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Types of tea

(article, Cheryl Sternman Rule)

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American grocery stores used to carry tea. Just tea. Crushed black leaves in a nondescript bag with a pat proverb inked on the tag. 

Well, things have changed. Tea has taken off in a big way, thanks to a newfound appreciation for its nuances of flavor and its well-documented antioxidant properties. With so many varieties now available, you may need a primer to keep them all straight.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Eight types of tea."]Broadly speaking, tea leaves belong to the genre of plants called Camellia sinensis, with more than 1,000 subvarieties grown in China, Japan, the Himalayas, and parts of Southeast Asia. Tea leaves and buds plucked from these plants are used to brew black, green, white, oolong, and pu-erh teas.

Of course, herbs, twigs, flowers, spices, and roots (think chamomile, hibiscus, and ginseng) may also be steeped and drunk as tea, and we refer to these as herbal teas, or tisanes. But these herb-based beverages — along with yerba mate and rooibos — do not originate from tea plants and therefore aren’t “teas” in the truest sense of the word. 

Here’s a rundown, by color and style, of eight sips worth exploring.


#(clear n1). [%image black float='clear right' width=250 caption="Black tea"]Black. Black teas have played an enormously important cultural role worldwide, particularly in Asia, where the leaves are wilted, brewed, fermented, and oxidized. Among the most famous black-tea varieties are India’s full-bodied Assam and delicate Darjeeling, grown in the foothills of the Himalayas. Black tea’s caffeine content varies along with the temperature of the water, the steeping time, and the age of the leaves.

#(clear n2). [%image green float='clear right' width=250 caption="Green tea"]Green. Unlike black tea, green tea is fermented but unoxidized. Its leaves are dried immediately after picking to preserve their green color and deactivate any enzymes. China alone boasts more than 300 green-tea varieties, including the popular Gunpowder green tea. In Japan, the leaves are often steamed to intensify their vegetal flavor, and some varieties are crushed into a powder to produce what is known as matcha. Be sure to brew green tea using warm, never boiling, water. (Boiling water produces bitter green tea.) And because it’s more perishable than black tea, green tea should be replaced every six months.

#(clear n3). [%image white float='clear right' width=250 caption="White tea"]White. The young, unopened budsets of particular varieties of China bush tea plants produce white tea, among the most ancient of all teas. In fact, according to The Story of Tea, early Chinese legend held that the budsets could only be picked by white-gloved virgins. Sweet and simple in flavor, white teas are limited in production, so they tend to cost more than their more widely available counterparts.

#(clear n4). [%image oolong float='clear right' width=250 caption="Oolong tea"]Oolong. Also known as Wulong (meaning “Black Dragon”) or Blue Tea, oolong is a semi-fermented tea variety whose leaves are larger and more mature. Produced in both China and Taiwan, oolongs have floral undernotes and flavors that can range from peach and melon to leather, amber, or even sandalwood. Oolong’s caffeine content generally falls between that of green and black tea. 

#(clear n5). [%image puerh float='clear right' width=250 caption="Pu-erh tea"]Pu-erh. Another larger-leafed, fermented Chinese tea, pu-erh is available either as loose leaves or as compressed tea “cakes.” In fact, some highly regarded tea cakes are so revered they command a hefty price from tea connoisseurs. Because many Chinese believe pu-erh lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol, it’s often drunk after a heavy meal and sipped as a health and weight-loss tonic.

#(clear n6). [%image herbal float='clear right' width=250 caption="Herbal tea"]Herbal. Infusing dried or fresh herbs, flowers, spices, berries, and roots in boiling water produces herbal teas, or tisanes. Herbal concoctions aren’t really “tea” because they don’t contain leaves from the tea plant. Usually caffeine-free, herbal teas are popular in the evenings, with many varieties, such as chamomile, said to induce feelings of calmness and serenity. Other herbs, however, provide natural lift and increased energy. 

#(clear n7). [%image yerbamate float='clear right' width=250 caption="Yerba mate tea"]Yerba mate. Tea drinkers throughout Paraguay, Uruguay, southern Brazil, and northern Argentina are all familiar with yerba mate, a traditional infusion of the yerba plant enjoyed both hot and cold throughout the day. The plant was originally discovered by Paraguay’s Guarani Indians, who chewed the dark green leaves for their stimulant properties. Today, the caffeinated beverage has gained a brisk following and is often mixed with other herbs to provide distinctive flavor profiles.

#(clear n8).[%image rooibos float='clear right' width=250 caption="Rooibos/red bush tea"]Rooibos/Red bush. Native to South Africa, the rooibos (Afrikaans for “red bush”) plant is naturally caffeine-free and produces an herbal infusion which, when the leaves are oxidized, produces a vibrant, red-colored tea. (Unoxidized rooibos, on the other hand, produces a green-colored beverage.) High in antioxidants, rooibos has a full-bodied flavor and is beginning to gain greater popularity and visibility in Western countries, including here in the U.S.


p(blue). Editor's note: Between Friday, November 14, 2008 and noon (PST) on Monday, November 17, 2008, you have a chance to win a copy of The Tea Drinker's Handbook. By entering the drawing, you agree to a subscription for our weekly e-newsletter. If you currently receive the newsletter, you can still enter in the same form below. Good luck!


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p(green). The drawing has closed and the winners winner be announced here as soon as the are contacted and confirmed.  Thanks for joining in.

The contest ended at noon (PST) on Monday, November 17, 2008.

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p(bio). Cheryl Sternman Rule is a San Jose-based food writer, a contributing editor at Eating Well,_ and the creative force behind the blog 5 Second Rule.

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