For tea lovers across the globe, one of the greatest things about the drink is how much variety it offers. Teas come in many different types with important distinctions in colors, flavors, and aromas.
There are several types of true teas. To be a true tea, the leaves must be harvested from the Camellia sinensis plant. True teas can be broken into a few main types:
Herbal teas are considered infusion teas that are made of flowers, roots, and other plant matter.
If you’re a beginning tea lover, or just interested in all things tea, all the information out there can be confusing.
In this article, we will discuss the different types of tea, including both true teas and herbal infusion teas. We will also discuss the growing and processing of tea, as well as how harvesting “flushes” provides further distinction.
6 Main Types of Tea
There are all sorts of tea that can be made from the leaves of a tea plant. These teas are sometimes referred to as “true teas” since they are all made from the same leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Different processing methods ultimately morph these tea leaves into varieties, colors, and flavors. The five main categories of true tea are green, black, white, yellow, oolong, and pu’er.
Creating different types of tea comes down to specific cultivation and processing. Each type of tea can be broken down into several subtypes. According to Perfect Daily Grind, there are over 20,000 varieties of tea throughout the world. This means that while there may only be a few main types of tea, these main types actually are umbrella terms for hundreds of varieties within that type.
Green tea is one of the common types of tea available for purchase. It comes in a large variety of sub-types. Sencha is one of the most common types of green tea purchased by consumers, according to Ito En, a Japanese tea production company. Other popular types of green tea include Matcha, Gyokuro, and Tencha.
The main flavors of green tea are vegetal and earthy. This tea is typically light in color and flavor. There are five main categories of taste when it comes to green tea: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and umami. Umami is roughly synonymous with savory.
To an unfamiliar palette, many green teas may taste the same. It takes time and study in order to distinguish different earthy flavors that are provided by green tea. This variety also is typically much less processed than darker teas like black and oolong.
Black tea is one of the most popularized teas in the western markets. Like green tea, it has many sub-types that fall under the “black tea” label. The flavor of these teas is much bolder and stronger compared to green or lighter teas. Many iced teas and common tea bags sold in western supermarkets and restaurants are made of black tea.
Blended teas, such as breakfast teas and chai, are typically based on black tea. This is because it is easier to manipulate the flavor of this tea with additives such as sweeteners, milk, or cream. Many black teas have a smoky or malty flavor on their own. They can also be described as savory or sweet, but they rarely fall into the sour or salty categories that green teas can belong to.
Besides being the base for many blended teas, black teas also have many of their own sub-types. Varieties include Darjeeling, Assam, Masala, Keemun, and Ceylon. Darjeeling is a particularly distinct tea. According to Vadham Teas:
“Darjeeling Tea is the only tea in the world to get protection under the GI trademark. This insignia gives Darjeeling tea an exalted status among other teas and means that these teas correspond to the Darjeeling area only and are not grown elsewhere.”
White teas are the least processed of all the main categories of tea. This means after harvesting they go through very little preparation before being dried and packaged for consumption. This minimal processing leads to these teas having very light flavors and aromas. They are often characterized by a floral or sweet quality.
Compared to green and black teas, white tea is significantly less common. While green and black tea have highly popularized varieties such as Matcha and Darjeeling, white tea does not have any widely recognized sub-types. They are also more interestingly named. Here are some types of white tea and their translations:
- Bai Hao Yinzhen – Silver Needle
- Bai Mu Dan – White Peony
- Gong Mei – Tribute Eyebrow
- Shou Mei – Long Life Eyebrow
White teas have become a somewhat common tea to use as a base for many herbal and infusion teas. This means they have been taken and combined with other plant matter such as flowers and roots to create blended teas. Many jasmine teas in particular use white tea as a base to combine with the jasmine plant.
The practice of cultivating and making yellow teas has largely been lost throughout history. It is considered to be a somewhat difficult process and practice of this process slowly dissipated over time. According to Seven Cups, yellow tea only has three sub-types, compared to green tea which has thousands. These three types are Jun Shan Yin Zhen, Meng Ding Huang Ya, and Mo Gan Huang Ya.
