And That’s the Tea
Written by Lauren Koleszar // Illustrated by Miranda Tulcewicz
Ever wondered which tea is best for you? Check out this comprehensive categorization of the tastes and health benefits of different types of tea. You’ll learn the difference between true and herbal teas and know exactly which kind to brew the next time you want to.
Enough people have asked whether you’re a coffee or tea person, but have you ever asked yourself what kind of tea best suits your needs? After water, tea is the most popular beverage on the planet, and it’s a much healthier alternative to the sugary coffees so many of us are used to grabbing before work. Whether you’re a novice or maestro in your experience with tea, you can always learn more about the ancient and versatile world-favorite drink.
A Brief History of Tea
According to Chinese legend, the discovery of tea originates over 4,000 years ago with the ancient Emperor Shen Nong, who one day found that a few leaves had fallen into a cup of hot water he had planned to drink. To his delight, the beverage was delicious and refreshing. He found that the tea leaves held medicinal properties, and early historical records show that the Chinese seem to have been the first to both harvest the plant and use it for its revitalizing properties. Since early times, tea has been claimed to serve a thousand purposes, from enhancing clarity of the mind to being a key ingredient to the elixir of life.
The production of tea originated with green tea, which was first harvested and used in China until the country began trading bricks of pressed tea leaves with neighboring countries. Amid the increasing demand for tea trade with China, different variations of tea arose from experimentation with methods of production and oxidation of the leaves. Tea trade spread from China to Japan and Korea. Eventually, tea began to travel to the Western Hemisphere, and soon the United Kingdom was clamoring for the divine drink. Tea’s popularity grew so rapidly there that having a cup of tea has become a British stereotype almost on par with our natural association of tea with China or Eastern countries who have a lenghthier historical relationship with the beverage.
All true tea is made from the same plant — Camellia sinensis. Five varieties of tea come from this plant, and they are what we call “true tea.” These teas differ from those that are brewed using other spices or plants; technically, the phrase “herbal tea” is a misnomer because it usually has little to do with the actual tea plant. True teas vary from one another based on the part of the tea plant used to produce the tea, as well as the environment of the plant, the process used, and the level of oxidation.
The most popular tea in the Western world, black tea, resulted from frequent trading between China and other countries. Tea traders discovered that when tea leaves were oxidized more than traditional green tea, the flavor lasted longer during lengthy trade routes. This is an example of how a mere difference in the oxidation process results in an entirely different tea. Thus, highly oxidized tea became black tea, which is common among sweet and iced teas today. Some of the most popular flavored teas (Earl Grey, chai tea) use black tea as a base.
Taste Profile: Bold, severe, malty, smoky, brisk, and earthy; a good choice for those who enjoy the bitter taste of coffee and are looking for a light caffeine boost
Health Benefits: Boosts heart health; reduces blood sugar; improves digestive tract issues
How to Brew: Boiling water will draw out the strong flavor of black tea, and it should steep for approximately 3 to 5 minutes
Praised for its abundance of health benefits, green tea is strongly associated with the traditional idea of a cup of tea. This is due, in part, to the fact that it was the original true tea produced from the plant, and all other varieties came after
Taste Profile: More mellow than black tea; offers a dramatic assortment of flavors
Health Benefits: Reduces body fat; provides antioxidants; deodorizes bad breath; improves brain function; decreases blood pressure
How to Brew: Many assume all teas require steeping in boiling water; however, this is not the case for green tea. Using boiling water will result in a more bitter aftertaste than green tea should provide. Instead, use water approximately 180℉, just below boiling temperature, and steep for 3 to 5 minutes.
If you’re unfamiliar with the name, it’s probably because Oolong tea is much less common in Western culture; though it is highly revered in China and Taiwan. Its oxidation level lies somewhere between black (highly oxidized) and green (barely oxidized) tea, causing its taste and health benefits to fall somewhere between these two more common teas.
Taste Profile: Fuller-bodied than black tea; offers a wide variety of flavor, ranging from sweet to woody
Health Benefits: Reduces risk of heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes; sharpens thinking skills; increases alertness; boosts metabolism; aids in weight loss; acts as a natural pick-me-up; reduces stress; and counteracts tooth decay
How to brew: Like green tea, oolong tea should be brewed just below boiling temperature, between 180℉ and 200℉. Steeping time is approximately 1 to 5 minutes; for a stronger flavor and body, steep longer.
Also known as “dark tea,” pu-erh tea is often skipped in discussions of true tea because it isn’t nearly as well-known as its counterparts. A semi-rare tea originating from the Yunnan province of China, pu-erh tea is fermented, meaning its flavor and value increase with age.
Taste Profile: Generally smooth and slightly sweet, but can range from floral to bitter
Health Benefits: Cleanses toxins; increases alertness; fortifies bones; promotes a healthy heart; prevents illness
How to Brew: Heat water to 195℉ and steep for 2 to 4 minutes
Made from the youngest buds and leaves of the plant, white tea is the most unprocessed and least caffeinated of the true teas
Taste Profile: Sweet, delicate, light, floral, and sometimes fruity or vegetal
Health Benefits: Contains anti-aging properties, protects teeth from bacteria, promotes skin health, improves calmness, reduces inflammation, establishes healthy hair and decreases risk of osteoporosis.
