Beyond the Tea Bag
Most tea comes from one plant species—but different varieties
and processing techniques make for a whole world of tea to explore.
by Lisa James and Allan Richter
Move over, coffee: Tea is gaining on you. Tea sales have grown fourfold since 1990, according to the US Tea Association, a growth partially fueled by the brew’s health benefits. Bagged black tea is still the most popular type. However, a growing number of tea enthusiasts, with palates sophisticated enough to discern between an Assam and a Darjeeling, prefer premium loose-leaf varieties.
All tea comes from a single plant, Camellia sinensis (herbal teas are technically called tisanes). The differences among varieties are determined by how the leaves are processed. All teas contain caffeine in differing amounts, although any cup of tea will have less caffeine than a cup of coffee.
According to Lisa Boalt Richardson, tea expert and author of The World In Your Teacup (Harvest House), if you don’t like a certain kind of tea you may be oversteeping it, leaving you with a bitter brew. “Don't blame the tea,” she says. Instead, follow the recommended steeping times and temperatures given here for five teas—green, black, white, oolong and pur-eh, plus herbal—to enjoy a perfect cup every time.
Green, black, white and oolong teas all have health-promoting reputations. So why do all the accolades go to the green variety?
Green tea is still considered one of the least-processed of the teas. That helps explain green tea’s famous and numerous health benefits: During the process, light steaming or gentle heat prevents oxidation caused by natural enzymes in the leaves, observes Lester A. Milcher, PhD and Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, authors of The Green Tea Book: The Science-Backed ‘Miracle Cure’ (Avery). Without the steaming or heat, important natural antioxidants would be lost. Green tea, the authors add, contains ten times the vitamin C, for example, of black tea.
Green tea partly gets its color from health-enhancing polyphenols, which, again, dwindle as exposure to oxygen converts green to, say, black tea. By weight, Milcher and Toews say, polyphenols account for roughly 30% of the green tea leaf after it is lightly processed. “The antioxidant potential of green tea polyphenols has amazed even the scientists studying green tea,” they note. Thus green tea has been linked to cancer prevention, lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, better immunity and even healthy cognitive function, among other benefits.
Black tea gets its color from full oxidation, sometimes mistakenly called fermentation. (Run, don’t walk, if you see black tea advertised as fermented.) In China, black tea is sometimes called red tea, notes Boalt Richardson, who describes the flavor of black tea as “well-rounded with a sweet finish.” Some also have a smoky flavor.
This popular tea is grown and processed around the world. The biggest producers are India and Sri Lanka, along with Kenya, note tea experts Robert and Mary Lou Heiss, authors of The Story of Tea (Ten Speed Press). Owing to the influence of England on our new country in the late 1700s, they add, black tea is the most popular in North America for brewing both hot and iced tea.
There are two styles of black tea—orthodox, or whole-leaf, and cut-tear-curl or crush-tear-curl (CTC). Look in almost any cupboard in America and you’ll find a box of CTC black tea in bags. However, orthodox teas are considered the highest quality—“teas of legend,” say the Huesses, “commanding a fair price and representing the skill of the tea artisan.” Darjeeling, “the Champagne of teas,” is among the most famous of the orthodox-production black teas; Assam is another well-known type.
White tea is lighter in color and flavor than black or green tea, therefore it has less caffeine—or so the thinking goes. Wrong. “People assume that black tea, because it is darker and maybe has a more robust taste, is bound to have more caffeine in it. That’s not necessarily true,” says Boalt Richardson. Because the emerging bud, or budset, is richer than other leaves, a traditional budset white tea from sources in China’s coastal Fujian Province can have more caffeine than other teas, observe the Heisses. They add that a number of other factors—including the age of the plucked leaf, the period during the plant’s growth cycle when the leaf is plucked and the temperature of the brewing water—also affect caffeine levels.
One generalization that is true of white tea is that it is the least processed of the teas, which accounts for its subtle, light and, says Boalt Richardson, fragrant, almost flowery flavor. Because white tea is so light, Boalt Richardson does not recommend adding milk or sugar to it, as one might with black tea, or pairing it with food like chocolate, which would obliterate its taste. “It’s a good standalone tea,” she says.
The Heisses identify three types of white tea: the budset type from Fujian Province, the premier version of which is the Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Flowery White Pekoe or Silver Needle); the “new-style” leaf white tea, from many sources; and the traditional-style budset white tea, also grown in many locations.
In China, oolong—more oxidized than green, less than black—is the most popular type. Oolong’s relatively complicated manufacturing process allows for a lot of subtle variations, especially as the same leaves are infused multiple times. “Each infusion will speak to you and tell you something different—there’s a mindfulness about drinking tea that way. When people get serious with teas, they eventually end up with oolongs,” says tea authority Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Perryville, Kentucky. Another factor in the increasing popularity of oolong among US drinkers lies in studies showing that this tea may have cardioprotective and other healthful properties.
Oolongs fall into three broad categories: open leaf, with large, slightly crimped leaves and pure, bright flavors; semiball rolled, little balls of tea with flavors reminiscent of honey and stone fruits; and strip style, with long, slightly twisted leaves with strong, fruity flavors. Richardson’s favorites are Ti Kwan Yin, a rolled form, and Bao Zhong, a small-leafed spring tea.
Unlike black tea’s false reputation as a fermented tea, pu-erh is the real deal. It comes from China’s Yunnan Province, where the semi-tropical climate nurtures the microbes responsible for pu-erh’s unique taste and smell. “What’s striking is the aroma—it has an intense, rich earthiness,” says Frank Sanchez, operations manager for Upton Tea Imports of Holliston, Massachusetts. Pu-erh is usually compressed into cakes, normally flat disks but also rectangles, squares, domes and other shapes.
There are two main types of pu-erh, the “raw” or “green” sheng, available as a young mao cha or naturally aged; and the “cooked” or” black” shou, available quickly aged or as a wet-pile fermented wo dui. Unlike most teas, pu-erh ages well in a manner similar to wine. In fact mao cha is not meant to be drunk as is, but to be stored away for future enjoyment.
In China pu-erh has the traditional reputation of being a hangover cure. “If people have been out on the town a bit, maybe eating and drinking a little too much, pu-erh is what they would drink to bring their vitals back into balance,” says Sanchez. Modern studies indicate that pu-erh may help support healthy cholesterol and body fat levels.
While people have been brewing the leaves, bark and roots of various herbs for medicine and pleasure over millenia, tisanes have enjoyed a revival in the US for the past quarter-century or so. “You can go into a restaurant almost anywhere and they’ll probably have an assortment of herbal teas, which wasn’t true 20 years ago. People are becoming aware that herbs may hold the answer to some of their health concerns: calming their nerves, strengthening their immune systems, helping to prevent chronic conditions,” says Brigitte Mars, AHG, herbalist and author of Healing Herbal Teas (Basic Health).
Popular herbal brews include comforting chamomile, soothing peppermint and spearmint, cooling hibiscus, citrusy rooibos (red bush), vitamin C-rich rose hips, sleep-inducing catnip and stomach-settling ginger. “Yerba maté is popular in our culture right now; it has caffeine and people drink it because it’s uplifting,” says Mars. “I drink nettles because it tastes good, is mineral-rich and strengthens your blood.”