Because of the lost practice of making yellow tea, finding one of the three varieties can be a rarity. In many cases, yellow tea has been grouped under the white tea umbrella, due to its similarity in taste and appearance. Yellow teas are light and floral like white teas but are also typically more medium-bodied making them a stronger tea.
Oolong teas are considered a midway point between green and black. Because all true teas are made from the same plant and leaves, there is a spectrum of processing that determines which type they are. The lightest teas are white, then yellow, then green. At the other end of the spectrum lies black and pu’er teas. Oolong teas, comparatively, sit in the middle of this spectrum and combine aspects of both the lighter and darker teas.
Some believe that oolong teas combine the best health benefits of both lighter and darker teas. According to Healthline, oolong teas may be able to improve heart health, prevent diabetes, and aid in weight loss. It has also been credited for improving tooth and bone strength.
As far as flavor, the tastes can range fairly broadly but most have either bold floral, grassy, or toasted characteristics. Simple Loose-Leaf Tea Company recommends these four types of oolongs for drinkers unfamiliar with the tea: Da Hong Pao, Ti Kwan Yin, Formosa Oolong, Alishan Oolong. It may be difficult to find oolongs in western grocery stores. Traditional-style tea rooms are a great place to seek out specific types of teas such as these.
Pu’er tea is the most highly processed and longest-aged tea of the common categories of tea. Pu’er is fermented for long periods of time, from a few months to years. This greatly condenses the flavor of the tea and makes the end result very bold and deeply earthy. Some even describe the flavor as being similar to mushrooms, roots, or herbs.
While tea rooms and tea fanatics are becoming more globally widespread, pu’er teas are still relatively uncommon in western culture. There is even a decent amount of confusion about the proper way to spell it – common iterations include pu’er and pu-erh. However, this tea is growing in popularity and is considered a delicacy by many. According to Red Blossom Tea Company:
“Well-aged pu-erhs now rank among the most valuable teas in the world, and fresh batches of high quality maocha (unfinished tea) are considered long-term investments by practiced collectors.”
Herbal and Infusion Teas: Not True Teas
Herbal teas are incredibly popular in both the western and eastern tea cultures. Like teas that come from the Camellia sinensis, the creation of herbal teas can be traced back to historically to China. It is believed herbal teas spread from China to Japan and from Japan to Europe, thus bringing them into a worldwide market.
Ingredients such as flowers, roots, bark, seeds, herbs, fruits, and various leaves are all used to create herbal teas. Most are considered infusion teas and combine multiple ingredients and may even use a true tea base. There are many popular herbal teas, but the most commonly seen are chamomile, mint, rooibos, hibiscus, and ginger teas.
It’s even possible to plant your own herbal tea garden and brew your own custom herbal tea infusions.
Chamomile is made primarily from dried chamomile flowers. However, it is highly common for chamomile to be made into a fusion tea. Ingredients that are popular to combine with chamomile include honey, lavender, vanilla, and white teas. It is also very low in caffeine content. Pure chamomile tea with no infused ingredients will contain no caffeine at all.
Chamomile is used for a variety of health purposes on top of just being a tasty drink. The tea is known for being gentle on upset stomachs and having calming properties. In fact, according to Healthline, chamomile is regarded as being capable of inducing sleep due to an antioxidant found in the flowers. The antioxidant is apigenin and can help to ease depression and anxiety on top of restlessness.
The flavor of chamomile is naturally floral due to being made from flower plants. It also has a natural sweetness and fruitiness to it that is often described as being silky. When brewed, the aroma can be just as relaxing and enjoyable as the tea itself, and the liquid becomes a lovely light yellow color.
Mint and Basil Tea
Mint and basil are two of the most common herbs to be seen used to make teas. The leaves of these herbs are very strong in flavor and aroma, making them good candidates for tea brewing. Both mint and basil leaves can be brewed on their own without any additives or additional ingredients to create flavorful herbal teas. It is also common to brew mint or basil alongside green teas.
Basil infusion teas are most often combined with lemon juice. The flavors are highly complementary, and the resulting tea can pack a nutritional punch. Basil is known for being a good stress reliever and anti-inflammatory agent, while lemon provides Vitamin C and boosts metabolism. This type of tea is great for boosting weight loss and helping to prevent acne or skin breakouts.
