Coffee & Tea 101 | Tea Guide

Tea 101 - Guide to Different Styles of TeaWith so many different names, flavors and blends, the world of tea can be a confusing and complicated place. What is the difference between white, green and black tea? How much caffeine does each type of tea contain? Are herbal “teas” really tea? After taking a couple of tea classes, as well as researching and reading about different kinds of tea and tisanes, we compiled our knowledge into this helpful primer for you to use as reference.

Helpful Tea Facts

  • All true teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant.
  • All teas have the same amount of caffeine. The amount of time it takes for caffeine to be extracted from the tea leaves depends on the type of tea (white tea is longest, followed by yellow, green, oolong, black and Pu-erh teas being the fastest).
  • Decaffeinated teas are great alternatives for people who enjoy the flavor of tea but cannot tolerate the caffeine. Like coffee, there are a couple of ways tea can be decaffeinated, either by rinsing the tea with the solvent ethyl acetate or extracting the caffeine with CO2 (this is the preferred method).
  • Most white, yellow, green and oolong teas can be steeped or infused multiple times.

 

Tea Guide

Type of Tea

History

How the Tea is Processed

Flavor Notes

Common Names

White Tea

According to James Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary, “Although Bai Cha [White Tea] has a long recorded history and many legends, its commercial production is little over 200 years old, beginning with Yinzhen production in 1796 in the last year of the Emperor Qianlong.” White tea is the least processed of all teas, and is completed in three steps. The tea is plucked (oftentimes only the downy buds of the tea plant are harvested), withered and then dried. Floral, leafy, grassy, hayish or sweet. Silver Needle, White Peony, Shou Mei

Yellow Tea

Yellow tea has been around for over 2,000 years. The tea is often called an “imperial tea,” as it was made as a tribute for the Chinese Emperors. Yellow is mostly produced in the Anhui and Hunan provinces of China, adding to its scarcity. Yellow tea is the rarest of all teas, since it is produced in limited quantities. Yellow tea is processed similarly to green tea, but includes one extra step. As with green tea, the tea leaves are gathered, withered and fired. The tea is then subjected to the additional “Menhaung processing stage,” where the leaves are piled into a heap, are covered or wrapped and kept at damp temperatures until the leaves turn yellow. The leaves are then dried, sorted and packaged. Sweet, sometimes nutty flavor. Yellow Bud, Meng Ding Huang Ya, Huang Xiao Cha

Green Tea

Originally, all teas that were produced were green teas. Some people claim that tea (thus green tea) was first discovered in 2737 BCE by the Chinese emperor Shen Nung. However, other legends attribute the origin of tea to other individuals or cultural heroes. We do know that the first book written about tea was the “Chajing” or the “Classic of Tea” by Lu Yu in around 780 AD and discussed how to enjoy a great cup of tea. There are two main ways to make green tea, which is unfermented tea. In both processes the leaves are harvested (usually two to three leaves and a terminal bud are plucked off the plant) and then withered. The next step for Chinese green teas is to roast, and lightly roll and dry the leaves in a pan over heat. However, the next step for Japanese greens is to steam (instead of pan-fire) the leaves, roll the leaves and then let them dry. Vegetal, seaweed, grassy and earthy. Jasmine Pearl, Sencha, Matcha

Oolong (Blue) Tea

Although there are a couple of explanations about the origin of Oolong, it is likely it comes from the Wuyishan (Fujian) province of China. The tea has been produced since the end of the Ming Dynasty (1600s) and China and Taiwan, to this day, still account for the production of some of the finest oolongs. Oolong is also often called “blue tea” in Europe due to the greenish-blue hue of the tightly rolled leaves. Oolong is a partially fermented tea, falling between the green and black tea categories, with degrees of fermentation ranging from 7%-70%. To create oolongs, the leaves (generally mature shoots that have more leaves are plucked) are harvested and then withered. Next the leaves are rolled and bruised, which breaks the cells in the leaves and allows fermentation to begin. During the fermentation process, the leaves are left alone until they reach the desired fermentation level. The leaves are then fired to stop the fermentation process. Finally, the leaves are dried (after this stage, balled oolongs are created by placing the leaves in cloth sacks and rolling them, separating the leaves from the sack and placing in a cloth sack again to be rolled multiple times), sorted and packaged. The flavor of oolongs varies, depending on whether the tea is greener or darker. However, in general, oolongs tend to be sweeter teas, with fruity or floral flavors, since they are only partially fermented, making them great introductory teas for developing your palate. Phoenix Oolong, Da Hong Pao, Milk Oolong

Black Tea

Black tea (known as “Red Tea” outside of the West due to the red colored liquid it produces) is the largest consumed class of tea in the tea industry.

