Choose Your Tea

A varied tea list is cause for celebration, not consternation! With a bit of tea intel in your back pocket, you can happily navigate a tea menu to your satisfaction. Allow Destination Tea to formerly acquaint you with your choices…

Did You Know All Tea Comes from One Plant?

After water, tea is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world. All the world’s black, pu-erh, oolong, green, yellow and white tea – more than 3,000 varieties – comes from just one plant:  the camellia sinensis, an evergreen bush with dark green, leathery leaves. Known as “ch’a” or “t’e” in the East, teas are classified based on their processing, and sometimes named for the region where they were first harvested.

Meet one of tea’s cousins! This beautiful home garden plant is of the genus Camellia, just not the one we brew to drink.

“It takes about five years for tea bushes to develop, but after that they can be harvested for fifty to sixty years. The flavor of the harvested tea varies from day to day, depending on the weather, soil and climate. that’s why blends are important, as they ensure some form of consistency. There are several thousand varieties of tea, and they vary around the world even from valley to valley. If a tea bush is on a sunny slope, its leaves will taste different from the leaves of one that is on a shady slope.

Just the very tip and top leaves of each branch go into making the perfect cup, and the best-quality teas are still harvested by hand across the globe in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, parts of Africa, and parts of South America. If tea is picked mechanically, the coarser leaves and stems are often picked along with the tender leaves. These coarser leaves are manufactured — cut, torn, and crushed — to create powder that will brew quickly and be used to make tea bags or instant tea.” Theresa Cheung, Tea Bliss. (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2007).

Varieties

Our thanks to Adagio’s TeaClass for the education!

Tisanes (tea-zahn) – Herbal Infusions

Excluding the tea plant (camellia sinensis), tisanes are any other herbal infusions created by steeping a plant part in hot or boiling water. Often naturally caffeine-free, these use any combination of a plant’s flowers, fruits, roots or leaves. Some common examples you may encounter include chamomile, mint, tulsi (holy basil), rose hips, hibiscus, ginger and the following:

Rooibos (ROY-boss): Naturally caffeine-free shrub native to South Africa, also known as “red tea” “redbush tea” or “bush tea”

Yaupon (YO-pon): Naturally caffeinated evergreen holly bush native to North America, with malty, tart, earthy or smoky flavor depending on its processing

Yerba Mate (yur-buh mah-tay): Naturally caffeinated rainforest holly tree native to South America, with herbaceous, grassy, bittersweet flavor

Guayusa (gwhy-you-suh): Naturally caffeinated rainforest holly tree native to Ecuador, with earthy, smooth, slightly sweet flavor

Teas – Camellia Sinensis Varieties

All teas are first “withered” by allowing plucked leaves to soften and wilt for several hours, while gently fluffing and rotating them. What happens next is what determines the tea’s variety and flavor:

White: Named for the silvery-white hairs on the unopened young leaves of the tea plant (called “buds”), this newest growth is air-dried, oven-dried or sunlight-dried, producing a pale green or yellow tea with delicate flavor and aroma

Green: Leaves are finger-rolled to prevent browning during steaming or pan-firing (tossing leaves in a hot, dry wok), producing a green or yellow tea with a toasty, grassy or mild vegetable-like astringency

Yellow: Rare variety of tea produced only in China, processed like green tea by rolling while either being steamed or pan-fired, but under damp cloth to slow the drying phase and allow slight oxidation (when oxygen interacts with leaves), producing a more mellow taste than green tea

Oolong (oo-long): The most time-consuming to create, processed over many hours or days by repeated pattern of rolling leaves to slightly bruise them and then letting them rest to oxidize (let oxygen interact with leaves); producing more complex flavor with smooth, soft astringency, rich in floral or fruity flavors

Pu-erh (pu-ERR or pu-ARR): Produced only in China, finger-rolled over heat to dry, then pressed into cakes or stored underground for several years to ferment; very old, well-stored pu’erhs are considered “living teas,” like wine; prized for earthy, woodsy or musty aroma and rich, smooth taste

Black: The favorite of Americans; made within a day by rolling or crushing leaves and allowing them to fully oxidize before drying them, producing a hearty brew from deep red to dark brown color

Small canisters of tea samples help you pick your tea by smell

Navigating A Tea List

Familiarize yourself with these names to find your way to your favorites!