Mint tea has similar benefits to chamomile. It can help greatly with sleep, depression, and anxiety. Mint tea can help settle an upset stomach and it can be combined with eucalyptus to create a tea that helps with flu prevention and immune system health.
Rooibos is one of the most famous herbal teas that often is mistaken for a true tea. However, true teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant while rooibos’s origin is an herb found in South Africa. Rooibos was popularized by Dutch traders and settlers in South Africa as a less expensive alternative to black teas.
Because it is an herb, rooibos is caffeine-free, unlike true teas. The flavor of rooibos is described as being floral, smoky, sweet, and sometimes similar to caramel. It pairs great with milk and honey but is also widely appreciated for its unaltered flavor. When brewed, rooibos produces a sweet aroma and a red-colored liquid.
Due to being caffeine-free, rooibos is a highly popular alternative to traditional teas as it has a similar flavoring to black teas. It is also regarded as good for promoting skin health and digestive health. Rooibos also contains high levels of antioxidants that promote immune system function and overall disease prevention.
Hibiscus tea, like chamomile, is made from the drying and processing of flowers. Hibiscus comes from the Hibiscus sabdariffa plant, also known as the roselle flower. The flower is native to sub-tropical regions but enjoys popularity and cultivation worldwide.
Hibiscus is used to flavor many drinks. Besides tea, the flower has been infused commonly in sodas, beers, ciders, and kombucha. Its flavor is described as being tart and similar to the taste of cranberries. In tea infusions, sweeteners are often used in combination with hibiscus flowers as the plant can become overly bitter or sour due to its tartness.
According to Women’s Health, hibiscus may help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol as well as promoting digestive health. The scent of hibiscus has also been used in essential oils as it is believed to increase productivity and positivity.
Ginger tea is an example of a root being used as the main ingredient in tea. Ginger root can be traced back historically to Asian nations such as China, Japan, and India. It has been used in Asian cuisine and recipes throughout history and continues to be a staple crop. Widespread use of ginger began in Europe after the root was brought over during the Middle Ages.
Ginger is well known for being an incredibly healthy and wellness-promoting spice. Besides its culinary uses, ginger has a long track record of medicinal uses as well. Holistic and traditional Chinese medicine practices place a lot of emphasis on the usefulness of ginger. In fact, according to Healthline, ginger can effectively treat nausea, muscle pain, and inflammation from osteoarthritis. It can help with indigestion and menstrual pain as well.
Other Herbal Teas
We have covered five of the most common types of herbal teas, but in truth, there are hundreds and maybe even thousands of variations of herbal tea. Not to mention core ingredients are regularly combined to make infusion teas, such as hibiscus and ginger. Ginger especially is regularly combined with green teas and together they provide a large dose of nutritional value and antioxidants that promote the immune system and metabolism health.
However, there are still many more herbal teas with just as many health benefits to offer. Eucalyptus and Ginseng teas are growing more and more in popularity currently. Spices besides ginger such as cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg have all been used as well to create herbal teas. If you are interested in exploring the world of herbal teas, you’re in luck because there are endless possibilities.
All True Tea Comes from the Same Plant
When discussing the different types of true teas, it can be a bit confusing to find out that they all actually come from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. In truth, different methods and processes can greatly affect and alter the way a tea will taste.
Creating this vast variety of teas from one type of plant happens through a series of steps, from growing to harvesting and then processing. The processing stage is where most of the magic happens in terms of differentiating different teas, however, the growing and harvesting stages are still highly important, nonetheless.
Growing and Pruning
Cultivation of tea plants is not incredibly difficult, but there are some important factors to keep in mind. Tea plants require either tropical or subtropical climates. This allows them to be harvested most of the year, with a dormant period typically from the beginning of December to the end of January.
It is generally acceptable for tea plants to receive either full or partial sunlight. Some tea growers have noted that young tea plants thrive more in partial shade, while mature adult plants become more robust and successful in direct sunlight.
