Everything You Need to Know about Tea, Explained
When I was a kid in Texas, I was pretty sure tea came in two forms: ice cold and loaded with sugar and lemon wedges or hot, vaguely minty and only consumed when sick or battling insomnia. Little did tiny me know that inside this seemingly innocuous beverage lurked thousands of years of history, tradition, culture, industry, and science.
“I could probably spend hours talking to you about the role of tea in history and colonialism, everything from the Boston Tea Party to the Opium Wars,” says Nova Scotia-based Mel Hattie, the certified tea sommelier, writer, and consultant behind the tea-fueled travel blog Mel Had Tea (get it? Say it out loud). “Being such a huge trade product, it's played a really big role in a lot of international relationships. Take Taiwan, for example. For awhile, it was a Dutch colony, and then the Chinese were there and then the Japanese were there. With the Taiwanese oolongs, you can really see the effects and impacts of all three cultures.”
Clearly tea is one complicated beast, a far cry from the dusty Sleepytime and saccharine instant powder of my ignorant American youth. And as such, the wide world of tea can sometimes be tough to navigate, even if you’ve dipped your toes much farther into the aromatic waters that I ever had. Thankfully Hattie, who does this kind of thing for a living, is here to walk us through the basics. Here’s what you need to know, including where tea comes from and a quick cheat sheet of all the different varieties.
Believe it or not, all tea comes from the same exact plant
“I always like to start with the fact that, be it white tea, green tea, black tea, or oolong, it all comes from the Camellia sinensis plant,” says Hattie. “There are two main kinds: the Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica. The Camellia sinensis assamica grows more in India and Sri Lanka, as well as Kenya. The Sinensis sinensis varietal is the kind that you find throughout China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.”
Also known as the tea plant (of course), Camellia sinensis is a small evergreen shrub or tree. Its leaves and leaf buds are the parts that eventually wind up in your cup.
...which means herbal tea is not technically tea
Yep, you heard us right. Herbal tea is not really tea in the true sense of the word, as it doesn’t stem from the almighty Camellia sinensis. Instead, it’s usually a blend of leaves, roots, flowers, or bark from any number of edible plants. That’s not to say that steamy mug of soul-hugging Tension Tamer isn’t delicious -- it’s just, you know, not actually tea.
It’s all about oxidation
Even though they originate from the same plant, anybody who’s tasted them knows that green tea, white tea, oolong, and black tea each have their own very distinct characteristics. That’s where oxidation comes in. After the harvester plucks off the leaves or buds, they process the clippings into the dried, steepable little packages we know and love. The amount of oxygen it’s exposed to during this process is what helps to determine the tea’s eventual classification.
“Coffee is a really good analog,” Hattie explains, putting it into more familiar terms. “Green tea, that's kind of your light roast coffee. It’s very lightly steamed, just enough to kind of kill the enzymes and stop the oxidation process. That's actually what we call the ‘kill green’ stage, because it keeps the leaf green. From there it's rolled and heated until you have about 7% moisture content, then it's packed and shipped.”
“Black tea, that's more like your dark roast coffee,” she continues. “It's been dried for a really long time, it’s been withered, it's been rolled. It's gone through a much more intense production process. The longer you do it, the more times you roll it before it's fired, that's going to determine whether it becomes oolong tea, which is less oxidized, or black tea.”
White tea is the youngest and most delicate
Green tea, black tea, and oolong are generally made out of the leaves of the plant. But white tea, that one’s special.
“White tea is the little baby buds,” says Hattie. “If you can imagine a fuzzy little pea shoot, that's what a tea plant looks like when it's just starting to be picked. Only the very first pick of the year can be considered really good quality white tea. You just pluck them between your fingers. It kind of looks like a tiny little butterfly pod or something. You pick that, and then process it similar to green tea.”
Because it’s plucked at such a young stage and undergoes little if any oxidation, white tea is prized for its soft, fresh-from-the-garden flavor and aroma.
Caffeine levels are relative
When it comes to figuring out which variety will give you the most pep in your step, looks can be deceiving.