Assam: Black tea from a province in northern India through which the Brahmaputra River runs; rich, strong taste, ideal as a morning tea

Cambric Tea: Tea steeped in milk (typical preparation for children)

Chai (rhymes with “pie”) or Masala Chai: Commonly drunk in India, a blend of black tea, milk, sweetener and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, fennel seeds, nutmeg, cloves and pepper; produces a warming, soothing effect and acts as a natural digestive aid; the correct name of this drink is “Masala Chai” as “chai” simply means “tea”

Ceylon: Teas grown in Sri Lanka

Darjeeling: Very high quality black tea from the foothills of the Himalayas; light, fragrant tea known as “the champagne of teas”

Earl Grey: Named for a 19th-century Englishman whose household enjoyed black tea blended with oil from the rind of the bergamot orange; strong and fragrant

English Breakfast:  Traditionally a blend of Keemums (a fine grade of black tea from China), today the blend has evolved to include Ceylon and India teas; full-bodied brew

Gunpowder: Green tea rolled into gray-colored balls (thus the name); dry, astringent taste, use sparingly to avoid bitter taste

Keemum: Black tea from Anhwei Province in China; smooth, slightly sweet taste

Lapsang Souchong:  Black tea from China; smoky aroma, use a light hand if brewing at home

Matcha:  Powdered green tea used in Japanese tea ceremony; whisked to produce a frothy, astringent, vitamin C-rich drink

Nilgiri: Black tea from southern tip of India; lighter than Assam tea, bright, clean taste

Orange Pekoe (pee-koh): A misleading name that does not signal orange flavor, actually a tea grading term, which signals the highest grade of whole leaf black tea; therefore, many black teas could be labeled Orange Pekoe; “Orange” label may have been bestowed by the Dutch East India Company to help them market black teas in the 1600s when the largest royal Dutch house was the House of Orange-Nassau

Rose Hips: Herbal tea made from the cranberry-size red fruits that develop after roses fade, rich in Vitamin C

Russian Caravan Tea: A blend of black and oolong teas; gets its name from the long caravan that once carried tea from China to Russian nobility

Sencha:  Green tea from Japan; considered the purest of green teas because the leaves are rolled and steamed dry immediately after picking

Silver Needle or White Tip: Green tea made of the silvery tips of branches picked for a few days at the start of the harvest season; leaves are steamed dry, rather than fermented or rolled; mild, smooth, delicate taste

Yunnan: Green tea from Yunnan province in China; after initial fermentation, drying and rolling, undergoes a microbial fermentation process; not as strong as black tea, sweet aftertaste, improves with age

Factoids:

  • Traditionally hand-plucked teas are called “orthodox” teas, which generally contain only the top two tender leaves and an unopened leaf bud from each branch.
  • Unorthodox teas are harvested by large machines that “mow” bush tops, shredding leaves into fine pieces and rolling them into little balls. This crush-tear-curl (CTC) process is used to create commercial black teas sold in tea bags or used in Masala Chai blends because it produces a bold, pungent, powerful tea.
  • Dry tea has more caffeine by weight than coffee; however, more dried coffee is used than dry tea in preparing the beverage, which means that a cup of brewed tea contains significantly less caffeine than a cup of coffee of the same size.
  • All tea types are high in vitamins A, B, C, and E; minerals such as fluoride, iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc, and potassium; and antioxidants.
  • Guilt-free drinking: Tea has no carbohydrates, fat, or protein.

Becoming a tea connoisseur? Check out the Tea Association of the U.S.A.’s succinct glossary of tea terms, including tea-tasting lingo.