It is a noteworthy fact that all major types of loose leaf tea are produced from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. There are different cultivars of the tea plant, but they are all very close genetic “relatives” and the difference between them does not have a major impact on the tea taste in your cup. The method of tea production does.
Here is a quick introduction to tea types to explain the difference between them all.
So, how is the loose leaf tea made?
There are several steps in loose leaf tea production. After the tea leaves are harvested, they are getting dried and withered in a temperature-controlled environment. Then, they are rolled into strips either mechanically or by hand for high-quality teas. The next step for some tea types is fermenting, or oxidizing. The type of the loose leaf tea, its “color”, depends on the level of oxidation. The longer the oxidation process lasts, the darker the tea gets.
What are the main types of tea?
Here are the main tea types, classified by the degree of oxidation.
Black tea types represent the final stage in the oxidation process. In order to get green tea, oxidation must be stopped while the tea leaves still retain their fresh, vegetal scents. In the case of oolong, oxidation has to be haltered halfway in the processing. The oxidative process stops once the heat is applied. There are different ways to do this; the Japanese, for instance, steam the freshly picked tea leaves, while the Chinese go for pan-firing or oven roasting.
Black tea is fully oxidized, with a distinctive color and robust flavor. This is the most popular type of tea on the American market. It is available in a variety of types and flavors. There are many factors that affect the tea quality and flavor: origin, time of harvesting, methods of production. Most of the black tea comes from India, China, and Ceylon. Single-estate loose leaf teas are the finest and most valuable among all. Black tea drinkers have a variety of choices from classics like English Breakfast, Assam, Darjeeling to flavored blends like Earl Grey and Masala Chai.
Pu-erh tea originates from the town of Pu-Erh in Yunnan, hence the name. The aroma of pu-erh tea is truly unique: complex, velvety, earthy. The tea gets its unique character due to double fermentation and aging. There are two main types of Pu-erh. Cheng cha, or “raw” tea, is fully oxidized black tea, which is also inhabited by living bacteria, similar to yogurt ferments. Shou Cha, or “cooked” tea, is oxidized and left to get fermented for at least 2-3 months. The difference in flavor between Cheng cha and Shou cha is as significant as between green and black teas.
Oolong Teas are lightly-to-medium oxidized and often intricately processed. In China, the processing of some oolongs involves up to dozen steps. Oolongs are characterized by a lighter body than black teas. Fresh and floral flavor notes make Oolongs a great afternoon tea. The best and most famous Oolongs are produced in China and Taiwan.
In Green Tea production, the oxidation process is prevented by applying heat – by oven-roasting, steaming, or pan-firing. Green teas are available in unlimited varieties of styles and flavors: from smooth “umami” Japanese teas to refreshing and brisk China green teas. All kinds of green teas are quite delicate and require lower brewing temperatures.
White Tea is produced from young leaves and buds of the tea plant. It is only minimally processed, usually just dried in the natural sun. Lighter in the body than any other type, white tea offers an exquisite infusion that is naturally sweet.
Rooibos Tea, also called Red Tea, does not originate from Camellia Sinensis. It is made of another plant, Aspalathus Linearis, grown in the Cederberg region of South Africa. Rooibos tea has an inviting aroma with notes of spice, vanilla, and caramel. It is delicious hot or iced and naturally caffeine-free.
What is the most common type of tea?
Black teas are by far the most commonly consumed teas around the world, and particularly in the West. Among all popular tea types – black, oolong, green, white – black teas have the fullest and strongest flavors. They’re oxidized all the way through and have high caffeine content. They also happen to be versatile enough to gel well with a variety of herbs, spices, and citrus additives. As such, black teas have played a key role in tea drinking traditions since time immemorial. And they continue to serve as the base for many popular brews like Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Masala Chai, among others.
Herbal teas, also known as tisanes, are infusions prepared by brewing flowers, fruits, herbs, or spices in hot water. Unlike regular teas, herbal teas do not contain the leaves of the tea plant Camellia sinensis. Therefore, herbal teas are free from caffeine. What they do possess are the specific properties of the botanical ingredients they are made of.
Here are some of the largest and most famous tea growing countries of the world, with fascinating, rich tea history, an abundance of expertise, and well-established standards of production.
- The largest tea-producing countries are China that delivers 36% of the world’s tea crop, India (23%), Kenya (8%), and Sri Lanka (6%). Altogether, they yield approximately three quarters of the world’s tea.
- Taiwan is worthy of a special note here. This region is famous for its Formosa Oolongs. ‘Formosa,’ meaning ‘beautiful,’ was what Portuguese explorers named the island of Taiwan in the 16th century.
- Japanese green teas are unique and special, but rare and therefore pricey. The Japanese produce only about 2% of the world’s tea or 10% of the world’s green tea and leave most of it for themselves. Less than 2% of the precious Japanese tea is available for export.
- Rooibos is native and unique to the Cederberg region of South Africa. To be precise, Rooibos is not a tea since it is not made from the tea plant Camellia Sinensis. Rooibos is an herb, Aspalathus Linearis, with needle-like leaves. It has been consumed in South Africa for ages and now is making quite a splash all over the world.
Scented and flavored teas… Are these bad? It depends on the quality of the tea base and the flavoring agents.
There are many possible reasons for the existence of that “natural” flavor in your cup of tea.
Sometimes, an overpowering scent only serves to cover the sub-par grade of the tea base. That being said, many high-quality, artfully crafted loose leaf flavored tea blends also exist on the market, sporting sustainable ingredients and aromas with aplomb. Tea masters worldwide utilize different botanical ingredients like spices, herbs, and essential oils to create sophisticated and dimensional scented teas.
The health benefits of tea
The Health benefits of tea have been mentioned since early Chinese scripts dating back to ancient emperor dynasties. As today’s Westerners begin to tune in to healthier eating habits and look for foods packed with nutrients, healthy teas acquired the same status of “power food” as green leafy vegetables, fish, and whole grains.
Tea stores online
What are the best tea stores online?
It depends on what you like.
There’s no single best online tea store or tea brand that is the optimal choice for every tea lover. Some tea shops focus on specific tea varieties, while others focus on select regions. Some of our favorite tea brands are well-established tea companies that sell quality loose leaf teas at bargain prices. Others are relatively small businesses that export directly from tea plantations and create artisan flavored tea blends.
We’ve searched through hundreds of tea brands online and thousands of products and handpicked just a few to showcase them under one roof.
Isabelle is a freelance writer, self-taught tea nerd, and tea blending enthusiast. She is a herbalist with a strong interest in Ayurveda. Each year Isabelle travels extensively, returning with tea samples from around the world. She is a big fan of handmade teaware and Japanese green teas.