White, green, oolong, and black — oh my! There are so many different varieties of tea, but what do all these names mean?
Surprisingly, although there are so many different variations of tea, the majority all come from the same plant: the Camellia sinensis, a small evergreen shrub native to Asia. Although all tea comes from the same plant, there are many unique variations across the world that contain different flavor profiles and notes. Additionally, each variation of tea can have different health benefits for drinkers, and are a staple of homeopathic remedies.
The only variation of teas that aren’t associated with this plant is herbal teas (aka herbal infusions), which typically comprise fruits, herbs, rose hips, rooibos, and other plants and their leaves. A popular example is kratom, which comes from a tree closely related to coffee trees, but is steeped and drank as tea nonetheless.
Green tea is a popular tea, and often contains the most caffeine out of all the tea strains (although decaffeinated varieties are available). The “green” aspect of the tea comes from the fresh cut leaves, which do not undergo an oxidation or withering process unlike other strains.
The flavor of green tea is astringent, slightly bitter, and subtle. Due to the process of preserving the green color and flavor of the leaves, it often carries more tannins, vitamin C, minerals, and chlorophyll than other varieties.
Some evidence-based studies have shown that the high amount of polyphenols in green tea (which makes up about 30% of the leaves and is preserved due to the method of processing).
Other health benefits of green tea include the high amounts of catechins in this variety, which is a compound that can help boost and protect neural (brain) activity.
Black tea is another very common variety, sometimes called “red tea” in Chinese, which refers to the color of the water (red) after brewing. Black tea is the most oxidized tea variety compared to all the others, and this is why the leaves often appear dark brown or black.
Black tea can contain some caffeine, and can also be blended with other plants in order to create a specific drink, such as the mixture of black tea and bergamot oil which makes Earl Grey tea.
The process for creating black tea starts with the harvesting of leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant, quickly followed by withering the leaves through air drying. The leaves can then either be orthodox or put through a process of “Crush, Tear, Curl” or CTC. They are then oxidized, exposing the leaves to moist, oxygen-rich air — with controlled temperature and humidity — and dried again. Once this process is complete, they are sorted and ready for packaging.
The flavor of black tea can vary significantly depending on the oxidation process and where the plant was grown. These flavors can range from a light and sweet honey flavor, to a more clean or strong peppery flavor. Other flavors include a deep caramel, floral, or chocolate notes, and low-quality black tea can be especially bitter.
On the scale of color, right in the middle between green and black tea varieties is oolong tea: a partially oxidized, but still green-colored tea often rolled into tight balls with a small tail. The term “oolong” means “black dragon tea,” and in China oolong is also known as “dark green tea.”
The process for oolong is very similar to that of black tea, but there is a lot more attention to the oxidation and firing processes, as too much time or too high of a temperature could turn the tea into a black variety instead of oolong. After cutting the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, they are withered and rolled in order to produce slight bruising. Under close observation, they are then oxidized. Once complete, they are rolled into tight balls, or longer leaves are rolled into curls, and they are then dried again and packaged.
Some varieties of oolong can have caffeine, but generally less than green and black teas.
The flavor of oolong tea can vary wildly depending on the oxidation, region where it was grown, and the style of tea leaf. Some oolong teas are woody and thick, with a roasted flavor, while others are much lighter with a sweet, floral, or honey aroma. There are also very green and fresh varieties, which appear lighter in color. Traditionally, the darker the color, the more nutty or roasted the flavor will be. Some of the most well known and expensive varieties are from Wuyi Mountains of China.
Another tea in the Camellia sinensis plant family is white tea. This variation is often made with the young leaves, and the tea is simply cut, then dried with no additional processing, rolling, or oxidation. The youngest leaves of the tea have had little exposure to the sun, so they are often light in color, as they are covered in small silvery-white hairs which give this tea its name.
This tea has only been around for a few centuries, and has yet to develop an international standard. While some refer to white tea as simply “unprocessed tea”, others insist that white tea must contain the young buds of the tea plant. The liquid of white tea is a light golden yellow, and the more expensive varieties may leave behind small white “hairs” in the cup.
White teas tend to have the least amount of caffeine out of all the other Camellia sinensis teas.
White tea has the subtlest and lightest of flavors compared to black and green tea. The buds are typically grassy with a slight sweetness, and should not be bitter. Because of the subtle flavor, it is best to drink this tea alone without food or other drinks, so you can fully enjoy it’s light aroma.
There are multiple studies that have investigated the health benefits of tea, and a few that have specifically looked at the benefits of white tea. Similar to green tea, the concentration of catechins in white tea can help the immune system fight off bacteria growth and other infections — even helping defend against serious conditions such as pneumonia.
Herbal teas are not true teas, as they don’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant. However, they are often a unique mix of herbs such as chamomile, rooibos (a South African plant), fruits, hibiscus, lemon, kratom, and more.
Because they do not come from the traditional tea plant, they can lack some of the antioxidant power that other teas provide, but they can also provide their own unique health benefits. Additionally, many herbal teas lack caffeine, which can make them a perfect drink before bedtime to help you relax.
Some versions of herbal teas are recommended as homeopathic remedies to help counter the symptoms of influenza or the common cold. Peppermint tea, for example, is great for calming the stomach and soothing the throat. Other teas like chamomile or lavender are great for helping you relax when you’re stressed.
Kratom tea is created from the Mitragyna speciosa plant, which is related to the coffee plant. However, whereas coffee often carries high caffeine concentrations, kratom tea carries other alkaloid properties that can provide a variety of benefits for drinkers. Research is still being conducted on the health benefits of kratom, but early pharmacology signs point to an energizing property for some and a relaxing property for others. There are multiple strains of kratom, all related to the region the plant was grown in and the way the leaf was processed. Each strain has its own benefits, and some drinkers may notice a significant difference between each strain of kratom. The highest quality kratom powder often has the most noticeable differences.
There are many different types of tea in the world, and they all can provide you with unique health benefits. The Camellia sinensis plant is often the most common, and is chock full of healthy antioxidants and polyphenols. However, other teas also exist, including herbal and kratom tea, and these can also provide unique benefits to the drinker. It’s no wonder that tea is the second most common drink in the world: it’s delicious, healthy, and perfect for nearly every occasion.