Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. Over six billion pounds of tea leaves are harvested each year to meet the demands of tea drinkers, who choose from over 1,500 varieties each day. In spite of the vast amount of options, there are actually only four tea leaf categories: white, green, oolong, and black.
Herbal tea lovers may counter that there are endless tea categories to consider when herbs and other botanicals are factored in, but herbal teas are not technically tea, since they are not derived from the tea leaf. For example, red tea is not a true tea because its leaves are sourced from the South African rooibos bush, which is an herb that is fermented to obtain its trademark red color.
Authentic tea begins as a white leaf. This is the most prized variety, since it is the most nutritious and rarest of the four tea incarnations. At this primary stage, the tea leaf is virtually unprocessed, which means it is loaded with amino acids and antioxidants that are thought to contribute to disease prevention and cell development. White tea is harvested by hand in the springtime and should be matte white with a silvery sheen. The flavor of a high quality white tea should be slightly sweet with delicate notes of nectar and a subtle floral aroma.
Green tea is the next stage in the life of a tea leaf. It occurs when the white leaf is naturally dehydrated, taking on a listless appearance. The drying process is halted by either roasting the leaf or steaming it. Both procedures contribute to green tea’s robust flavor and are responsible for this variety’s curled shape and deep color. But the flavor profiles of green tea, which is packed with antioxidants, vary wildly depending upon how it is processed. In Japan, where it is traditionally steamed, it has a subtler flavor, whereas in China, where it is usually roasted, the tea is intensely flavored and has a deep rich color.
Oolong tea is another way to process white tea that is common throughout Asia. Oolong leaves are traditionally tossed in bamboo racks to gently bruise them. The leaves are then dried naturally without steaming or roasting. This oxidation causes the enzymes in the leaf to transform and react, which is what gives oolong tea its multi-dimensional flavor profile. Brown oolong leaves have a sweet caramel note, whereas leaves that are lighter in color retain their more natural floral essence.
Black tea is the strong man in the tea leaf family. In America, Europe, and Canada, black tea is the most popular form of tea on our breakfast and teatime tables. The iconic Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Darjeeling are all black tea varieties. They are all processed once the leaf is fully oxidized. The process is then stopped by firing the leaf, resulting in a strong malty flavor with notes of dark chocolate and caramel. Black tea does not have as many nutrients as the other tea varieties but it still contains antioxidants and like all tea incarnations, it is thought to help bolster the immune system and to decrease the stress hormone cortisol.
And tea isn’t just for drinking—check out these six recipes, all featuring some type of tea.
1. Iron Goddess Oolong Rub
Just in time for summer grilling, this oolong spice rub also contains garlic, paprika, and ginger, which further bolster is healthful virtues. Get the recipe.
2. Tea Simple Syrup
Black tea gives this simple syrup a malty, sophisticated flavor that can be stirred into cocktails or drizzled over ice cream. Get the recipe.
3. Green Tea Poached Salmon
Combining the health properties of green tea and salmon makes this a dish that is both satisfying and nutritionally dense. Get the recipe.
4. Vegan White Tea Lemon Cookies
Lemon gives this white tea cookie recipe a bit of zest and brightness. Get the recipe.
5. Green Tea Marinated Sirloin Tips
Toss these green tea marinated sirloin tips into rice for instant flavor. Get the recipe.
6. Mint and Lime Iced Tea
This mint and lime iced tea will keep you cool and refreshed all summer long. Get our Mint and Lime Iced Tea recipe.
— Head photo: flickr.