What is Tea?
Feb 2, 2021
What is tea, exactly? Many of us drink tea daily, but don’t actually know much about it. There are many different kinds of tea available today, but did you know that all tea comes from the same plant? Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, is what all tea is made from. Whether the tea is green or black, it’s all the same plant!
There are actually six different kinds of tea that can be made from the camellia sinensis plant. Some of these are probably familiar to you, and others might be new.
The two most common types are black tea and green tea.
Black tea is what most people in North America drink, typically with milk and/or sugar added. Popular kinds of black tea include Orange Pekoe, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Chai, and Assam.
Green tea has many health benefits and has been slowly gaining popularity in North America over the years.
You can commonly find green tea with different flavours added, such as jasmine, ginger, or lemon. Some people add honey to their green tea to sweeten it, but people typically drink green tea without milk.
There is also a specific kind of green tea that you may have seen popping up in your supermarket lately…matcha tea! Matcha tea is a traditional green tea from Japan, but is now becoming very popular in North America.
Unlike other kinds of green tea, instead of brewing the tea leaves in hot water and removing them before drinking, the tea leaves are ground into a powder and are mixed into the hot water. Matcha is also typically served with a froth on top. Traditionally, the froth was achieved by whisking the matcha powder vigorously into the water with a bamboo whisk. Nowadays, you can still whisk your matcha tea if you like, or you can use a small frother instead. That is what I like to do!
The Japanese traditionally drink matcha tea without any additions such as milk or sugar, but many North Americans sweeten it to taste. Some North Americans also like to add milk before whisking the matcha into a froth. This is known as a “matcha latte”.
There are many more varieties to choose from, including white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, and dark or pu’er tea.
White tea is very light in colour and has a delicate flavour. It’s not as common as green and black tea, but you can usually find a few varieties in supermarkets, and certainly in most tea shops. Popular kinds of white tea include the Silver Needle and White Peony varieties. There are also many white tea blends available, which can also contain green tea. A good white tea blend to start with is Buddha’s Blend from David’s Tea – one of my personal favourites, and it smells divine!
Yellow tea is a type of tea that many people are not familiar with. I had never heard of it myself until I took a tea-tasting class at the Royal Botanical Gardens. When this variety of tea is brewed, the result is a bright yellow-coloured tea. It has a slightly stronger taste than white tea, but in my experience, it’s not quite as strong as green tea. Yellow tea is difficult to find outside of China. However, it can be found through some specialty tea suppliers, and is lovely to try if you can get your hands on it!
In China, where it was first produced, the word “oolong” translates to “black dragon”. Oolong tea is dark in colour and people may mistake it for a black tea, but it’s actually its own special kind of tea. It has to do with the amount of oxidation, or exposure to air, that the tea leaves experience during their processing. Green tea is only slightly oxidized and has a lighter flavour, while black tea is fully oxidized which gives it its dark, rich flavour. Oolong tea falls somewhere in the middle. Similar to black tea, there are many different kinds of oolong tea available.
The final kind of tea is known as dark or pu’er (also spelled “pu’erh”) tea. This is the most oxidized kind of tea. The leaves are very dark in colour and are actually fermented after they are dried. Pu’er tea is often described as having a very rich, earthy flavour. Pu’er is available in loose-leaf form, but the leaves can also be pressed into hard round disks or rectangular bricks, which are known as tea cakes.
What about herbal tea?
Herbal teas such as chamomile, peppermint, rooibos, and fruit teas are not actually tea. The proper term for these is a tisane, or an herbal infusion. According to tea masters, only tea that is made from the camellia sinensis plant can be considered true tea.
But even though they’re not technically tea, they’re still tasty drinks! So many herbal tisanes also have wonderful health benefits. Personally, I love a nice chamomile or peppermint in the evening! What’s your favourite kind of tea?