“A lot of people associate black tea with being high in caffeine, but pound per pound it's really not,” reveals Hattie. “Most tea companies in the West use a method called CTC or Cut-Tear-Curl, where the tea is basically ground up into the fineness of a tobacco, with all the leaves broken up into really small pieces. That makes for a much more intense steep and a really intense brew, but it’s just because there's more leaves to water. When people drink green tea, it's oftentimes the whole leaf, so you effectively get a little bit less caffeine but that’s because of surface area, not necessarily true caffeine content.”
Tea is loaded with healthy antioxidants
“All tea does contain antioxidants, but white, green, and black teas have different amounts,” Hattie says. “Green tea and white tea are highest in things like epigallocatechin or ECGC, which is a really potent antioxidant that you see in extracts and supplements.”
ECGC is a catechin, a type of phenolic compound that’s markedly high in antioxidant activity and therefore associated with a whole host of human health benefits, including improved cardiovascular and immune system functioning. Oolong and black tea are more heavily processed than their lighter siblings, so they’re considered to have slightly lower antioxidant levels, namely less ECGC, by the time they land in our cupboards.
But try not to get carried away with the health benefits
“In terms of health claims, you do have to be a little bit careful,” Hattie advises. “Tea is definitely good for you, but sometimes you go on these health forums and they'll be like, ‘Oh, this tea cures cancer.’ It's like, ‘Well, let's take this with a grain of salt.’”
Little known fact: Boiling water is not always best.
“If you want to improve your tea experience, experiment brewing with different water temperatures,” Hattie says. “So often when you go to a fast food place or restaurant and ask for anything other than black tea, it's horrible. Like if you go to Tim Horton's for a green tea, it's pretty miserable. You’re thinking, ‘Why would anyone ever drink this?’
“But the truth is when you brew tea with different water temperatures, you bring out different aspects in the tea. Green tea actually burns really easily -- the leaves are really delicate because they haven't been processed very much. So when you steep it in boiling water right off the stove, you're drawing out more of the tannins and more of the caffeine, all these dry and bitter elements, which is not what you want. You want these sweet vegetal notes, asparagus and steamed greens, things like that. With cooler water, say around like 80 or 85 degrees Celsius, you get all those nice components.
“Same thing for oolong, which usually brews really nicely between 85 to 90 degrees Celsius. Basically, the darker your roast is, the hotter you want your water. Something like a black tea, boiling water fresh off the stove is all good. You can boil the shit out of that stuff and it will still taste how it's supposed to taste. But for white tea or green tea, something more delicate, a cooler water temperature will really bring out the character.”
There’s an art to pairing food with tea -- and we’re not just talking cucumber sandwiches
Putting on an elaborate afternoon tea has long been an integral part of the luxury hotel experience, both in Europe and in the States. But thanks in part to modern tea pros like Hattie, many of today’s hotels are upping the culinary ante, transforming the stuffy finger-sandwich-fueled spreads of yesteryear into thoughtful and innovative bites that complement every piping-hot pot.
“For February, we have a special Chinese New Year tea and we prepare mooncakes,” says Thiago Frare, executive pastry chef at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco. The iconic property is famous for their Afternoon Tea program, held every other Sunday in the bright, airy Lounge. Chef Frare and his team develop each service’s menu with both the month’s theme and the tea list in mind, and for Chinese New Year that meant oolong madeleines, a mooncake that could stand up to savory, grassy green tea and bold Quatre Fruits Rouges, a black tea peppered with red fruit. “We went for matcha but added some brandied cherries. It was a big hit -- a classic mooncake you’d find in Chinatown, but the matcha and brandied cherries bring more texture and more elegance.”
“We have professionals on our property that have been working in tea for maybe 12 or 15 years, and they understand what the guests want and what tea is going to match perfectly with our products and the season,” continues Frare, who often incorporates tea into his dishes as a way of bringing everything together. “We are always trying to link things that we use, like matcha, lavender, chamomile, and ginger. In our pastry, we use green tea on a regular basis and we also serve a lavender-chamomile pâte de fruits. If you start the meal with a chamomile tea and then your last bite is a chamomile pâte de fruits, it's a nice experience. We can close the cycle.”
Tea is the great equalizer
Despite its complex history, health benefits, economic importance, and nuanced food-pairing powers, sometimes tea’s real beauty lies in its simplicity. “I'm fascinated by the social aspects of tea -- it's just nice,” Hattie muses. “You can go anywhere in the world and share a cup of tea with someone. If you’re both enjoying the tea, the conversation just starts flowing.”
