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To experience the full potential of tea, you need to know the characteristics of each type. Though the all play a role in putting you into a calm and focused state, there are quite a few differences in terms of flavor, mouthfeel, aroma, and caffeine content.
By knowing your way around the tea types, you’ll be able to easily find the right kind of tea for your unique preferences and lifestyle.
Let’s begin by breaking down the major tea categories so that you can choose the best type for your lifestyle and preferences.
The most common tea type in the Western world, black tea is known for its dark chocolatey, earthy, and citrus flavors. Particularly malty black teas pair well with milk or cream, but lighter, sweeter black teas shine on their own.
On the farm, black tea leaves are allowed to wither for a day, then are often cut or rolled to quicken the natural oxidation process, which is responsible for producing the classic rich, dark flavors. Once the leaves have oxidized 90 to 100% over a period of several days, they are ready to be packaged and shipped.
Black tea is typically brewed with near boiling (95-100 celsius) water for 3-5 minutes and contains 20-80 mg of caffeine per cup, roughly half as much as a cup of coffee.
Oolong tea is the widest, most diverse tea type, containing tea leaves that have been oxidized between 8 and 90%. Some oolongs are rolled, some are twisted, but all of them are baked or fired to halt oxidation when each of them reach their unique sweet spot of flavor development. Because the category is so wide, there are many possible flavor landscapes.
Dark oolongs - highly oxidized leaves - often feature woody, earthy, and floral flavor notes. They more closely resemble black tea, but aren’t quite to that level of dark flavor.
Light oolongs - lesser oxidized leaves - more often feature sweet, green, and floral notes. They taste closer to green teas, but without any bitter grassiness.
Oolongs brew very well between 85 and 95 degrees celsius over a period of 2 to 4 minutes. A cup of oolong tea is likely to have 10-60 mg of caffeine, though the diversity of the category makes it difficult to pin down a more precise amount.
Up and coming in the Western world, green tea is lightly withered and oxidized only 1 to 8% before being heated by a wok or steamed, stopping any further oxidation. Green tea is known for its sweet herbaceous, buttery, and nutty flavors.
Most green teas brew well with water between 75 and 85 celsius over 2 or 3 minutes. There is likely to be 10-40 mg of caffeine per cup, about a quarter as much as a cup of coffee.
Matcha is a powderized form of green tea that is whisked into hot water to produce a thick, creamy liquor with a strong green flavor. Before the leaves are picked to make matcha, the tea bushes are shielded from direct sunlight for 20 days to boost the production of chlorophyll (responsible for the vibrant green color of the leaves) and L-Theanine (calms the senses and reduces anxiety).
There are many low quality matchas on the market with a harsh bitter flavor, so make sure your tea supplier is reputable and devoted to fresh, premium grade tea leaves before purchasing matcha from them.
Similarly to green tea, yellow tea is allowed to wither and oxidize to somewhere between 1 and 8%. However, yellow tea is steamed with a damp cloth over the leaves, producing a yellow color, eliminating some of the bitterness of green tea, and bringing out a bright floral flavor.
Yellow tea generally brews well with water between 75 and 85 celsius over 2 or 3 minutes. A cup has somewhere between 10 and 40 mg of caffeine.
White tea is the most delicate and least processed tea type. These tea leaves are allowed to wither for up to 72 hours, but are not bruised, rolled, or subject to any other oxidation inducing process. This causes white tea to be only 0.1 to 1% oxidized.
The flavor of white tea is gentle and sweet. Subtle floral and fruity notes peek out from the smooth, creamy body. This tea type is great for peaceful sipping, but isn’t packed full of flavor like some of the other tea types.
White tea thrives when brewed with water between 75 and 82 celsius for 2 or 3 minutes. Because of the low temperature and shorter steep, a cup of white tea is likely to only have 15-35 mg of caffeine.
Pu-erh tea leaves, departing from the leaves of other types, are tenderly dried first, rolled and bruised, and then left out to oxidize minimally (1 to 5%).
This reordering of processing steps produces the unique fruity, earthy, and spicy characteristics of pu-erh tea, which are often emphasized by pressing the leaves into pucks and allowing them to safely ferment over months or years.
Pu-erh brews similarly to black tea, preferring higher temperatures (95-100 celsius) and a longer steep time (3-5 minutes). Each cup of pu-erh contains between 60 and 80 mg of caffeine.
You now know the major tea types, but there are still a few key things to be aware of. These next few pieces of information are no less important when it comes to raising your tea experience to the next level.
Tea is an agricultural product, so the origin and health of the plants plays a major role in producing excellent tea. Premium loose leaf tea is fresh, carefully harvested, and comes from the highest quality tea plants. For example, the tea leaves we use at Teamatica are harvested from the freshest shoots each harvest season, which are the most flavorful, balanced, and complex.
Tea bags are typically full of ‘fannings’, the dust and micro tea particles that fall off the leaves and are left behind when they’re being harvested and processed. This tea dust is swept off the floor at tea processing plants and scooped into tea bags.
Even pyramid tea bags with higher quality tea fail to deliver as well as loose leaf tea. Since leaves expand as they brew, they need plenty of room to produce a balanced, evenly extracted tea drink. Without the proper space to expand within the tea bags, the brewed tea won’t be as rich and smooth as it should be.
The difference between fresh, premium loose leaf tea and the average tea bag is dramatic. If you want to experience high quality tea that is soothing, refreshing, and flavorful, there’s no substitution for fresh loose leaf tea.
There’s a common misconception about tea that, in order to taste good, it must have artificial flavor added and be blended with other ingredients. That is simply not true.
Pure tea - tea leaves without any additions - can be rich, balanced, and soothing all by itself, as long as the leaves come from healthy tea trees, a careful processor, and a freshness-oriented seller (that’s us!).
There is an immense amount of variation in pure tea. The dark richness of black tea and the light gentleness of white tea have thousands of tea flavor profiles in between them. There are also plenty of unique tea varieties that feature strange and wild flavors without the need of any added flavor oils. The idea that green tea just tastes like green tea comes from people who haven’t experienced the jaw-dropping diversity of green tea themselves.
Unfortunately, tea blends are usually built with low quality ingredients. Most of the ingredients don’t contribute to flavor and are there only for visual appeal. Most of the flavor comes from the tea leaves and artificial flavors - not the additional ingredients.
These added flavor oils feature stunning aromas that capture our attention, but they turn the tea into something it’s not. More often than not, flavor oils are used to cover up bitterness and unpleasant flavors in low quality tea.
I get that sometimes it can be fun to drink a strawberry flavored green tea, but nothing beats the freshness and richness of premium grade pure tea that hasn’t been off the tree for very long.
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