How to Brew: The delicate nature of white tea requires the lowest water temperature of all true teas and should be brewed at just under 170℉ for 1 to 5 minutes. As with all teas, white tea will produce a stronger flavor when steeped longer.
Information on brewing temperature and steeping times can be overwhelming, but as a general rule, you should steep tea bags between 3 and 5 minutes. Steeping time has a large effect on both the flavor and health benefits of tea. Over-steeping will cause the tea to become significantly more bitter than it needs to be. More importantly, many of the health benefits of tea decrease as a result of over-steeping. If you’re ever uncertain, the box or tin containing your tea should include instructions on how long you should steep the tea bag to achieve maximum health benefits and greatest flavor.
Now that we’ve covered true teas, you may have noticed that some pretty vital teas (peppermint, chamomile, etc.) are missing from the list. This is because all other “teas” that do not fall into one of these five categories do not qualify as true teas, as they do not come from the Camellia sinensis tea plant, rendering the phrase “herbal tea” a misnomer. These teas fall into a separate category, the large majority of which are made from herbs and spices, as opposed to the tea plant. Rather, they result from steeping herbs and spices such as mint or chamomile in hot water.
Often paired with lemon or honey, herbal teas are popularized for their medicinal properties and enchanting fragrances. More herbal teas exist than categories of true teas, so we will only cover some of the most important and popular choices as an introduction to the realm of herbal tea. Almost all herbal teas share a few qualities: aid in the prevention of chronic disease, stress-relief and reduction of pain and soreness. An added bonus of herbal teas is that they’re much harder to over-steep than true teas, which means the flavor will not quickly turn bitter if the tea bag is left in for longer than five minutes.
Pure herbal teas and tea blends are distinct from one another, the latter of which feature true teas blended with various herbs and spices. Herbals teas on their own are either naturally caffeine-free or contain trace amounts of the stimulant. However, tea blends will usually have at least some caffeine because their base is a true tea. For instance, a black chai tea blend combines both black tea and chai spices; because black tea has caffeine, the drink will be caffeinated. If you are sensitive to caffeine or are looking for teas to drink closer to bedtime, make sure you either select a purely herbal tea or otherwise a specifically decaffeinated true tea or tea blend. If purchasing tea packets from a grocery store, the box will include a labeled indication if the tea is decaffeinated.
"Often paired with lemon or honey, herbal teas are popularized for their medicinal properties and enchanting fragrances."
Note: Avoid this herbal tea if you are allergic to pollen and/or ragweed!
Taste Profile: Often described as soft or floral, chamomile tea is as relaxing as it sounds and has a flavor comparable to a crisp apple or light honey.
Health Benefits: Increases calmness; aids sleep; reduces menstrual pain and inflammation; treats cold symptoms; aids in treating generalized anxiety disorder.
Taste Profile: Earthy and sweet
Health Benefits: Increases energy levels; reduces inflammation; detoxifies liver; relieves bloating; reduces hormonal acne; slows aging and increases collagen production
Taste Profile: The much milder, herbal taste of ginger tea will surprise those more familiar with the taste of ginger as a spice.
Health Benefits: Boosts immune system; relieves nausea; combats respiratory problems; reduces stress; relieves menstrual pain; eases headaches.
Taste Profile: Tart, slightly fruity, similar to cranberries
Health Benefits: Helps digestion; contains nutritious minerals and vitamin C; lowers cholesterol; fights bacteria; promotes weight loss
Taste Profile: Herbaceous and light; slightly more bitter than other floral tastes
Health Benefits: Aids sleep; eases stress and anxiety; detoxifies the body
Lemon Balm Tea
Taste Profile: Citrusy with a hint of mint that makes it slightly sweeter than traditional citruses
Health Benefits: Reduces stress levels without inducing fatigue
Taste Profile: Comparable to green tea; grassy and mellow
Health Benefits: Detoxifies the body; supports eye health; treats arthritis pain; clears skin
Taste Profile: Peppermint tea’s taste resembles the traditional peppermint scent. Just like the breath mint, peppermint tea is light and sweet, with a cool and refreshing aftertaste.
Health Benefits: Eases muscle soreness; enhances alertness; helps memory; reduces anxiety.
Taste Profile: Sweet and distinctive; a flavor between spice and honey
Health Benefits: Releases serotonin (produces feelings of happiness); boosts memory; relieves anxiety and irritability; acts as an aphrodisiac; improves memory in those with Alzheimer’s disease
Taste Profile: Rich and bitter; similar to ginger
Health Benefits: Releases serotonin and dopamine (mood-enhancers); helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease; helps brain-cell growth; lowers inflammation
Beyond these lists awaits an even greater variety of true, herbal, and blended teas, which you can navigate much more knowledgeably when you understand the basics of tea and its categories. The next time you can’t fall asleep, try a soothing cup of chamomile tea. When you need to de-stress without getting sleepy, shoot for some lemon balm tea. Green tea is always a solid go-to, but you probably haven’t yet tried oolong tea, which will enhance your thinking and memory skills. Next time you’re in need of a pick-me-up, you know the tea.