In his Tea Dictionary, James Norwood Pratt explains that black tea is “know to have first been developed in 1567-1610 by Monks in Fujian’s Wuyishan region [in China].” However, Britain’s tea importing business is largely responsible for spreading the consumption and manufacturing of black tea worldwide. In fact, black tea is now grown is every major black tea producing country, from India to Papua New Guinea.
Black tea is 100% fermented, causing it to have a rich, full flavor. Black tea is manufactured by harvesting the first two to three leaves from a shoot off a tea plant. The leaves are then withered, rolled and bruised, left to ferment and finally dried. Malty, sharp, spicy, leather, oak. Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri

Pu-erh (Pu’er) Tea

Pu-erh is produced in the Yunnan province in China, and interestingly, it was originally created by accident. One story goes that tea makers would cart their teas around to different towns in order to sell them to the locals. During their travels, these merchants would often have to cross rivers and streams, causing their tea to get damp or wet. As every good tea drinker knows, moisture and tea are not a good combination, and as a result, the dampness would often cause the tea to mold. However, the tea merchants did not want to throw away what otherwise would have been perfectly good tea, so before arriving at a new town, they would simply brush the mold off the tea and sell it with all the others. After a while, the merchants began to notice that the moldy or spoiled tea was actually selling much better than all the other teas. So they decided to figure out a way to manufacture the moldy tea on their own, and Pu-erh was born. How Pu-erh is created is a heavily guarded secret in China. However, we do know that Pu-erh is tea that has already been processed into white, green or black tea and then is moistened or sprayed with an unknown bacterium and allowed to undergo a post-fermentation process. The tea is then either left loose or compressed into a variety of shapes (such as cakes, bricks, bowls and some manufactures will even allow you to order custom designs).

The three main types of Pu-erh are:
  • Sheng Pu-erh (Uncooked Pu-erh): Also known as green Pu-erh, this tea is produced from the Da Ye tea leaf, and has little or no fermentation.
  • Shu Pu-erh (Cooked Pu-erh): Often called black Pu-erh, this tea is processed the same way as Sheng Pu-erh, but is also post-fermented to speed up the tea’s aging process.
  • Tuo Cha (Compressed Pu-erh): Usually means a green Pu-erh compressed into the shape of a bowl (although sometimes the shape may vary).
Earthy taste and smell, sometimes described as barnyard. Shu Pu-erh, Sheng Pu-erh, Tuo Cha

Blooming Tea

(also known as Display teas or Flowering tea)

The history of blooming tea is unclear; some people believe it has been around since ancient China while others think it was not created until the 1980s. The tea leaves for blooming teas are usually harvested in the Anhui, Fujian or Yunnan provinces of China. The tea leaves are processed into white green or black tea, (white and green are the most common) and are then sewn around dried flowers to create the finished product - a tea ball. When the tea ball is infused in hot water, it blooms into a variety of shapes, such as baskets, garlands or bouquets. The tea generally has a mild flavor - slightly floral, vegetal or fruity, depending on how the tea has been scented or flavored. Christmas Tree, Osmanthus, Ginseng Lily, Jasmine

Blended Teas

It’s hard to say when tea blending first “officially” began but, according to one legend, an English tea merchant created it on accident. One day the merchant had ran out of nearly all of his teas, and in a panic about not having any tea to sell to his customers, began mixing the leftover teas together into bags. To his surprise, the tea sold well and customers began asking for more. To appease his customers, the merchant started buying teas from different estates, mixed them together and continued selling the blended teas. A blend of different teas and, while usually black, can contain almost any tea. Usually have a strong taste and are often served with milk.

Breakfast blends are generally the strongest, afternoon blends are slightly milder and evening blends the lightest.
English Breakfast, Russian Caravan

Flavored Teas

Scenting tea is first attributed to China. While the exact date is not clear, it is speculated that people first began scenting tea during either the Song Dynasty or the Ming Dynasty. Flavored teas are true teas and can be produced three different ways. The first way is to blend the tea with fruit, spices or herbs. The second way to is to scent the tea by leaving it in a contained area with strongly scented spices or flowers so the tea absorbs the scent. The third and final way to flavor tea is to use a natural or artificial flavoring (usually a liquid) and blend it in with the tea. If done properly, the tea will have hints of whatever fruit, spice or flower it is flavored with. Black Current, Rose, Cinnamon Spice

