Tea: What’s the Difference?

July 12, 2011

Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world. Find out the differences between the types here - black, green, oolong, white, red, chai and herbal

Tea has long been a popular drink of choice. Originally discovered by accident when a leaf from a wild tea tree fell into Chinese emperor Shen Nung’s boiling drinking water in 2737 BC, tea is now the second most consumed beverage in the world (water is number one). Many studies have demonstrated tea’s many health benefits, but recognition of these benefits also predates our time. As early as third century AD the benefits of drinking the beverage were being told in stories and some were even written. The drink gained its name ch’a (the Chinese word used to describe it) during the Tang Dynasty of 618-906 AD and became their national drink.

The modern word “tea” that we use derives from this (and other) early Chinese words used to describe both the beverage and the leaf itself. The spread of tea followed Buddhist priests who traveled around China and Japan, and the first mention of tea outside of these two countries was said to be in 850 AD by the Arabs. The story of the movement of tea to Europe has many variations, but it is said that Portugal had gained trading rights with China in the early 1500’s and then subsequently tea was traded to Lisbon, France, Holland, and the Baltic countries in the 1600’s. In 1650 tea made its way to the United States from the Dutch, and to England between 1652- 1654.

Where does tea come from? Tea comes from the top leaves and buds of an evergreen shrub called Camellia sinensis; it is available in thousands of different forms. In this regard it is similar to, for example, chardonnay wine, with the region, climate, soil and processing determining its characteristics. Tea is split into four main varieties: black, green, oolong, and white.

Black tea: the leaf is withered and water is evaporated, allowing the leaf to absorb more oxygen from the air (called oxidation). The dark brown and black leaf comes from the full oxidation and it yields a hearty and more pronounced flavor as well as higher caffeine content than other teas. Another variety, Puerh, is sometimes classified as a fifth type of tea, is simply an aged black tea from China. It was actually illegal to import Puerh to the US before 1995 and the way it is produced is still a closely guarded state secret in China. It is deep and rich in flavor.

Green tea: the leaf is only slightly withered and undergoes a very quick oxidation process that is stopped with a rapid heating called “firing.” This allows for a more delicate tea with subtle flavors and undertones and a pale green or golden color. Reports indicate that histamine-blocking compounds in green tea may fight allergies. Green tea is also an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial as well as having other antioxidant properties.

Oolong tea: after withering, the leaf undergoes partial oxidation that gives the tea a flavor and caffeine content somewhere in between black and green teas.

White tea: taken only from the youngest shoot of the plant, white tea is handled in the most delicate of all processes. It is not oxidized nor rolled, but becomes withered and dried by steaming. The minimal processing leaves more antioxidants intact than in green tea. (It also has practically no caffeine.)

What about herbal teas? 
Herbal tea is a misnomer, according to purists, who say that tea can only come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Instead, such concoctions should be referred to as infusions or tisanes (from the French word for infusions). Packaged and brewed just like tea, they come from grasses, barks, fruits, flowers and other botanicals. They do not contain caffeine. Some of the more common herbal infusions are Chamomile (aiding relaxation and sleep), Peppermint (aids digestion), Ginger (for upset stomach), and Ginseng (for energy).

What about “red” teas? 
Red tea also isn’t technically a “tea” but rather the dried needles of the African rooibos herb. It is caffeine-free and rich in antioxidants, and makes a mellow and rich “red” colored brew.

What about chai tea? 
Chai simply means spiced tea (and is the word for tea in Hindi and other Asian languages). Most often served with steamed milk (or soy milk) and has quickly become one of the fastest growing varieties of teas.

Now that you know the tea basics, go enjoy a cup!