Tea is one of the most-consumed beverages in the world, coming in just under water. It is an intrinsic part of the cuisine and culture of multiple countries around the world, which define themselves by a love of tea rather than coffee. Even in countries where coffee is more common, tea drinking is becoming increasingly popular due to its multiple health benefits.
Technically, tea is a beverage made from infusing (or mixing) leaves of the Camellia Sinensis, a bushy plant. Whilst other similar hot beverages exist that use other plants (such as chamomile and mint), they are known as herbal infusions. What are the most common types of tea, and what sets them apart from each other?
Black tea is one of the most popular types of tea around the world, particularly in the West. There are many varieties, each with their own distinctive flavor, aroma, and appearance. It can be consumed on its own, with milk and sugar, or with a squeeze of lemon.
Black tea’s distinctive color and strength comes from the process of oxidation, which happens when the tea leaves are pressed to release oils that combine with the oxygen in the air. This leads to a fuller, stronger flavor and darker colors. When the desired level of oxidation is reached, the leaves are dried and prepared for brewing.
Assam tea is one of the most popular varieties of black tea. It is grown in the Assam region of India, the largest tea growing region in the world. It is used in many breakfast blends (such as English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast), but is also commonly consumed on its own. It has a strong, malty flavor and a reddish color, with a high caffeine content.
English Breakfast is the most popular type of tea in the UK, a country in which 84% of people drink tea or infusions every day. However, it is not actually a type of tea in itself: an English Breakfast teabag usually contains a blend of Assam, Ceylon, and Kenyan tea.
It is usually mixed with milk and sugar and was allegedly created by a Scotsman in order to be strong enough to “cut through” a typically heavy British breakfast. Queen Victoria developed a taste for it while in Scotland and brought it back to England with her, where it was then named “English Breakfast Tea.”
Darjeeling tea is one of the most prestigious teas available, grown in the mountainous Darjeeling region of Northern India. It famously comes in “flushes”, which represent different tea growing seasons and give a distinct flavor to each batch.
First Flush tea is light and floral; Second Flush tea is strong, dark, and fruity; and Third Flush is full-bodied, coppery in color, and light in flavor. Whilst First Flush Tea is more expensive due to its rarity, Second Flush is renowned for its unique muscatel flavor, not replicated in any other tea worldwide.
Flavored Black Teas
Black tea is often flavored with other elements to make distinct varieties. Two of the most popular are Earl Grey, which is flavored with bergamot and as such has a distinct citrusy taste, and Masala Chai, which is blended with spices. Masala Chai is incredibly popular in India, where it is mixed with lots of milk and sugar and drank regularly throughout the day.
Whilst black tea is more popular in Western countries, green tea is preferred in countries like China and Japan, where it is a common part of cuisine and daily life. Green tea is unoxidized, giving it a lighter taste and aroma than black tea. However, each variety is unique, and flavors range from grassy, vegetable notes to florals and citrus.
It has recently gained popularity in the West due to its multiple health benefits. The comparative lack of processing means that green tea has a higher level of antioxidants and polyphenols, which can help fight various cancers. Studies have shown that green tea can help combat heart disease, diabetes, and weight loss.
Sencha is the most common tea in Japan, where it represents over 80% of all tea consumed. Sencha leaves are steamed to prevent oxidation, and then dried and rolled for optimal infusion. The steaming process is the main difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea, with the latter being pan-fired. As a result, Sencha has grassy or seaweed-like notes, and a golden green color.
While Sencha is the most popular type of tea in Japan, Lung Chin (or Longjing) Tea is one of the most famous teas in China. Usually pan-fried, the leaves produce a tea that is sweet and delicate on the palate and light yellowish in color. Its name translates as “Dragon’s Well,” and it has a long history of prestige: it was given the status of “imperial tea” during the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century.
Longjing tea is grown in villages surrounding the West Lake in Hangzhou, in the Zhejiang province of China. Whilst imitations exist, an authentic Longjing tea must come from this area and has a distinctive flavor that fakes cannot imitate.
Matcha has become a bit of a health trend lately. However, it has held a privileged place in Japanese culture for centuries. It is the tea used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, a cornerstone of Japanese culture where the tea is brewed and served according to very specific ceremonial instructions.
Matcha tea is powdered and not infused, meaning the leaves themselves are consumed. This means that Matcha contains a much higher concentration of the antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that make green tea healthy. The compounds in the tea also make it a great source of energy without the crash of caffeine: many aficionados report that a cup of matcha makes them alert for the whole day.
Oolong Tea has a depth of flavor that makes it popular with tea connoisseurs. Whilst black tea is fully-oxidized and green tea is not oxidized at all, Oolong tea is partially oxidized. This is done by rolling the leaves to extract the oils and pan-frying them repeatedly until the desired flavor is achieved.
Different Oolong teas have distinct flavors, although fruity and sweet flavors such as vanilla and lychee are common, as are floral and woody aromas.
White tea is similar to green tea, but it is even less processed. The leaves are taken from the buds of tea plants and slowly dried: that is it. This means it is distinctly light, with little caffeine and subtle flavors.
Because of its simple process, varieties of white tea are less distinct than in other types of tea. Whilst some differences in quality exist, the tea’s simple and mellow flavor make it harder for any particular type to stand out.