If you’ve ever walked down the tea aisle at your local grocery store, then you know there are quite a few types of tea out there! It seems like there’s a type of tea out there for everyone, but finding teas that suit your fancy can feel like an overwhelming task.
Today, we’re going to demystify tea together and help you find your next favorite cuppa. Let’s learn about all the different types of tea!
What Are the Types of Tea?
There are eight primary types of tea:
Also called red tea in China, black tea is rich, flavorful, and often a dark brown or red color. Its flavors are often roast-y and malty, and this type of tea typically has a lot of tannins (try saying that five times fast!).
Green tea is a light and floral tea that can be much gentler on the palate – similar to white teas such as white peony and silver needle tea.
Oolong and Pu-Erh Teas
Oolong tea is a mixture between black tea and green tea, and Pu-erh tea (also known as pu’er tea) is a darker, even roastier fermented tea.
The above teas are all part of the same tea family, meaning that they come from the same plant (AKA, the Camellia sinensis plant). However, herbal teas are their own genre of tea entirely.
Herbal teas (or as some tea drinkers call them, herbal infusions) are basically any tea that isn’t made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Some popular teas in this category include chamomile, hibiscus, and peppermint.
You might even see herbs mixed with “true” teas. These are called herbal blends. These blends include fruity Earl Grey (black tea and bergamot), warm Masala chai tea (black tea and chai spices), and floral green jasmine loose leaf tea.
Some standouts in the herbal tea category include rooibos tea and yerba mate. These teas are native to South Africa and South America, respectively. While rooibos tea is caffeine-free, yerba mate has a high caffeine content. In fact, it’s only slightly less caffeinated than a cup of coffee.
Each type of tea offers its own unique health benefits and flavors, and each makes an equally delicious cup of tea. The (tea) world is your oyster!
Green, Black, and White, Oh My!
Non-herbal teas are commonly called “true” teas because they’re made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, also known as the tea plant.
As you may have noticed during your tea explorations, these teas may come from the same plant, but they don’t taste the same. For instance, your cup of black English Breakfast tea is going to taste a lot earthier than a cup of Japanese green tea or Chinese green tea.
But how does one plant create so many different varieties of tea?
The main determining factor of tea type is the way the Camellia sinensis leaves are processed after harvest. The variety of Camellia sinensis and the way it is grown (elevation, climate, exposure to sunlight, etc.) can vary from type-to-type. These variables affect the caffeine level, nutrient content, leaf appearance, aroma, liquor (the liquid resulting from when you steep the leaves), and the taste of the tea. For example, like we mentioned in our What is Tea? article, when Camellia sinensis is grown at higher elevations, the plants grow more slowly and acquire more complexity of flavor. Cultivating, harvesting, and producing tea *is* an art form - and we are geeking out big time at the thought of sharing it with you (!!). Without further ado, here are the four main variables that determine what type of tea a leaf will become.
As we mentioned above, the way the tea is processed is the biggest determining factor in categorizing a tea. The short way to explain this is that the longer the Camellia sinensis leaf is left exposed to air (i.e. the longer it's oxidized), the higher the level of caffeine in the leaf, and the darker the color of the leaf and the resulting liquor the leaf produces when steeped. ("Liquor" is what Sommeliers call the liquid produced from steeping tea leaves). Once the leaf is oxidized to the desired extent, the tea maker will heat, steam, or pan-fry the leaf to stop the oxidation process. Oxidation level is not the only determining factor when it comes to tea types - for example, oolong is one of the most complex and labor-intensive teas to process, with a variety of steps involved, and pu-erh is unique in that some types require a post-fermentation “piling” step akin to composting, and some attain their desired characteristics through a gradual aging process over many years.
Examples of Processing Methods
An interesting difference here is the processing of black tea leaves. Black tea leaves can go through one of two processes: the orthodox method or CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl).
The orthodox method is the most commonly used method to prepare black teas, so this is probably how your favorite loose-leaf Darjeeling is made.
During this process, the leaves are first gently withered until the moisture is gone. Then, the leaves are rolled and broken to help start the oxidation process.
The leaves are then placed in a hot room and left to oxidize for up to two hours. Once they’re done, the leaves are finally dried and packed.
The CTC process is a bit different. This process starts with withering, but then the leaves are put into a machine with lots of tiny teeth. These teeth rip up and curl the leaves until they are tiny flakes. Finally, these flakes are then oxidized and dried the same way as in the orthodox method.
The CTC process is used for tea that comes in tea bags, like your favorite grocery store Earl Grey.
Another tea that undergoes a modified processing method is Oolong. After oolong tea leaves have been wilted, they are gently crushed and bruised so that only some areas of the leaves oxidize. This is what gives Oolong tea its distinctive floral flavor.
