Tea can be a very confusing subject for those who are new to it. There is a lot of specialized terminology that one can have a hard time grasping as a beginner and it can make one’s initial foray into the world of Tea troubling, confusing, and oh so frustrating. The purpose of this new 101 series is to hopefully break it down into more digestible bits to help the newbies just getting their feet wet.
The first thing you should know is that- White, Black, Pu-Erh, or Oolong [sic]- all correct Teas come from the same plant: Camellia Sinensis, a shrub that is native to the Southern, South Eastern, and Eastern areas of the Asian continent. While there are 4 recognized varieties of C. Sinensis which are used to produce Tea, the varieties do not impact the classification or “color” of the Tea. Instead, the variant of C. Sinensis used to produce Tea only impacts the inherent and basic quality and flavor of the Tea- not much else.
The general way that Teas are classified is actually according to the way in which the leaves of the plant are processed during and after picking. Most of that process includes a combination of heating the Tea leaves, and rolling or “cracking” them in order to oxidize them. Depending on the type of Tea, the leaves will be subjected to various levels of heat, or rolled for Oxidation at different times, and for different lengths of time- which also greatly impacts the final flavor of the Tea.
White Teas are the least processed of all Tea types. To create White Teas, the leaves are hand picked as buds and baby leaves in the early days of Spring, and then primarily sun dried before sometimes being baked at low temperatures to complete the drying process and prevent further oxidation of the leaves. Oxidation of the leaves still occurs, but it is minimal with this Tea type.
In Loose Leaf form, these Teas are often a light green in color with a fine covering of silver down over the leaf. They are best brewed at low temperatures because of the lighter nature of the Tea, and taken with minimal additives, if any. The resulting brew is usually a very pale, light yellow-green color, with a mellow scent. Compared to Green Tea, however, they may often have a bit of a stronger and heavier bodied flavor, but are often less acidic and easier on the stomach.
Despite Green Teas being lauded in Health communities as a healtfhul brew, it is actually White Tea that contains the most benefits for the Health conscious. Because of the minimal processing, White Tea contains the highest levels of Antioxidants, Catechins, and Theanine- the three primary components which make Tea healthy- while being the lowest in Caffeine content; caffeine wise, most White Teas contain an average of 30 mg to 55 mg per 8 oz serving- though some blends can average as low as 10 mg, and as high as 60 mg.
Green Teas- like White Teas- are minimally processed. Most varieties are made by picking the leaves when they are already partially withered, then heating them at high temperatures almost immediately afterwards in order to prevent the oxidation process. After that, the leaves are then rolled and shaped to partially oxidize the leaf before being reheated a second time. Sometimes leaves for Green Teas are picked a bit earlier, then steamed to wither them during processing.
Green Tea accounts for an estimated 70% of the Tea produced worldwide. The particular method of producing Green Teas varies greatly by country, with Japan having different methods than China, and so on, as each country producing specialties unique to their regions. Because of this Green Teas can vary drastically in flavor, scent, and color from one type to the next; some are very floral and sweet, others are Earthy and Nutty, while more (especially, in my experience, some Traditional Chinese Blends) are grassy in both scent and taste. For those who like variety, Green Teas certainly offer it.
Most Green Teas- despite inherent characteristics- tend to be on the delicate side, with a light green and sometimes yellow color; initially they are often more bitter with the taste deepening and becoming sweeter as it builds. They are best brewed at medium-low temperatures for 3-5 minutes due to their more delicate nature. Despite this, however, they more acidic than White Teas and some can be more upsetting to gentle stomachs.
Like white Teas, though, they are still very rich in the primary components that make Tea Healthy. Caffeine wise, the average cup of Green Tea contains 35 mg to 70 mg of Caffeine, with some averaging as low as 20 mg and others as high as 80 mg.
Unlike White and Green Teas, which are often heated first to prevent oxidation, Black Tea’s process is almost flip flopped. The Leaves are first picked, and then rolled to encourage oxidation before being laid out and then later applied to heat to stop the oxidation process.
These Teas often need a bit more “coaxing” to brew, and do better when brewed at higher temperatures for periods up to 5 minutes. Unlike Green and White Teas which are delicate, the flavor of most Black Teas is Earthy, slightly Fermented, and sometimes Nutty, with a full body and rich, strong scent and flavor. Because of this, Black Teas do better with additives like Milk, Sugar, and Honey, where Green and White Teas would become muddy and lose their lighter flavors.
Because of the high levels of Oxidation Black Tea undergoes in its process, it contains lower amounts of the primary components that make Tea Healthy. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its benefits. Where studies have shown that Green and White Teas may be perfect candidates for helping combat Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer, studies have also shown that Black and other highly oxidized Teas may help i reducing the chance of Stroke and healing the Lungs after Smoke Inhalation and Damage. Caffeine wise, Black Teas also contain the most compared to other types- averaging in at about 60 mg to 90 mg of Caffeine, with some averaging as low as 40 mg, and others as high as a cup of Coffee (low average of 100 mg).
For the most part, the less oxidation that occurs during the Tea’s processing, the lighter the taste and smell of the final product. Heavily oxidized Teas like Black Tea will usually produce a dark, rich, reddish-brown infusion with Earthier qualities, while less oxidized Teas like White and Green tend to be on the lighter yellow-green side with grassier tones and flavors. Depending on your taste preferences, you will want to pick a Tea from one of these groups- however there can still be a large variety within each group, and from region to region.
Whatever you choose, I hope that this will make it easier to get your bearings. Happy Brewing!