If you’ve ever been to a tea shop, you know how overwhelming the tea selection can be, with more tea types than any one person could hope to try in one lifetime. Since people have been processing, drinking, and perfecting tea for thousands of years, it makes sense that there are so many varieties. But have you ever stopped to wonder what plant tea comes from?
True teas (black, green, oolong, pu-erh, and white) come from the camellia sinensis plant, a shrub native to Asia. Herbal teas can come from just about any plant with edible leaves or flowers.
Let’s take a closer look at the plants responsible for all those soothing cups of tea you’ve had over the years and learn a little about them.
Camellia Sinensis: The Tea Plant
Not many people realize it, but all true teas come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. This hardy shrub is native to the tropics and subtropical regions of East Asia and requires rich soil and plenty of moisture to grow. It yields richer tea flavors when grown at higher altitudes and is often cultivated in mountains and foothills where there is a fair amount of mist.
Historically, the tea plant was cultivated mainly in China and India, but nowadays, it can be found growing worldwide, as long as conditions are right for it.
There are two varieties of the tea plant used for tea cultivation:
- Sinensis: native to China and produces a sweeter, more delicate flavor profile
- Assamica: grown in Northern India and tends to yield richer, bolder flavors
The tea plants can produce teas with vastly different qualities, depending on several factors (which we’ll get into a little later). But amazingly, all true teas come from this one plant, even though the final products don’t resemble each other in the slightest.
What Are True Teas?
“True teas” are all the teas made from the camellia sinensis plant, most of which Westerners are familiar with. They include five main types, each with a completely different look, flavor profile, and even chemical makeup.
Black teas boast the boldest flavors and highest caffeine content of all the true teas. These teas are probably the most common in the West, especially in areas like the UK. Common black tea varieties include:
- English Breakfast
If you’re a coffee drinker looking to get into tea, black tea is an excellent place to start since the rich, astringent flavor profiles and caffeine will be the most similar to the coffee you’re used to.
Green teas have been popular in Asia for centuries but have only caught on in the West in recent decades. Green tea’s taste is more mellow than black tea, but the earthier flavor of some green teas is off-putting to some who aren’t used to it.
Green teas have less caffeine than black teas and have high catechins, which are potent antioxidants with numerous health benefits.
Green tea’s purported health benefits are one of the driving factors that have made it as popular as it is in the West today. The lower caffeine content makes it ideal for people looking to cut back on caffeine but not ready to quit entirely.
Oolong teas cover a broad spectrum between green and black teas, and each one will be a little different. Some oolongs have more black tea-like characteristics, some are closer to green teas in nature, and some are smack-dab in the middle.
Fortunately, that means there’s a wide variety to choose from, but the bad news is that you may have to try several before you find the perfect one for you.
White teas are the most delicate of the true teas. They contain very little caffeine, a ton of antioxidants, and offer a light, fresh flavor profile. White teas are often infused with other flavors, such as jasmine.
What is pu-erh tea? Pu-erh teas are black tea that is fermented after the initial processing. The tea continues to ferment and oxidize over time, so its flavor constantly changes even while sitting on your shelf. The taste can range from mellow and sweet to bitter and earthy, depending on the batch and its age.
Pu-erh is said to have several health benefits, including lowering cholesterol.
What Differentiates True Tea Varieties?
So if all true teas come from the same plant, why are they all so different? It all comes down to the way that they’re processed. And believe it or not, they’re all processed in almost the same exact way, except one step.
All true tea processing follows these basic steps:
- Harvesting: plucking the tea leaves from the shrub
- Withering: leaving the leaves in the sun or a warm room to remove moisture
- Oxidation: this is the crucial step that changes depending on tea type (described in detail below)
- Fixation: halts the oxidation process
- Shaping and Drying: getting the tea ready for market
You know how apples and avocados turn brown after a while once they’ve been cut? Well, that’s oxidation—oxygen entering the plant’s broken walls.
As soon as tea leaves are plucked, they begin to oxidize, which changes the tea’s flavors, colors, and chemical makeup. The more oxidation takes place, the darker and bolder the tea becomes, where tea with little to no oxidation tastes more like the green leaf it is.
So, believe it or not, the only thing that changes the four main true teas from one type to another, despite being from the same plant, is the amount of oxidation they’ve been exposed to.
- Black Tea: most oxidized
- Green Tea: much less oxidation
- Oolong Tea: oxidized more than green but less than black
- White Tea: barely oxidized at all
Wondering why we left out pu-erh? That’s because pu-erh is a black tea that’s processed the same way we’ve described before it continues on to its unique fermentation process.
What Else Affects Flavor?
Oxidation has by far the most effect on a final tea product, but there are a few other things that can change a tea’s flavor:
- Growing conditions: soil and weather can result in stronger or weaker teas
- Time of harvest: spring harvest tends to result in brighter flavor profiles and summer in earthier ones
- Type of process used: processes vary between plantations and regions
- Infused scents or flavors: many teas are combined with spices or infused with scents or flavors. Typical flavors infused into tea to make it something else entirely are bergamot, which is infused into black tea to make Earl Grey, and jasmine, which is commonly found in green and white teas such as jasmine pearl tea.
It’s incredible to think that even if the exact same process and the exact same plant are used, two batches of tea might taste completely different just because of a different harvest time or a change in weather conditions.
What Plant Does Herbal Tea Come From?
There are literally thousands of herbal teas in the world, made from stems, flowers, and leaves of countless edible plants. Common herbal teas include:
These caffeine-free teas are an excellent alternative to true teas if you’re interested in switching up your teatime routine.
Hopefully, knowing a little bit more about where your tea comes from will help you enjoy it even more, picturing the beautiful plantation high in the mountains of Asia where its journey begins. Brew yourself a cup of your favorite blend and enjoy the rich flavors that made it all the way to your kitchen.