Camellia Sinensis Variety
Two principal varieties of Camellia sinensis are used to produce tea: the small-leaved Chinese variety (C. sinensis sinensis) used for most tea types; and the large-leaved variety native to the Assam region in India (C. sinensis assamica), used mainly for black tea.
The Chinese sinensis variety thrives in cooler temperatures and high elevations, such as mountainous areas of China, Taiwan, and Japan, and will typically grow to between 5 and 15 feet tall. It usually is kept pruned at waist height, is dormant throughout winter, and yields no more than 5 pluckings each year.
Meanwhile, the Indian assamica strain thrives in humid climates with warm temperatures and generous rainfall, and it grows to between 30 and 60 feet if left unattended. Under ideal conditions it provides a continuous yield throughout the entire year, and is preferred in Northeast India, Sri Lanka and Africa.
The assamica leaf produces strong black teas, as well as pu-erh and certain types of oolongs. Other cultivars and hybrids of these two main varieties exist today, with unique flavors and characteristics making some more ideal for certain tea types than others.
Many types of black tea come from the assamica strain. For instance, Assam black tea will taste much different from the tea grown in the Yunnan province, which in turn will taste different from Ceylon or Darjeeling. However, these tea varieties are different not because of the plant, but because of the soil in their growing regions.
There are optimal growing conditions for different types of tea. Elevation, exposure to sunlight, nutrients in the soil, and the amount of water received play significant roles in the end product. The reason why certain famous teas are only grown in certain regions, and cannot be replicated elsewhere, is because of the concept of terroir, a word commonly used in the wine industry.
Terroir comes from the French word terre (“land”); it is the set of all environmental factors, including type of soil, climate, cultivar, and even cultural influences, which combine to create unique characteristics in the final product.
With tea, the weather conditions during the week or two before harvest are vital to determining how the tea will turn out, and the traditions of the region of origin are also important as they affect how the leaf will be processed.
Camellia sinensis plants may be grown a bit differently depending on which tea they’re intended for. For instance, tea plants intended for matcha tea actually spend much of their juvenile growing season in the shade.
This technique helps to preserve the caffeine and antioxidants found naturally in the tea leaves, and also helps keep a high chlorophyll concentration. This is how matcha tea gets its signature green vibrancy.
There are so many factors – both fixed and variable – that contribute to the end tea product, and this is what makes the journey from earth to cup so fascinating.
There are sub-types within each main tea type that are dependent on the season they're harvested in. As mentioned above, the sinensis variety has a more limited harvesting season, with the spring “first flush” general being the most desired plucking, whereas the assamica variety can ideally be harvest continuously throughout the year.
Tea plants have three main harvesting periods: the spring, the summer, and the fall. Each of these harvests results in different types of teas.
The leaves picked at the start of the first harvest often become green tea due to their lower amount of astringent tannins. Within this first harvest, only the finest leaves go on to become matcha tea.
Green tea leaves are also picked during the summer harvest, although these teas tend to be a bit more bitter since they’ve spent more time on the plant. This harvest is also when black tea leaves are picked.
Black tea is picked well into the fall. At this point, the leaves have remained on the plant for so long that the tannin concentration is too high for a delightful cup of green tea. This is why black tea is known for its tannins.
These harvests used to be completed by machines, but nowadays the harvests are completed by hand. Tea growers found that the machines often damaged the delicate and precious top leaves, while human harvesters were able to exercise more judgment in which leaves were truly ready for picking.
Ways to Enjoy All Types of Tea
Black teas, Pu-erh teas, and green teas all make great iced tea, although they are delicious hot as well. These teas often come in fruity and sweet herbal blends that are perfect for summertime.
White teas and oolong teas are often enjoyed hot. These flavors are so delicate that by watering them down, you could miss out on some of their subtler notes! For these teas, you’ll want hot water, not boiling water.
Finally, you can try enjoying herbal teas both hot and cold! These teas rarely change flavor during the steeping process, so you can leave these teabags or infusers in as long as you’d like.
The world of tea is absolutely fascinating when you get to dive into the details. From true teas to herbal teas to teas that are a category all of their own, there are so many delicious and marvelous options to choose from.
Continue to our Loose Leaf vs. Tea Bag article to learn more about the difference between loose leaf and bagged tea, or click the button below to create a free tea profile and stay up to date on new tea lessons, learn about fun tea recipes, and gain access to special brand offers + giveaways.
Camellia Sinensis | Missouri Botanical Garden
Yerba Mate—A Long but Current History | Nutrients
The Hidden Health Benefits of Tea | Penn Medicine
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