Ordering from a tea shop can be a daunting experience for the newcomer used to your basic Lipton tea. There are all sorts of types and subtypes on the shelves. We’re going to try to make some sense of it in this article so you can order with confidence!
How Tea Is Made
Tea, at its simplest, is any herb that has been placed in boiling water and allowed to steep long enough for the heat and the water to draw out flavors from the herbs. The herb most used for tea is from Camellia sinensis or the tea tree. Native to Asia, this plant is the start of what we call tea.
Just like grapes in wine, the growing conditions for each tea tree affect the flavor in different ways, resulting in hundreds of different sub-species of the plant as it has crossed to different countries and bioregions. This is why Shan Valley tea can taste different from, say, Assam tea, or a tea grown in Japan or China, even though it’s from the same plant.
However, how the tea leaves are treated after picking is even more crucial to creating different types of teas. Depending on when the tea is picked and how it is handled, the humble tea leaf can transform into a wide variety of flavors.
Inside of a tea shop, tea is divided into several broad types. Understanding these types will start helping you get oriented in the world of tea. The primary difference between the types is the amount of oxidation that has happened to the leaves prior to drying them out. Here is each type, in order of oxidation amount from high to low.
This is the tea that most Westerners are most familiar with, the dark reddish-brown liquid found everywhere when you order tea at a restaurant. It is called black tea because the tea leaves are fully oxidized to a black color. Black tea has strong flavors and has the most caffeine of any tea type, another reason why it is so popular here in the West.
One point of confusion for Westerners going to Asia is that black tea is often called red tea instead, due to the reddish color of the brewed tea. A separate type of tea is considered to be black tea. Even more confusing is that there is a red tea here in the West brewed from the rooibos plant, which comes from Africa.
Key things to know: Full oxidation, bold flavor, high caffeine.
This process for making this kind of tea is a closely guarded secret in China, but we do know that the tea is put through a special fermentation process with different molds. A few other countries have variants on this process, but Puh-er tea is the most well-known.
This tea fetches extremely high prices on the world market and there are a lot of counterfeit Puh-er teas for the most sought-after varieties. It is said to have unique medicinal qualities due to the probiotics used in the process.
In Burma, we do have a fermented tea but the leaves from it are actually used as a salad! Burma is one of the few countries that eats tea leaves like this. It is a widespread and very healthy dish there, eaten at every occasion. Check back on our past article on lahpet for more information.
Things to know: Rare and unique, expensive, probiotic
Oolong teas are at an in-between state between black and green tea, creating complex flavors. These teas are sometimes known as blue teas due to the color of the leaves. Special rolling techniques are used to create different shapes of the final product. In fact, this type of tea is probably the one that requires the most human attention due to the repetition of different tea preparation stages in the process.
The word Oolong is a corruption of a Chinese phrase for black dragon. Most Oolong tea is grown in China.
Things to know: Many flavors, types, and shapes. May have to experiment to find one you like.
Now to our favorite tea, and one that has been growing in world popularity. With green teas, the oxidation process is only allowed a brief amount of time before this process is stopped by heating. This can be done by a dry heat or by steam, each producing its own kinds of flavors.
Stopping the oxidation process early creates much less caffeine compared to black tea and preserves compounds that give green tea its health properties. Green tea flavors can range from very subtle ones to strong grass-like flavors. One of the reasons green tea is less popular than black is that black tea lasts a lot longer before the flavor is lost. A brick of green tea will stay fresh for about a year, but black teas stayed fresh long enough to be used as currency in some countries!
Things to know: Low oxidation, healthy, lower caffeine, use within a year.
White teas are brewed from tea buds before they become full tea leaves. This creates the mildest of flavors and the lowest amount of caffeine, though there is still some present. There are high amounts of antioxidants in white tea, but its short growing season makes it too expensive for general consumption. Due to the delicacy of the buds and minimal processing, white tea differences are more due to the actual plant than the processing.
Things to know: Mildest flavor, short season, expensive.
The lines between these teas can be a little blurry, depending on the regulations in different countries for these tea types. There are also several kinds of teas made from the same plant that are very rare, such as yellow tea, or strange like kukicha, which is a Japanese green tea that uses the stems and branches instead of the leaves!
Additionally, some varieties of tea take these basic flavors and add additional flavorings to them. Earl Grey is probably the most famous of these with its use of bergamot, a bitter orange variety. And there are tea shops that experiment with all kinds of funky additional herbs to bring out other flavors.
But for the true tea connoisseur, the place to start is with the basics. Try our green tea or black tea samplers to experience the differences between one variety of tea. Then try going to your local store or tea market and trying others of the same kind. Keep notes on the smell, color, and flavor of the tea until you find the ones you like the best. Then move to a different tea type. With careful notes, soon you’ll have your own favorites!