If you are like me, being faced with too many options can make a decision seem daunting. When shopping for tea, it can seem like there are endless options to choose from, but there are actually only five basic types: white, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh.
Tea originated in China around 2700 BCE. It is the world’s most consumed beverage, second only to water. All tea, no matter what type, comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Teas are often classified by country or region of origin, such as Chinese, Japanese, or Darjeeling. However, the way the leaves are processed after the harvest is what determines the type.
White tea is the least processed and therefore has the most nutritional value. It is exposed to the sun in processing, but not to direct heat. Basically, it is only dried and shaped. The flavor is very mild. A water temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended for brewing.
Green tea is processed much like white tea, but it is exposed to direct heat. This helps give green tea a more pronounced flavor and stops processing. It smells sweet and tastes somewhat grassy, with a dry finish. A water temperature of 175 – 185 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended for brewing.
Oolong tea takes processing one step further with the addition of oxidation. Oxidation occurs by allowing the tea leaves to be exposed to oxygen for a prolonged period. This causes a chemical reaction, much like when an apple turns brown from exposure to the air. That reaction then affects the flavor and color of the leaves. Oolong is mild and light with an amber color when brewed. A water temperature of 180 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended for brewing.
Black tea is like oolong except it is not exposed to direct heat to stop processing. Instead, it is allowed to oxidize longer, making the leaves darker and the flavor more pronounced. Black tea tends to be rich and sometimes bitter with a deep reddish-brown color. A water temperature of 200 – 212 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended.
Pu-erh tea is the most processed of all five types. In addition to heat exposure, pu-erh tea is also fermented by exposing the tea to humidity, bacteria, and oxygen over time. These bacteria are beneficial to you, much like the bacteria found in yogurt, beer, cheese, or sauerkraut. The flavor of pu-erh can change as the tea continues to age, but you can often expect it to be deep, intense, and earthy. A water temperature of 205 – 212 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended for brewing.
So, what about herbal teas? Well, herbal teas are not actually “tea.” Anything consisting of a plant that is not Camellia Sinensis can be called an herbal tea, such as mint or chamomile flowers. It is labeled as “tea” because it is prepared the same way – steeped in hot water.