All types of tea come from an evergreen plant of the Camellia family – Thea sinensis. Three varieties of this plant – from China, Assam, and Cambodia – are used for commercial tea production.
The Chinese plant, Camellia sinensis, is a bush that grows to a maximum of 15 feet, and produces 2-inch long leaves for up to 100 years.
The Assam plant, Camellia assamica, is a tree that can grow as high as 60 feet. It produces leaves that are 6-14 inches long for about 40 years.
The Cambodian plant, Camellia assamica subspecies lasiocalyx, is a tree that reaches about 15 feet. It’s mostly used to produce hybrids.
Tea plants thrive in hot and humid climates. However, it is the altitude they are grown at that has the greatest impact. The higher the altitude, the more flavor the tea has, and the better the quality. Many of the world’s most famous teas come from bushes grown over 4,000 feet.
Similar to wine, the taste and quality of tea is influenced by soil, climate, growing conditions, altitude, when it is picked, how it is processed, how it is packaged and stored, and how it is transported.
Types of Black Tea
Black teas are teas that are fermented. The methods for making black tea vary, but the process always involves four steps: withering, rolling, fermenting, and drying (or firing).
The traditional method to make black tea produces larger tea leaves. After picking, the leaves are spread out to dry, until they are soft enough to be rolled without breaking. The leaves are then rolled to bring out their flavor and final color.
Few factories roll the leaves by hand. Instead, most use machines to lightly crush the leaves. The leaves are then broken up and left in a cool, humid area for 3.5-4.5 hours to ferment. Fermentation changes the leaves from green to a copper red.
After fermentation, the leaves are fired to stop the fermentation. Traditionally, firing was done in large pans over open fires. Some factories still do this, but most now put the tea in hot air tunnels or bake it in ovens.
Some factories use the CTC method (cut, tear, and curl) to create black tea. It breaks the leaves up into smaller pieces, allowing them to brew more quickly and stronger than other methods. This is the ideal method for tea bags. Once the CTC machine cuts the tea leaves, the tea is processed in the traditional manner.
Types of Green Tea
Green teas are teas that are unfermented. The leaves are dried and treated with heat to stop any fermentation from occurring.
Many places in China use traditional handmade methods to make green tea, but some factories now use machines.
Using traditional methods, the leaves are spread out on bamboo trays and left in the sun for one to two hours. They are then placed in hot roasting pans and moved about by hand. As the moisture evaporates, the leaves become moist and soft.
After a few minutes, the leaves are rolled into balls on bamboo tables. The balls are placed back into the hot roasting pans and moved around, before either being rolled a second time or being left to dry. After 1-2 hours, the leaves have become a final, dull green. The leaves are then sifted and separated according to size.
In Japan, most green tea is dried using machines. The leaves are steamed on a moving belt. They are then cooled, rolled, dried, rolled again, and dried a final time. After the leaves are cooled, they are packed for shipment.
Types of Oolong Tea
Oolong Tea comes mostly from Tawain (commonly called Formosa in the tea industry) and China. It is considered to be a “semi-fermented” tea.
To make Chinese oolong tea, the leaves have to be picked at just the right time and processed immediately. Processing involves wilting the leaves in sunlight and then shaking them in bamboo baskets to bruise the edges. They are then alternately shaken and dried until the surface turns slightly yellow, and the edges turn reddish from the bruising. At this point, the leaves are semi-fermented. The leaves are then fired (dried) to stop further fermentation. The leaves are never rolled.
Formosa oolongs differ in that they are fermented longer, giving both the leaves and the tea brewed from them, a darker color.
Types of Herbal Tea
Herbal tea is not actually “tea” because it does not contain Thea sinensis. The lack of tea leaves is why herbal teas are sometimes called tisanes rather than teas. There are three categories of herbal teas: rooibos teas, mate teas, and herbal infusions.
Rooibos Teas – Also called red tea, rooibos tea is made from a South African red bush.
Mate Teas – Made from the South American Yerba Mate plant, Mate teas are a tea alternative that’s greatly loved by coffee drinkers.
Herbal Infusions – Containing only herbs, flowers, or fruits, herbal infusions are often drank for the health benefits they provide, such as the soothing effects of chamomile tea.