Herbal or Fruit Tisanes/Infusions

Although herbal and fruit tisanes are not tea, they have been around just as long. It’s not quite clear where they first originated, but they have been written about for as long as history has been recorded. For instance, Ancient Chinese and Ancient Egyptian documents have been found that discuss the use and enjoyment of tisanes. These infusions continue to be popular today as many people drink them for their purported health benefits or medicinal effects. Herbals and fruit infusions are often mistakenly called “herbal teas,” but, since these blends contain no Camellia sinensis leaf, they are not true teas. The herbal and fruit tisanes are caffeine-free and are made by combining a variety of flowers, berries, seeds, peels, leaves and roots of different plants. The flavor of herbal infusions varies greatly depending on the ingredients. Generally, the name of the infusion will provide a good hint as to what it will actually taste like – for instance Chamomile has a sweet, honey-like or floral flavor, Lemon Grass has a citrusy lemon flavor, Raspberry teas are usually sweet and fruity, and so on. Chamomile, Peppermint, Lemon Grass, Raspberry Leaves

Rooibios

While not a “true tea” (Rooibos is an herb that comes from the plant Aspalathus linearis), the liquid produced from the herb looks and tastes a lot like true tea. Grown in the Cederberg region of South Africa, bushman had been using Rooibos as an herbal remedy for years (it is caffeine-free and rich in vitamin C, antioxidants, mineral salts and proteins), but the herb didn’t become widely known in popular culture until the plant was re-discovered by Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg in 1772. Rooibos is harvested manually in the Southern Hemisphere during the summer. The herb is then bruised and cut using tobacco cutting machines. Next the green leaves are fermented in mounds and then spread out to dry in the sunlight. This oxidation process turns the leaves red (from which this herbal gets it’s name -Rooibos means “red bush” in Afrikaans). Finally the leaves are sterilized by steam, are dried in commercial dryers, sifted and packaged. Rooibos has a sweet, mild, slightly earthy flavor. Red Tea, Redbush Tea, Bush Tea and is often blended in fruit tisanes or even pulled through espresso machines as shots to create Rooibos tea lattes.

Honeybush

Similar to Rooibos, Honeybush (Cyclopia) is a flowering plant found in South Africa’s Eastern Cape that is used to make tisanes. Honeybush was first mentioned in botanical literature in the 1700s but it is likely people in rural districts (unlike Rooibos, Honeybush only grows in the wild) began drinking Honeybush tisanes long before then. Honeybush is processed in basically the same way as Rooibos. The Honeybush leaves are harvested and then cut and bruised by a machine. Next the leaves are either left in mounds in the sun to ferment or (in the more modern method) the leaves are placed in heated ovens to ferment and are then air-dried. Sweet, like honey and has been compared to the taste of hot apricot jam.

Honeybush 

Mate

This herbal drink is popular in South America and dates back to at least the 1500s when the indigenous Guarani taught the Spanish settlers (who colonized Paraguay) about Yerba Mate. Oftentimes mate is consumed in a social setting, where a Mate gourd (Cuia) and a Mate straw (Bombilla) are passed around a circle of friends. Mate is made from the leaf of a South American species of holly tree called Ilex paraguarienis. To produce Mate, the tender stems and leaves are harvested from the trees and are blanched (flash heated for about 30 seconds). The leaves are then put into chambers to dry (sometimes the leaves are also either roasted or smoked). Next the dried product is placed in bags, cement or cedar aging chambers for up to 12 months, to develop the flavor of the Mate. Finally the Mate is milled and the different sizes of leaves, stems and dust are blended together to create the final product. Green Mate has a vegetal, grassy taste that some people find similar to certain varieties of green tea. Roasted Mate is heartier and has a toasted flavor and Smoked Mate has a smoky flavor. Yerba Mate, Chimarrao or Cimarron

To determine the best way to brew whichever tea you choose, check out our handy Guide to Brewing Tea.

Sources:

  1. C.I. Heck; E.G. De Mejia (2007). “Yerba Mate Tea (Ilex paraguariensis): A Comprehensive Review on Chemistry, Health Implications, and Technological Considerations.” Journal of Food Science 72 (9): R138-R151. 
  2. Norwood Pratt, James; Devan Shah. 2012. Tea Sommelier: Introduction to Tea. 
  3. Norwood Pratt, James; Devan Shah. 2010. James Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary. Tea Society. 
  4. “Honeybush Tea (Cyclopia Intermedia).” http://www.rooibos.ch/honeybush_info.html. Retrieved 10-16-2013.