffee), but as with all teas, it just depends on the temperature of brewing and how long you let it brew. The higher the temp and the longer you brew, the more caffeine it’ll jolt you. After the tea leaves have undergone the firing/steaming process, they’re rolled into sticks or twists or balls, then crushed for the tea bag servings and sorted for grading. Personally, I love the sticks best just because you’ll get a smoother and silkier body.
POPULAR VARIETIES: Dragon Well (Long Jing 龙井茶) and Matcha 抹茶. The Dragon Well is considered a premium tea in China due to its high quality. For one, it’s got some of the highest concentrations of catechins. During the rolling process, it’s flat-pressed into the shape of leaves, so when you brew it, these jade-colored leaves would actually open up and you can eat them as goats would eat their grass (hence, the grassiest tea you’ll ever taste). I personally can’t handle the bitterness … but the taste is distinctly rich and the green’s vital green, so it’s superb for your health. Matcha green teas, on the other hand, are more vegetal and sweet. The extra theanine and chlorophyll’s behind its signature taste, which were boosted by growing the tea leaves in the shade. They’re then grounded into powder forms and prepared by whisking them into hot water to yield a thick, frothy cuppa. You can tell a bad matcha from the good ones if it’s gone murky brown in color and has an earthier, slightly astringent taste.
3. Oolong tea
pig Black Dragon. Any Asian would’ve grown up enjoying the cold Pokka-bottled Oolong Tea, a drink I’ve always personally considered a treat (it’s got the freshest aftertaste of all teas, IMO). Oolongs have long been produced in China, particularly in the Fujian and Guangdong province, as well as in Taiwan. Cultivars usually favor larger, more mature tea leaves to yield the oolong tea. After the leaves have dried, they’re tossed or, traditionally, shaken in wicker baskets until they bruise and turn yellowish in color while its edges turn slightly reddish. This turnover process serves to further and improve the natural fermentation process of the leaves (those enzymes are still alive), breaking down and mixing up the chemical elements of the leaves and stem. The leaves are then oxidized partially, with degrees ranging from 8-85%, and then fired and rolled (usually curled and twisted). Because the degree of oxidation varies widely, oolong teas have their own subvarieties of different flavors, colors, and aromas.
More often than not, the oolong teas served in Chinese restaurants are light, yellowish-amber and is mild-tasting, yet is full-bodied and has a fragrant, woody aroma. The neat thing about oolong teas is that each time you steep the same leaves, you can get relatively different taste and fragrance. Although it’s only got about half the EGCG content as that in green tea, oolong tea has been shown to be a better metabolism-booster because of its polymerized (enriched) polyphenols. Its blood sugar-lowering effects are a bonus, but if you’re looking to burn the most calories at any given time, go with oolong all the way.
POPULAR VARIETY: Tie Guan Yin (铁观音). It’s one of the most expensive teas in the world and a premium tea in China, named after the Iron Goddess of Mercy in Buddhism. Even the Tie Guan Yin itself has various different types, although you can always tell it’s a Tie Guan Yin variety of oolong by the semi-thick/creamy texture, its floral tones, its roast nutty flavor and the smooth finish.
4. Black tea
Now many of you longtime readers already know that in the past couple of years, I could no longer tolerate pure black tea, so I don’t buy them anymore. It’s the tea type that’s fully fermented and oxidized, and therefore has the highest caffeine content of all – possibly why it’s the most well-known tea in the West. The result of long periods of fermentation and full oxidation is its characteristic dark brown and black leaves, as well as its strong, robust taste. The lingering tannic quality of it is also why it’s the most ideal tea of all to blend with the thickness of milk/cream and sugar, just the way most people enjoy their coffee.
Recently, black teas have also made headlines that might have steered people away from black tea – it’s got the highest oxalate content of all teas. Oxalic acid is a natural compound found in most foods that when overdosed, is going to cause all kinds of kidney problems. For this man and his habit of drinking his daily 16 glasses of iced black tea, it got him in the emergency room for kidney failure. Keep in mind that this is just another case of “too much of a good thing”, because when taken in moderation (drinking up to 5 cups or less a day), black tea reduces your risk of stroke, balance your daily stress levels, and may even protect your lungs from getting inflamed/damaged by inconsiderate smokers.
