Tea Time: Black, Green, Oolong, White – What’s the Difference?

(c) PublicDomanPictures, pixabay.com

(c) PublicDomanPictures, pixabay.com

There are a lot of different types of tea out there.  Who can tell what the differences are amongst them? With coffee, at least it tells you the caffeine content and roast type right on the bag, sometimes with helpful, friendly little pictures.  Not so much with tea, especially if you’re buying loose leaf. These bags tend to be plain and serious.

All “real” tea comes from the same type of plant: Camellia sinensis. If the tea leaves do not come from this plant, it can’t really be called tea – it’s an “herbal infusion.” (Kind of like how sparkling wine can’t be called champagne unless it actually comes from the Champagne region of France.) The varieties of real tea come from the way the leaves are treated.

(c) Unsplash, pixabay.com

(c) Unsplash, pixabay.com

Black tea. This is the most common single type of tea in the US. The leaves are dried and withered after being harvested – they are rolled up and exposed to the air for long periods of time, often in an oven. Enzymes in the leaves chemically react with polyphenols – other compounds in the leaves. The enzymes oxidize the polyphenols, which turns the leaves a dark color (more on oxidation another time). Black tea has the highest caffeine content of all the teas – but it is still only about half of the caffeine in the same amount of coffee.

(c) Lebensmittelfotos, pixabay.com

(c) Lebensmittelfotos, pixabay.com

Green tea. In this case, the tea leaves are partially steamed or heated after harvest. The heat destroys the enzymes that would cause oxidation, which means the leaves keep their original green color. Green tea is also the base of another super popular product right now – matcha. Matcha is green tea leaves ground up into a powder or a paste, which is then used to make beverages or in cooking/baking. Matcha is more intense than green tea leaves because the surface area has been increased, allowing more of the leaves to be developed during steeping or cooking. It is what is used in traditional Japanese tea ceremony. 

(c) wikimedia commons

(c) wikimedia commons

Oolong tea. This tea is probably the most fun to say aloud. Go on, try it: oooh- long. Fun, right? This a traditional Chinese tea. These leaves are repeatedly rolled and dried to oxidize the polyphenolic compounds – the leaves are also shaken, to bruise the edges. The leaves are partially fermented. My favorite fun fact about oolong is that the Chinese name, Wulong, translates to “black dragon,” because the leaves – which are black in color after processing, because of the oxidation and fermentation – are long and sort of twisty, and look like a dragon. You can actually buy oolong tea called Dragon’s Eye.

(c) Imf, openfotos.com

(c) Imf,openfotos.com

White tea. This tea is the least processed of all the teas, hence its very mild flavor and light color in the cup. It has the least caffeine of all the teas, as well (except herbals). The leaves are harvested while they are very small or even just buds, so the plant has not even fully developed, and are sometimes even steamed right there in the field. It is steamed immediately after harvest and then dried. It’s important to keep white tea from oxidizing.

(c) pixolga, pixabay.com [herbal tea]

(c) pixolga, pixabay.com

Herbal Infusions. These, as I said above, are not technically tea. They are made by drying and treating various herbs, spices, and flowers. Sleepytime, chamomile, cinnamon, and spearmint tea all fall into this category. Herbals are often combined with “real” tea to make blends – jasmine tea, for example, is often white tea processed with dried jasmine leaves to add scent and flavor.  Check the ingredients on your tea to see if it is actual tea with herbs included, or just an herbal infusion.

Which type of tea is your favorite? I like black tea best – it’s strong and almost sweet, and I like it both plain or with milk and sugar if I’m feeling fancy.

To see other posts in my Tea Time series, click the “tea time” tag below this post.

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