Everything You Need to Know About the Different Types of Tea
Black, green, herbal – we all know these types of tea. But did you know that herbal tea isn’t actually tea at all? Although tea is already the second most-consumed beverage in the world, it’s become increasingly popular in the United States over the last several years. With so many types of tea available, this hobby can seem a little overwhelming to newcomers. Whether you’re an operator hoping to start a tea program or a caffeine fan seeking an alternative to coffee, this handy guide will explain what tea actually is, break down the different types of tea, and offer tips on how to steep them.
We spoke with tea expert Sarah Chapman, owner of Vida Pour Tea in Greensboro, N.C., to get the scoop on everything from water temperature to health benefits.
What is Tea?
For tea to truly be “tea,” it must contain leaves from the Camellia sinensis, a plant that is typically found in China and India. True teas include black, green, oolong, and white – all of which differ in caffeine levels and the way they are processed.
“Herbal tea does not actually contain any tea from that camellia plant whatsoever,” says Chapman. Instead, herbal tea usually contains herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits; some popular herbal infusion are rooibos and yerba mate.
White tea gets its name from the white hairs that grow on the buds of unopened leaves. These leaves are plucked from the plant and then dried, either in a tumble dryer or naturally in sunlight. This tea is considered the most delicate of the different types since it doesn’t go through a rigorous process and has the least caffeine of all the true teas.
When it comes to flavor, white tea is typically floral, fruity, delicate, and sweet. It should be steeped at about 190 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 to 5 minutes. Popular types of white tea include silver needle, white peony, and Darjeeling white.
Expert Insight: White tea’s health benefits can include skin and cell renewal.
Most true teas go through oxidation – the process of drying, withering, rolling, and treating with heat – but green tea isn’t oxidized. Since it doesn’t go through this process, green tea typically retains its color, tannins, and minerals. The leaves are plucked and heated by steaming or pan frying, preventing oxidation.
This type of tea has more caffeine than white tea but less than oolong and black. Once brewed, the tea is light green or yellow and ranges in flavor from sweet to vegetal depending on the process used by the tea master. Most people find that green tea can be bitter, but this flavor comes from improper steeping methods. Green tea should be steeped at 180 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 to 3 minutes. Some popular varieties of green tea include matcha, gunpowder, and sencha.
Expert Insight: Green tea is well-known for its many health benefits, including metabolism boosting.
Since it is partially oxidized, the flavor and caffeine level of oolong tea falls somewhere between green and black tea. The leaves are rolled, pan fired, and then oxidized; this process can be repeated as many times as the processer wants. Oolong’s popularity is rising due to its reputation of helping with weight loss.
The shape of oolong leaves also differs from other types of tea. They can come in thin strands or be rolled, twisted, and curled into tight balls. Oolong’s flavors are just as varied as its other qualities – they can be light, robust, floral, grassy, nutty, or a variety of other flavors. Oolong should be steeped from 180 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 to 3 minutes.
Expert Insight: Oolong is one of the most popular types of tea among tea hobbyists.
Black tea is the most popular type of tea around the world. In the southern United States, you’ll typically find it served as sweet tea. In the East, it is usually called “red tea” because of the reddish color it has once it is steeped. To create black tea instead of green tea, the leaves must fully oxidize before the heating and drying processes. The dark brown color of the leaves comes from this full oxidation process.
Black tea has the most caffeine of all the true teas. To brew black tea, the water should reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit and the leaves should steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Its full flavor profile – which can range from earthy to citrusy to malty – typically makes black tea the choice for an afternoon tea to pair with sweet and creamy foods; in many countries, sugar and milk or cream are added to black teas.
Many black teas are named after the places they are produced. Most are made in China and India, hence popular tea varieties like Ceylon, Assam, and Darjeeling. Popular flavored black teas include chai and Earl Grey. Speaking of chai tea, Chapman shared this bit of trivia with us: “Did you know that ‘Chai,’ a word that we use to describe a spiced tea blend or even a spiced latte beverage here in the U.S., is actually the word for ‘tea’ in other countries?”
Expert Insight: Black tea is great for cardiovascular health.
As we mentioned before, herbal teas do not contain any leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant, separating them from true teas.
“Herbal tea is a blend of berries, herbs, and spices that brews just as well as a tea in the traditional sense of the word, but without the caffeine of the tea plant,” explains Chapman. “Herbal tea is also known as a tisane.”
Flavors depend on what is in the tisane, so they can be floral, citrusy, spicy, or earthy. Tisanes should be steeped at 212 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 to 5 minutes.
“Rooibos also falls under the category of an herbal tea, especially in the United States,” says Chapman.
Rooibos, which does not contain any caffeine, comes from the Aspalathus linearis plant in South Africa and is also known as African red tea and red bush tea. Its production process includes withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying to turn the leaves from green to their signature red. Rooibos is prepared the same way as any other herbal tea: by steeping at 212 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 to 5 minutes. Typically, the flavor profile of rooibos includes woodiness, spiciness, and sweetness.
Herbal tisanes typically do not contain caffeine, but yerba mate is one of the few herbs that does. Native to South America, yerba mate is processed by removing the leaves and stems from the plant and letting them dry. Its flavor ranges from earthy to vegetal. This type of tea should be steeped at 160 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit for 6 to 7 minutes.
How to Store Tea
While most tea won’t ever “go bad,” it can become stale and lose flavor over time.
“Tea is typically made with dried ingredients and, when stored in a cool, dry container, should last up to about 2 years,” Chapman explains. “Freshness will vary depending on whether ingredients include dehydrated fruit and are certified organic versus a tea that contains preservatives and chemical stabilizers.”
If you have loose leaf or bagged tea, it should be stored in a dark place in an airtight container to retain its freshness and flavor. You’ll want to keep tea away from light, heat, and moisture to keep it from degrading.
Ready, Set, Steep!
Now that you’ve learned more about the different types of tea, how to brew them, and how to store them, you’re ready to start steeping your own tea. To help you get started, we asked Chapman what the most popular tea at her store is:
“Our ‘Lavender Rose’ is really popular. It is an herbal blend of red Rooibos tea from South Africa, blended with vanilla, lavender petals, and rose petals. To help with sleep issues, we add a little bit of linden leaf [and] flower to take the relaxation to the next level, depending on each individual’s needs.”