There are over 3,000 varieties of tea grown worldwide, and all of them come from the same type of plant, a small shrub called Camellia sinensis. Each type of tea has certain flavor characteristics associated not only with the variety but also with the soil and climate in which it is grown, much like wine grapes. But beyond the subtle flavor differences from tea to tea, there are three main categories of tea—black, oolong, and green—that are a function of how the tea leaves are processed.
The freshly picked tea leaves (usually the tender leaves from the top of the plant) are dried slightly, then crushed to bring out the essential oils, and finally “fermented.” Though this final stage is called fermentation, it is not the result of an introduced organism, but rather is oxidation caused by a natural enzyme in the tea leaves themselves. This “fermentation” brings out the tannins and oils, which contain caffeine, and changes the color of the tea leaves to brown.
In addition to the broad categories based on fermentation, teas are also identified by a leaf-grading system. For black teas, the grades are: souchong, orange pekoe, and pekoe. For green teas, the leaf grades are: gunpowder and young hyson. There are several other identifiers for types of tea, including classic blends (such as Earl Grey) and districts (such as Darjeeling).
Black teas are fully fermented, and because of this, they are also the highest in caffeine. They are also the most popular type of tea in the United States.
- Assam: This is a robust, large-leafed tea from India.
- Ceylon: This Sri Lankan black tea has a floral aroma.
- Darjeeling: From the Darjeeling region of India, this is a favorite of tea connoisseurs, and is probably the world’s most expensive tea. Because it is so costly, many “Darjeelings” are actually blends (though the packaging should say if the tea is 100 percent Darjeeling). Darjeeling also comes as an oolong.
- Keemun: One of the best Chinese black teas, it has a rich bouquet and good flavor.
- Lapsang souchong: This distinctive Chinese black tea has a smoky flavor.
- Ti kuan yin: A sought-after tea, this is available as both a black tea and an oolong. Its name translates as “iron goddess of mercy.”
- Yunnan: From southwest China, this is similar to Ceylon.
Oolong (red) teas
This is the type of tea found in most Chinese restaurants in this country. Like black tea, it is fermented, but for shorter periods of time. Within this category, there are some that are more fermented than others.
- Black dragon: The word “oolong” translates into English as black dragon.
- Cantonese oolongs: These oolong teas from Canton are very lightly fermented.
- Formosa oolongs: These teas are fermented for almost as long as black teas and are the most caffeinated of the oolongs.
- Jade oolong: This lightly fermented tea has overtones of green tea and a delicate flavor.
- Jasmine: This is an oolong that has had night-blooming jasmine blossoms added to it for a floral scent. It is most often made with pouchong oolong.
- Pouchong: This medium oolong is rarely exported to the United States, except in a form scented with jasmine, gardenia, or lychee.
Green teas are completely unfermented. The fresh leaves are air-dried and then roasted or steam-dried. This heating process halts the natural enzymatic action that is involved in fermentation. Green teas have almost no caffeine. There are dozens of green teas from China, Korea, and Japan, where green tea is the tea of choice. There are also teas from areas that do not by tradition produce green teas. For example, Sri Lanka and India are now making unfermented versions of their classics, such as Darjeeling green. One of the most famous green teas is Gunpowder from China, named because the loose tealeaves are rolled into gunpowder-colored pellets.
Some of the better-known teas (at least to Westerners) are tea blends, many of them created by British tea companies in honor of members of the royal family, or as private blends for wealthy customers. Though there are hundreds of such blends, a handful have gained worldwide popularity.
- Earl Grey No strict formula defines this—it’s usually a blend of Darjeeling, Ceylon, and Chinese black teas—but it is always flavored with the oil of bergamot (a sour, inedible orange cultivated for its aromatic oils).
- English Breakfast: This is not so much a specific blend as a category of blend, which suggests a mixture of several strong Chinese black teas.
- Irish Breakfast: This is a mix of strong black teas.
- Lady Londonderry: This tea was created by a famous tea company in London for one of its customers. It is a blend of black teas from India, Sri Lanka, and Formosa.
- Prince of Wales: This is a proprietary blend created by the Twinings tea company and is a blend of black teas from south China.
How to choose the best tea
Tea lovers would probably unite in recommending loose tea over tea bags, which are most often made from a grade of tea leaf called fannings or dust—fragments of tea leaf broken off from the larger leaves. These leaf fragments are used in tea bags because they have a greater surface area and brew really quickly. This same increased exposure to air is what makes teabag tea less fragrant than loose tea. In addition, teabag teas are often middle-of-the-road teas with no special character.
How to store tea
Because air and light can diminish the flavor of tea, it should be stored in opaque, airtight containers.
How to prepare tea
Soak tealeaves in boiling water. Use a teabag for simplicity, but loose leaves for better quality. If using loose leaves, first soak the leaves and then strain them out before drinking, or try using a tea ball. Be sure to follow directions on steep time so as to avoid bitterness.
Some people add sweeteners to tea, but be conscious of how much you choose to add. Avoid purchasing sweetened teas in supermarkets, as these tend to be full of sugar and end up overwhelming the flavor of the tea itself.
It’s fine to use milk in tea, if you like it. You may have heard that milk “binds” some of the beneficial polyphenols in tea, but this has not been proven to be the case.
Also see Tea Benefits: A Research Wrap-up.