Black tea, green tea, oolong tea. . . If you’ve been down the tea aisle at your grocery store you might have looked at all of these names and wondered what they mean. What’s the difference? Today I’m going to explain the difference between some of the common types of tea, so next time you go shopping for tea you can know exactly what that vanilla rooibos chai is.
True Tea vs. Herbal Tea
The most basic distinction between various teas is whether a tea is a true tea, or an herbal tea. True teas are only those made with the leaf of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. The four main kinds of tea are: Black tea, oolong tea, green tea, and white tea (I will explain the differences between these teas a little later on). True teas are naturally caffeinated. Herbal teas are much more varied, as they can be made from all sorts of fruits and herbs. Some examples of herbal teas are: chamomile, rooibos, and even pine. Herbal teas are naturally caffeine-free.
The four main types of True Teas
The main difference between teas is how the leaves are oxidized. In the oxidization process, enzymes in the tea leaves are exposed to oxygen, causing the leaves to darken and produce a bolder flavor.
Black tea, the most common variety of tea, is the most oxidized of the four types of tea, this results in stronger, more full-bodied flavors, and a dark brown color. As with all teas, caffeine levels vary, but a cup of black tea typically contains about 1/3-1/2 the caffeine of a cup of coffee.
Oolong tea is oxidized like black tea, but for a shorter period of time. The flavor can vary depending on the amount of oxidization, but is lighter than black tea. Again, the caffeine levels vary, but are lower than in black tea.
Green tea is minimally oxidized (if at all). The freshly picked leaves are pan-fried or steamed to kill the enzymes and prevent oxidization. Since they are not oxidized, green tea maintains its natural green color, and has a much lighter flavor than black tea (some describe the taste of green tea as “grassy”). As you might expect, the caffeine content in green tea is lower than that of black and oolong tea.
In regards to oxidization white tea is similar to green tea, it experience very little oxidization. What sets white tea apart is the method of harvest. While other teas are produced from mature tea leaves, white tea is produced from young tea leaves and unopened buds on the tea plant. White tea has a pale yellow color and a very light, delicate taste. White tea is the least caffeinated variety of tea, containing very little caffeine.
Common types of Herbal teas
Herbal tea, also known as Tisane, is a naturally caffeine free beverage that can be made from basically any plant material steeped in hot water. There are even herbal teas made from the leaves of coffee plants! Some of the more popular types of herbal tea are:
Chamomile tea, often used to relax and aid sleep. Chamomile tea is brewed from Matricaria chamomilla, a relative of the daisy that can be found wild in Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia.
Rooibos tea is made from the needle-like leaves of Aspalathus linearis, a member of the legume family commonly known as Rooibos (surprise!), found only in the Western Cape province of South Africa. The Rooibos plant is a shrub similar to the Scotch Broom plant seen in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. The leaves of the Rooibos plant are gently oxidized to give them their well-known red color. Rooibos tea has a sweet flavor.
Pine tea, popular among outdoorsmen, is made from steeping young, green pine needles. Pine tea is high in vitamins A and C.
Popular tea blends
As you may notice when looking through the tea aisle, there is more to teas than simply black, green, herbal, etc. Multiple ingredients are often blended in tea to make more complex flavors. Some of the more common tea blends are:
Earl Grey tea (the favorite of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek) is a blend of black tea and the oil of Bergamot, a fragrant citrus fruit similar in size to an orange.
English Breakfast Tea is a robust tea made from black tea leaves grown in Assam (a northeastern state if India), Sri Lanka, and Kenya.
Chai tea is a spiced black tea originating in India. The spices used in Chai include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and ginger. Chai tea is commonly mixed with boiled or steamed milk and sweetened with honey. Chai tea lattes are a popular beverage in many coffee shops and are commonly made by mixing a sweetened chai tea concentrate with milk and are either steamed or served over ice.
Decaf Tea vs. Caffeine-free
Like coffee, tea can often be found in decaf varieties. Decaf teas are put through a special process to remove most of the caffeine from the tea. As in coffee, decaffeination does not remove all of the caffeine. Decaf tea will still contain a small amount of caffeine, so if you are trying to avoid caffeine completely, decaf teas and coffees should be avoided. Herbal teas, on the other hand, are naturally caffeine-free, meaning they never contained caffeine in the first place
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about tea. As an avid tea drinker, I find tea a very interesting subject and I enjoy exploring the many varieties of tea available. Have any tea-related questions you’d like answered? Are there any tea varieties I didn’t discuss here that you would like to learn more about? Feel free to leave questions and comments in the comment section. I began my research for this topic on the Twinings USA webpage, and there is a lot of interesting information there that I didn’t cover in this post, so if you’re interested, I highly encourage taking a look around there.