The Differences between Teas
A good cup of tea is one of life’s great simple pleasures. But when you consider the variety of tea types, it’s hardly a simple thing at all. Let’s break down the different kinds of teas, how they’re made, and the effect each process has on the final cup.
What is Tea?
Fundamentally, there are two major categories: traditional tea, which is an infusion of leaves from the Camellia sinensis shrub, and herbal tea (or tisanes), which can be made from a wide variety of other herbs, botanicals, or spices.
One of the main differences been tea types is the degree to which the leaves are oxidized or fermented. More heavily oxidized teas are darker, while teas that are less oxidized tend to be lighter and greener.
One of the most consumed beverages in the world, black tea is the result of specific processes the tea leaves undergo. First, the tea leaves are wilted, a process in which they are left to partially dry and become soft and pliable. The leaves are then typically rolled or crushed to further break down the cell membranes, liberating the juices and aromatic compounds. From there, the leaves are naturally oxidized in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. The longer the oxidation, the darker the leaves become. Finally, the leaves are fully dried to stop the oxidation process. Once dried, black tea can keep for years.
These processes contribute to giving black tea its eye-openingly brisk character, with fuller body and flavor and the highest concentration of caffeine, making it an excellent breakfast companion. A few regions are best known for their black tea production, including:
- Assam, from the Indian state of the same name, is robust and malty.
- Darjeeling, also from India, is lighter-bodied, with a distinctive muscat wine note.
- Yunnan, from China, is richer, sweeter, and spicier.
Each is delicious on its own, but they can also be combined to create unique, dimensional blends like our much-loved Mighty Leaf Organic Breakfast Tea, a mix of Assam and Nilgiri black teas from India with high-grown Rwandan.
Other notable black teas include Lapsang Souchong, which gets its potent, characteristic smokiness from being dried in bamboo structures above smoking pine fires. The addition of organic bergamot oil gives Earl Grey its sophisticated aroma and citric notes. And then there’s the classic Masala Chai, which combines black tea with a blend of spices for a rich, warming brew inspired by the street vendors of India.
Green tea also starts with leaves from the Camellia sinensis shrub, however it diverges almost immediately after that, as the tea leaves are immediately steamed or pan-roasted and dried to prevent oxidation. This helps preserve their bright green color and contributes to the fresher, grassier flavor that characterizes most green teas. Various rolling and drying techniques account for much of the different appearances and aromas that result. This processing also means that green tea ultimately has about half as much caffeine as black tea does.
China has a rich history in the production of green teas, with Longjing Dragonwell as one of its most popular pan-roasted green teas, known for buttery, nutty notes. Chinese green tea is also the base for the popular Jasmine Tea, which is fragranced by jasmine flowers that release their delicate aroma to perfume the finished tea.
Green tea is by far the most popular tea in Japan, and accounts for nearly all commercial tea production in the country. The most common variety, Sencha, has characteristic aromas of freshly cut grass and sea air. It is also popularly combined with roasted rice to make Genmai Cha, which has an almost popcorn-like aroma.
In Japan, very fine grade green tea leaves are dried and finely ground to a powder, then stirred in hot water with a bamboo whisk until frothy. The resulting drink, Matcha, is traditionally offered as a way to show hospitality to guests and is often accompanied by a ritualistic ceremony.
Matcha has a creamy mouthfeel, and the airy texture generated by its preparation brings out the tea’s signature vegetal and marine flavors. While long used in everything from noodles to confections in Japan, Matcha has become popular globally in recent years, infused in everything from latte’s to smoothies to salad dressings. As a powdered tea, it is considered one of the most caffeinated options since you consume the entire leaf when drinking or eating it.
We like to elevate its natural creaminess with frothed milk in our delicious Matcha Latte.
Oolong teas lie on the spectrum between green and black in terms of color, flavor, and caffeine content. They are wilted and oxidized like black tea, but not fully. Depending on when the oxidation is halted with roasting, Oolong may retain more fresh, vegetal flavors, or become sweet and honeyed, or deep and roasted. Mighty Leaf’s Ti Kuan Yin is roasted at a perfect inflection point, presenting delicate fruit flavor and a heady, floral aroma, with hints of orchid, herbs, nuts, melon, and basil.
Pu’er is a specialized ‘dark’ tea from the Yunnan province in China. After drying, tea leaves are kept in a warm, humid environment that encourages bacterial fermentation, deepening the color and flavor of the tea. The tea is then packed into cakes called tuo cha, or “bowl tea.” This tea can be aged and enjoyed for many years; in fact, the taste often improves with age.
Pu’er can be prepared gongfu style, using a small teapot and preparing multiple infusions from the same leaves. It is best enjoyed if it’s rinsed with boiling water prior to steeping. Sometimes called the coffee-lover’s tea, Pu’er has rich notes of leather, chocolate, and espresso, and has more or less the equivalent amount of caffeine as black tea. Pu’er leaves can be infused multiple times without losing flavor or strength.
Like green tea, white tea does not undergo oxidation. However, the leaves and buds are allowed to wilt prior to drying without any of the rolling process. The result is a lighter, more delicate tea with sweet, fruity aromas, and about the same caffeine as green tea. The name “White Tea” refers to the fine white hairs that remain intact on the tea leaves due to the freshness and minimal processing this form of tea undergoes.
What is Herbal Tea?
Simply put, herbal teas, or tisanes, are infusions of anything other than Camellia sinensis tea leaves. Nearly all herbal teas are naturally caffeine-free. Some common items in herbal teas include:
- Fruits, such as juicy elderberry, zesty citrus, and tart goji berries.
- Herbs, most famously mint, but also refreshing lemongrass, or earthy thyme and basil.
- Flowers (or Botanicals) like soothing chamomile, tart hibiscus, and mellow chrysanthemum.
- Spices, like warming cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric, or bold licorice root.
Each item can be infused individually, but blending frequently brings out the best of them, like as in our calming Chamomile Citrus, detoxifying Ginger Twist, and refreshing Wild Berry Hibiscus, which combine multiple herbal tea components harmoniously.
A brushy plant with needle-like leaves from South Africa, Rooibos means “red bush” in Afrikaans, and is commonly known as “red bush” throughout the United Kingdom. Though it is an herbal tea, the leaves from Rooibos plants are processed much like actual tea, undergoing an oxidation process that deepens the color and flavor of the leaves. The end result is an infusion that’s not dissimilar to black tea, if somewhat earthier with honeyed notes—and no caffeine. We like to highlight it alongside tropical fruit and blossoms in our bestselling Organic African Nectar blend.
Native to and popular in South America, yerba mate (pronounced yerb-ah mah-tay) is an infusion of the leaves of a member of the holly family. While not related to Camellia sinensis, the leaves and therefore the infusion do have caffeine (and a fairly high amount of it), setting it apart from other herbal teas. Yerba mate has a grassy flavor and is traditionally enjoyed sipped through a metal straw in a hollowed-out gourd.