When asked, most people just say tea is “that stuff in the bag that you put in hot water.” This is not true. The boxes of tea that one sees at the supermarket may be marketed as tea, but a lot of them are not true teas.
True tea comes from the leaves of one single plant, camellia sinensis. Camellia sinensis is native to China, as well as India, and it is the only plant that true tea actually comes from. This plant can produce white, green, oolong, black and pu’erh teas.
How does one plant produce these different types of tea? Once the tea leaf has been plucked, it depends on how the leaf is processed and oxidized. The amount of oxidation tea leaves receive determines the final tea variety.
White teas are the least processed and contain the least amount of caffeine. The leaves are laid out to naturally air dry and nothing is done to either stop or encourage oxidation. Green teas vary in how they are processed. They usually go through a sort of withering process to reduce moisture. In China, they are pan fired and in Japan, they are steamed. This deactivates the enzymes that causes oxidation. In a final step, they are fired to reduce moisture to 3 percent. No oxidation occurs in both white and green teas.
Oolong teas are laid out to wither and may be shaken to start the oxidation process. Oolong teas have more variety in oxidation than any of the other true teas. Once oxidation reaches the desired level, the leaves are fired to stop the oxidation process and reduce moisture to 3 percent. Due to oolong’s variety of oxidation levels, it has the largest range of flavors and colors.
Black teas are laid out to wither for 12 to 16 hours to reduce moisture by about 30 percent. The leaves are then rolled to facilitate the oxidation process. These leaves are to be fully oxidized. After, they are fired to stop oxidation and reduce moisture to 3 percent.
Ever heard of pu’erh? Pu’erh is just tea that is fermented and aged or composted. The process for it is a lot like green tea, but after pan firing to stop oxidation, the leaves are rolled to break cell walls. Pu’erh teas get their character from years of aging and fermentation. Pu’erh is found in cake form, “bird nest” shapes and loose leaf. It has a very smoky, almost dirty taste.
All other teas that are steeped into a beverage that do not come from cameillia sinensis are considered a tisane. So peppermint, lemongrass, chamomile, berry and concentrated fruit teas, honeybush, roots, grasses and yerba mate are some of the more common “teas” that are not true teas. Herbal teas and rooibos teas are also tisanes. Any type of “tea” that naturally does not have caffeine in it, unlike true teas, are tisanes.
Those still curious about true tea and tea knowledge in general, should visit Experience Tea in Issaquah, a tea shop that also teaches classes on tea.