Yes, there are many kinds of tea, though probably fewer than you expect, because what most people refer to as “tea” is not actually tea in the truest sense of the world.
Tea, used properly, refers to both the Camellia sinensis plant, and to a drinkable beverage made of such. Used colloquially, tea refers to any hot (or iced) beverage made by steeping plants, herbs, fruits, or other botanicals.
Let’s explore some true teas and some ‘teas’ that are actually infusions, or tisanes (pronounced ti-zan).
The true tea from the Camellia sinensis plant comes in 5 main varieties. Since all the varieties come from the same bush, the type is determined by when the leaves are picked and the processing style (including oxidation, fermentation, etc). Below C = China, J = Japan, I = India, T = Taiwan.
White tea is picked very early in the season, oftentimes before the bud has fully formed leaves, and frequently still has its protective fuzz cover the leaves/bud. Because it is so young, white tea is very delicate. Common white teas include Silver Needle and White Peony.
Green tea can also be picked quite early in the season, depending on the growing plantation, but it is typically allowed to oxidize a little bit more than white tea. Green tea comes under many names: green tea, Long Jing (C), Matcha (J), Shincha (J), Sencha (J),
Picked later in the season and more oxidized than green tea, oolongs actually span the range from lightly oxidized (20-30%) to highly oxidized (60%+). Oolongs can be hand-rolled or otherwise dried in such a manner they’re often wound into tight balls, that open when steeping. Characteristic oolongs include Tie Guan Yin (C), Oriental Beauty (T), Da Hong Pao / Red Rope (C), and Pouchong.
Black teas are perhaps the most widely drunk, particularly in the bagged form, served with milk and sugar. This is appropriate since black tea tends to lend itself better to pairings. Black tea is made from hardier leaves and stems, picked later in the season, which are allowed to oxidize quite significantly before being dried. Bagged black tea goes through a cut-tea-curl process, to soften and shrink the leaves for bagging and steeping. Typical black teas include English Breakfast, Assam (I), and Darjeeling (I).
Pu-erh, Yellow, Chai, and Others
You may have heard of a number of others teas. One of the most famous is pu-erh, a tea that not only is oxidized, but also fermented that only comes from China’s Yunnan Province, in the Pu-Er region. Other regions in China, such as Hunan, may create fermented teas following a similar process, but technically these are not “pu-erh.”
Yellow teas are far less common and typically come from Anhui prvince in China.
Chai should really be in a category of its own because it is not pure tea, such as those above, but it does contain tea, usually black, and a variety of spices, such as cardamon, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, etc. Chai is often, though not exclusively drank with milk. Chai is most commonly associated with India.
While the following are not technically teas, since they don’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant, they are often grouped together with tea, sold as tea, and most frequently mistaken as tea.
Rooibos (and Honeybush)
From South Africa, Rooibos, frequently simply called “red tea” and its sister plant, African Honeybush, is actually a weed that goes through a similar processing technique as true tea. If you encounter ‘naturally caffeine-free tea,’ it is likely this.
Popular in southern South America countries like Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, Yerba Mate can have a strong stimulating effect, similar to caffeine. Its fine leaves are usually drank through a filtered straw.
Less well-known of the tea imitators is Guayusa, another South American herb, similar to Yerba Mate in its stimulating, energizing properties. The most well-known brand of this is Runa.
When herbs are steeped in water, they are not true teas–they should accurately be referred to as infusions or tisanes. Therefore, herbal tea is a misnomer.
Herbal infusions (or tisanes) include any herb such as Chamomile, Mint, Ginger, Lemon Balm, Valerian, Senna, all sleep teas, and cold remedy teas. Traditional Medicinals is one of the stand-out brands in this category; the Yogi’s line is also mostly herbal infusions.
Leave a comment and tell us, what is your favorite type of tea or herbal infusion?