Just like coffee, tea is a beverage with a rich history and a devoted community. There’s much more to tea than Lipton and chai––in fact, there are over 3,000 types of tea.
From the popular green tea to the exotic pu-erh, there’s a tea for every occasion. Tea is actually more popular than coffee!
As of 2014, tea was the most consumed beverage in the world.
While you may not find tea houses on every block in your city, there’s a huge global following for the drink, and you likely drink it regularly.
Tea provides numerous health benefits, and it tastes great to boot.
However, if you’re a newcomer to the world of specialty tea, you might be a little confused. Any shop that carries specialty tea will usually have several types of tea.
You might also run into some terms you don’t understand.
This guide will walk you through the different types of tea, how they taste, and how to find out which one is right for you. Let’s get started!
Understanding Camellia sinensis
Tea comes from the plant Camellia sinensis. While this plant grows all over the world, Asia (especially China) produces the most tea plants.
In terms of botany, tea and coffee are quite alike. Coffee has two main plant species (Arabica and Robusta), and so does tea.
The variants of Camellia sinensis are Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which grows in China, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica, which grows in India.
You might hear a few different terms for the plants on which tea leaves grow. Tea plant, tea shrub, or tea tree are three common terms, and they all refer to the Camellia sinensis plant in general.
The location, variant of plant, and level of oxidation all change how the resulting tea will taste.
So even though two teas may taste completely different, they’re actually more closely related than it seems.
The Most Popular Types of Tea
Tea enthusiasts generally agree that the category of tea can be split up into five categories: white, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh.
These all have different characteristics and flavor profiles.
White tea is the most minimally processed type of tea. The tea leaves are immature when they’re plucked, which causes the leaf to produce a light taste in the cup.
The buds on the tea plant are unopened when these light grey leaves are picked to make white tea.
After the leaves are plucked, they’re withered. This involves oxidizing the leaves using air, solar, or mechanical drying.
That’s it––this simple process is what gives us white tea.
Because there’s so little processing involved, white tea has a gentle, subtle taste that is slightly sweet. You won’t find any bitterness or hints of spice in the cup.
It’s easy to sip and enjoy even if you aren’t a tea person.
Green tea has experienced a resurgence lately, and it’s easy to see why. Combine its memorable taste with several documented health benefits, and you have a tea worthy of all the hype surrounding it.
Green tea is made from tea leaves that are either steamed or fried in a pan.
These produce different taste results; a steamed green tea will taste vegetal while a pan-fried tea will have a more grassy taste.
Some green tea bushes are placed in shade to optimize chlorophyll production in the plants, which results in a more vividly colored leaf.
Matcha is a popular variant of green tea. Indeed, some people use “matcha” and “green tea” interchangeably.
You could consider matcha as a more premium type of green tea; the best, most vibrantly hued tea leaves are finely ground by stone to become matcha powder.
This is why matcha is such a bright green color.
At first, you might think oolong tea is a very light black tea, but it’s actually not. This unique tea has perhaps the most interesting flavor profiles of all the different types of tea.
Oolong teas have a great amount of variety. One oolong can taste sweet like honey with a creamy mouthfeel, but another might have a smokier taste to it.
Oolong is made by oxiding and then twisting the tea leaves. Sometimes the leaves are curled into strands, and sometimes they’re rolled into balls.
The particular twisting method will alter the taste of the oolong.
Unlike other teas, oolong is typically steeped multiple times. Each steep produces new flavors, and it’s generally accepted that the tea improves after every steep.
Black tea is one of the most common types of tea, and there’s a good chance that if you’ve drunk tea before, it’s been black tea.
Black tea is renowned for its malty, earthy taste that’s highly recognizable. (Fun fact: It serves as the base for Earl Grey tea.)
To make black tea, the tea leaves are allowed to oxidize for much longer than a white, green, or oolong tea. This imparts stronger flavors in the final cup.
The leaves are then processed in one of two ways. They may be simply dried, or they may be crushed and cut before drying.
Whole dried leaves result in a more multidimensional tea, while crushed and dried leaves produce a stronger, bolder tea.
Pu-erh (also called pu’er) is another one-of-a-kind tea that’s specially processed. The leaves are fermented for months or even years.
They’re eventually either sold raw (sheng) or cooked by composting (shou).
Because pu-erh is the product of aging, different pu-erhs will have their own taste. A less aged pu-erh might have a vegetal flavor, while an older pu-erh might be intensely earthy or even spicy.
Premium pu-erh teas can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auctions, although you don’t need to take out a bank loan to get your hands on a good pu-erh.
Pu-erh is packaged in a dried cake form, which you have to break apart carefully. Like oolong, pu-erh is usually steeped multiple times––some people steep it up to two dozen times!
Tea is one of the world’s most ancient beverages, which emphasizes its timelessness.
The different types of tea illustrate this drink’s lengthy heritage, but you have to go out and try all these teas in order to get the full experience.
We hope you use this guide to find a type of tea that’s right for you, whether it’s a calming white tea or a savory oolong.