POPULAR VARIETIES: Lapsang Souchong and Darjeeling. Lapsang Souchong is extremely (and I mean extremely) smoky, and I mean you’re literally drinking incense. It’s got comparably less tannins than other black tea varieties, but at least once in your life, you’ve gotta try this distinctive Chinese tea. After the leaves have withered, they’re roasted in a bamboo basket, then heated over burning pine fire to produce that crisp, smoky flavor. The Darjeeling, on the other hand, is much lighter and less astringent. While it’s classified as black tea, you can almost always find that your darjeeling cuppa is less oxidized than the average black tea. I love it for it’s tiny hint of spice, musky-creamy sweetness, and that it’s simply refreshing. Wine/champagne connoisseurs might even look more into darjeeling for its fruity bouquet.
POPULAR BLENDS: English Breakfast and Earl Grey. Tea blends were popularized in the West. Tea companies would create different bodies of character as a perfumer would mix essences into individual concoctions. The English Breakfast has grown so popular it’s now probably the most consumed tea blend in the world. Unlike Anastasia Steele, I cannot sip an English Breakfast on an empty stomach. I prefer the Earl Grey, or the softer and citrus-y Lady Grey, an equally popular blend that’s got notes of bergamot.
5. Pu-Erh tea
Pu-Erh is literally the wine in the tea world that originates from the Yunnan province (hence the city‘s namesake). It’s the only tea type that’s intended to age till it becomes a “vintage”, so it’s no wonder larger, more mature leaves are favored. As with wine, Pu-Erh’s chemistry, flavor, and aroma changes over time. The microflora and bacteria these leaves are exposed to (during the looong fermentation) greatly affects its flavor profile and quality, making the well-aged ones rare and notoriously expensive. Added to that, the entire production process of Pu-Erh has been one of the many well-guarded secrets of China for centuries, so it’s exclusively produced in the mainland.
Because it yields a super deep and dark, sometimes even pitch-black liquor, Pu-Erh is often confused with black teas, which tends to be dark reddish-brown. In China, producers simply refer to teas like Pu-Erh as “dark tea”. Not all Pu-Erh started out as black teas though – some started out as oolongs while others green teas. These post-fermented teas are different from black teas (and other teas) in the way that it’s stored and allowed to age for months and even years, particularly in highly humid environments where it can age slowly. You tend to find them compressed and shaped into round cakes, or just any other shape that bath soaps tend to be shaped.
Of all teas, Pu-Erh is the earthiest-tasting of all and probably the least astringent. Thank God for its little caffeine content, although it can feel like you’re smelling into your backyard’s soil. Far from murky though – very smooth and clean, very mellow, and very easy to drink. Sometimes you find them bitter (only slightly), other times it’s got sweet undertones. These days, Pu-Erh is increasingly becoming popular not because of the cute Dragon Ball character, but of the many insubstantial claims that it causes weight loss. Though these claims are mostly grounded on real studies, there’s no research that’s shown its direct effect on weight loss yet. It may reduce weight gain, it may reduces blood sugar levels, but chances of you slimming down overnight or in the next 3 months with Pu-Erh are, well, slim. But we now know it’s the only type of tea that raises HDL cholesterol (the good ones), whereas other teas then to lower both HDL and LDL cholesterol levels to decrease total cholesterol serum in blood. This is because the longer it’s aged, the more statins Pu-Erh naturally develops – the class of drugs usually prescribed to lower cholesterol. Keep in mind that because Pu-Erh is still a fully oxidized and thoroughly fermented tea (just like black tea), it has lower antioxidant content compared to white and green teas.
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Whether you’re drinking tea for its health benefits or for pure chillaxing, once you get into the tea groove you’ll never come out of it. There are just so many tea blends out there (I’m pointing directly at TWG) to try … and we haven’t touched a bit on tisanes yet. In my world though, there are only 3 types of tea ^^
Now that you’re more familiar with each type, which one piques your interest the most? Have I successfully converted you into a fellow tea freak, and if you already are one, which is your favorite type or tea? Let me know which brew you tend to drink the most.