Interestingly, tea plants can get quite large. When left unattended, they can grow upwards of 12 feet in height. However, for convenience in harvesting, it is typical to keep them between a height of 3 to 5 feet. This is called pruning and it is a useful practice when growing tea. Additionally, tea plants typically only require heavy pruning every other year, or once they have exceeded five feet in height.
Harvesting and Leaf Selection
Harvesting tea plants is a highly selective process. As mentioned, tea plants are kept at shorter heights than what they can fully grow to. This is so field workers can hand-select the leaves that will be harvested and taken for processing.
When harvesting a tea plant, it is common practice to only take the top two newest layers of leaves. This is because these leaves will generally have the most robust flavor compared to the rest of the plant. Because only a couple of layers of new growth are taken, this also means that tea plants can be harvested multiple times within a year.
Processing Determines Distinction
The leaf processing stage occurs after the plants have been harvested and is arguably the most important step in creating distinct teas. Processing can be broken down into four phases: withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying. Here are brief descriptions of each of these processes:
- Withering is the first step in tea processing. It involves placing leaves on a rack to allow excess moisture to exit the leaves. Tea leaves are usually left to wither for 18 – 20 hours. This process both physically and chemically breaks down the leaves.
- Rolling is a method of breaking down complex compounds within the leaves after the withering process is complete. By breaking these down, the leaves end up with stronger flavors and aromas.
- Oxidizing exposes the leaves to air that is between 80 – 85 degrees Fahrenheit. This is what gives the leaves their color and boldness. Lighter teas are oxidized for much less time, and white teas are typically not oxidized at all.
- Drying is the final process that preserves the leaves and helps them to hold in their aromas and flavors. Drying can be done through a few methods including baking, sun-firing, and pan-firing.
Flushes: Another Way To Categorize Types of Tea
The processing stage of tea making determines the type of tea you ultimately end up with, be it white, green, black or any of the other varieties. However, there is another differentiation that is less commonly known to casual tea drinkers.
Tea fanatics may be familiar with the term “flushes” and how it applies to different tea types. Put simply, a flush is a period of time when a harvest occurs. There are four main flushes during any given year. Tea that comes from certain flushes can be more flavorful and expensive than others.
Types of Flushes
As mentioned, there are four primary flushes during the growing and harvesting period for tea. We will cover each of the time frames for the flushes. They are known as the first flush, the second flush, the monsoon flush, and the autumnal flush.
- First Flush occurs between the months of February and April. This is the first tea harvest that occurs in a year and the crops yielded are typically lighter and delicate, but packed with flavor and nutritional value.
- Second Flush occurs between May and June. This harvest is much heartier than the first flush, as the warmer weather brings larger amounts of growth. Like first flush, the tea harvested at this time is highly flavorful.
- Monsoon Flush occurs between July and October. This flush yields very large amounts of crops that are bold yet less complex in their flavor. These tea leaves are generally used to make less expensive commercial tea bags and products.
- Autumnal Flush occurs between October and November. This is the very last harvest of the year and does not produce many tea leaves. However, the crops that are produced have a bold and aged flavor that many find desirable.
Earlier Flushes are More Expensive
In general, the two earlier flushes are considered the premium harvests and become expensive teas once they are packaged and sold. First flush teas are highly sought-after by traditional tea rooms in both the western and eastern cultures. Second flush is less rare but still highly in demand by consumers.
First and second flush teas are described as being much more complex in their flavor profiles. Darjeeling, a black tea, is extremely valuable when it is from the first or second flush. These teas also typically need to be oxidized for less time as the flavors and aroma are already abundant within the leaves.
Because of the fresh nature of first and second flush teas, it is recommended that they be consumed within a year of purchasing, and sooner if possible. Proper storing of these valuable teas is also critical to maintaining their freshness. They should be stored in air-tight containers or bags in dark and dry areas.
Final Thoughts on Tea Types
For being just one plant, the Camellia sinensis can produce an enormous variety of teas. As we have learned, there are over 20,000 types of tea that can come from this singular plant. Not to mention that teas can also be distinguished according to their flush.
Additionally, herbal teas are just as well appreciated and consumed as true teas. Plus, herbal teas come in an even greater variety thanks to the endless plant matters that can be used to make them. For those new to tea, take this information and get to exploring and trying new and exciting types of tea!