The Ultimate Guide to Tea Basics
Tea party. Afternoon tea. High tea. Tea ceremony. Breakfast tea.
We enjoy tea in a variety ways and in many forms. However, many of us may not know the exact definition of this long-beloved drink, the different types or how it’s produced. That’s why we’ve put together this tea guide – to provide the facts and history of tea you’ll want to know.
What is tea?
Tea, the #1 beverage drunk around the world – with the exception of water, is anything derived from the Camellia Sinensis plant. That’s right – every type of true tea, such as green, black, white and oolong, comes from the very same plant. (This does not include herbal “teas”, which non-caffeinated drinks made with herbs and spices, and are properly referred to as tisane.)
The primary components of brewed tea, made from the Camellia Sinensis plant, include:
- Essential oils – They provide delightful flavors and aromas. From spicy chai to soothing camomile.
- Polyphenols – These are natural plant compounds that determine the flavor, aroma and “mouthfeel” of a tea. Examples of polyphenols include tannins, flavonoids and catechins – some of the elements that are determined to offer the primary health benefits.
- Caffeine – This is the natural element of tea that gives you an energy boost. (There are also options for decaffeinated teas, which have been stripped of their caffeine, ideal for those sensitive to caffeine or when you’re winding down for the day.)
Is tea healthy?
All types of tea, from green to black, offer great health benefits. The loose leaf tea offers more, as it has been less processed and can offer the drinker the maximum amount of antioxidants and other perks. Bagged tea still has health benefits, but has a distinctly decreased level compared to whole, loose leaf tea.
Teas made with Camellia Sinensis tea, as all true teas are, have:
- A high amount of antioxidants, such as flavonoids, which are thought to help fight cancer, free radicals and even improve muscle endurance.
- L-theanine, an amino acid that fosters a feeling of “quiet alertness” in your brain. It is calming, yet also helps you focus. Fun fact: Tea is the only way to get this amino acid in your diet naturally.
- The ability to slightly increase your metabolism, up your body’s fat oxidation rates and moderate your body’s blood sugar levels. These factors can aid in weight control.
What is the history of tea?
Throughout the world, tea is not simply a healthy drink though. It’s a cultural tradition and ritual for many around the globe. It is thought to have originated in China as a medical drink some time between 1500 and 1046 BC, but has become a staple in many other countries since then. From China it was brought to Japan, which developed elegant Japanese tea ceremonies that are still practiced today. The same happened in Korea, a country that also took to tea and developed their own Korean tea ceremonies.
Around the 16th century, it was introduced to Portuguese priests. From there, it made its way to Britain. The UK developed a passion for tea and the beauty that is tea time, leading to its massive levels of tea production. Then, they introduced it to India – where it became a staple, as well.
Throughout this global expansion of the now prevalent drink, it has become an important element in many countries – such as Iran, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Australia, Africa, South America and – now, of course – North America.
So, remember that each time you take a sip of tea, whether it be Oolong, Chai or Peppermint, you are taking part in a rich history that takes place across many continents.
What is the major difference between each classification of tea?
As mentioned earlier, no matter what tea you are drinking, in whatever country you may be in, it all originally comes from the Camellia Sinensis. Whether you are in China enjoying some wonderful oolong tea or in Africa savoring black tea before a safari, you’re enjoying delightful Camellia Sinensis tea.
What creates the different types of tea is the way they are processed. A lot of this has to do with their oxidization process. (Which leads us to the question below.)
What does the tea term “oxidization” mean?
Oxidization may sound very scientific, but it is quite simple. It is the process that helps determine what type of tea you are sipping. For example, we visited Kenya and got to pick tea leaves from a tea farm. If we’d have kept one of those leaves in our pocket, we’d have noticed a lot of physical changes happening to the leaf throughout the day.
- It would not be as green as it once was.
- It would also start to lose its “body”.
- You see, if tea is not processed or dried shortly after being picked it starts to break down completely. You know the leaf is breaking down when the leaf starts to turn dark; it means the tannins are released and chlorophyll is starting to exit.
This breaking down of the leaf is the oxidization process, which is the means to getting the acquired taste and aroma for your desired tea.
From here, the different classifications of tea come from how the leaf is processed.
- Black tea, in general, is fully oxidized and can be stronger than some of the other different teas.
- Oolong tea can vary in oxidation levels, but typically 30% to 70% oxidization is used to amplify the taste.
- Green and white teas are oxidized the least.
Outside of the processing, tea plants are impacted by the same uncontrollable forces that affect all other plants, such as climate, soil, weather, and altitude. These elements are important to know as you develop your tea palate and as you dive into the tea here at Epiphany!
What are the primary methods for producing tea?
Tea is produced using a few different methods.
- Most tea is produced either by the Crushing, Tearing, Curling (CTC) method. This process is ideal for getting larger quantities of tea around the world. Kenya is most known for using the CTC method of tea production.
- The other method of producing tea is the Orthodox method, which includes hand-picked tea from workers on a tea farm. Under the orthodox method, the tea leaf utilized is the full leaf that has been carefully selected for use. As you might have guessed, most tea drinkers prefer tea that has been prepared under the orthodox method. That is because the tea leaf is not submitted to the vigorous process of being broken down – unlike the tea prepared under the CTC method.
What is the difference between traditional tea and rooibos?
Where standard tea is taken from the Camellia Sinensis plant, Rooibos is derived from the Aspalathus Linearis plant, which is considered an herbal tea or tisane. Both of these options undergo similar oxidation and processing. However, there are some differences:
- Rooibos is naturally non-caffeinated. This means it’s great for those who are affected by caffeine easily, have insomnia or are gearing up for bed. If you desire more energy, tea is the way to go. (Black tea has the most caffeine.)
- Flavor-wise, rooibos tends to be a sweeter, nuttier flavor compared to standard tea. So, if you have friends that don’t enjoy the natural flavor of tea as much (and don’t wish to add too much sugar!) rooibos is an excellent option.