Every common tea variety, explained
Now that you know everything else about tea, here's a quick cheat sheet for the most common varieties. Consider it tea 101.
Gunpowder: Bold, slightly smokey Chinese tea made up of tightly rolled pellet-like leaves that resemble grains of gunpowder
Dragon Well (Longjing): Pan-roasted tea from China’s Zhejiang Province praised for its high quality and sweet, rounded flavor
Chun Mee: Chinese tea with leaves rolled into an eyebrow shape (the literal translation is “Precious Eyebrow”) known for its dusty coloring, vegetal notes, and fruity plum-like tartnes
Sencha: Extremely popular, bright green whole-leaf Japanese tea with many different subvarieties based on season harvested, growing method, and brewing style
Matcha: Often highly caffeinated Japanese tea leaves ground into a fine powder and meant to be dissolved in liquid rather than steeped
Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yinzhen): Prized delicate, woodsy, and aromatic golden tea made from small silver buds and mainly produced in China’s Fujian Province
White Peony (Bai Mudan): Full-bodied, floral, and pale green-hued tea made from the buds and top two leaves of a young plant shoot
Tribute Eyebrow (Gong Mei): Mid-grade white tea grown in China’s Guangxi and Fujian Provinces
and known for its bold, fruity flavors
Long Life Eyebrow (Shou Mei): Strong golden yellow tea from China’s Guangxi and Fujian Provinces made from the low-quality leaves left over from previous harvests
White tea blends: A vast array of infusions, tinctures, and blends with many different fruits and herbs, often for medicinal purposes
Black Teas & Black Tea Blends
Lapsang souchong: Chinese tea smoke-dried over pinewood to create a sharply smoky, woodsy flavor and aroma
Assam: Full-bodied, earthy, and malty tea from the northeast Indian state of Assam
Darjeeling: Grown in West Bengal, India and known for its light body, floral aroma, and tannic spiciness
Ceylon: Honey-colored or reddish-brown tea with light and floral or rich and full-bodied characteristics depending on growth
Earl Grey: A mix of Chinese-grown black tea and fragrant bergamot oil named after former British Prime Minister Charles Grey
English Breakfast: Traditionally made from a combination of Assam, Ceylon, and Kenyan-grown black teas and known for its bitterness, brown color, and robust yet rounded flavor
Irish Breakfast: Strong black tea blend generally dominated by Assam leaves and sharing a similar profile with English Breakfast
Masala Chai: Bold black tea from India usually made from a type of Assam that’s been cured into a dissolvable powder then mixed with a number of warming spices like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, anise, fennel, nutmeg, and cloves, in addition to sweeteners and often served with milk
Iron Goddess of Mercy (Ti Kuan Yin or Tie Guan Yin): Very popular Chinese tea grown in the Fujian Province’s mountainous Anxi region and beloved for its refreshing qualities, honeyed flavor, and orchid-like aroma
Red Robe Tea (Da Hong Pao): Heavily-oxidized, dark orange-hued tea from China’s Wuyi Mountains with intense smoke and caramel notes and a markedly high price tag
Phoenix (Dan Chong or Dan Cong): Flavorful, full-bodied tea harvested from a single bush grown in China’s Guangdong Province with different characteristics depending on the batch’s origin plant
Milk Oolong (Nai Xiang): Creamy, and easy-drinking Taiwanese tea first created in 1980
Pouchong: Very airy and floral Chinese or Taiwanese tea made from pale unrolled leaves
Chamomile: Herbal infusion made from several different species of a daisy-like plant in the Asteraceae family and thought to treat stomach aches, inflammation, and insomnia
Chrysanthemum: Very aromatic mix of dried chrysanthemum petals often served with Chinese Dim Sum
Hibiscus: Brightly-colored, tart infusion made from the hibiscus plant, often blended with rosehip and served either hot or cold
Kava: Powdery tincture made from a root native to the South Pacific islands used for relaxation and other neurological purposes, including as a natural alternative to synthetic antidepressant and antianxiety medications
Rooibos (Red Bush): Earthy, bright, and caffeine-free infusion made from a ruddy, red-colored South African plant loaded with antioxidants
Pennyroyal Tea: One of Nirvana’s most severely underrated bangers