Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world (following only water). It has influenced wars, revolutions, and art, yet this complex beverage is often reduced to ground leaves in a bag. If you’re interested in testing the tea waters, it’s time to put the kettle on for an introduction to this globally loved beverage.
How Tea Is Grown and Harvested
At its essence, tea is made from steeping dried leaves in hot water — almost every culture has its own version based on regionally available plants. But tea you’ve ordered at a cafe or purchased from the store likely comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. Known as a tea plant, these shrubs and trees are native to Eastern and Southern Asia, where they have been cultivated since around 2700 B.C. Two species produce the bulk of non-herbal teas: C. sinensis sinensis, which produces small leaves and is primarily grown in China, and C. sinensis assamica, a larger leaf found in India. Tea plants are hardy but grow best in climates with regular rain; China, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka are among the top tea-producing countries.
Tea plants grow for about three years before their leaves can be collected. They’re often pruned to about waist-high for hand-harvesting since machines can tear the delicate leaves, which are harvested only once or twice a year. The plucked leaves are sorted by size and laid out to wither, allowing them to become moldable as they wilt and lose much of their water. Next, the tea leaves are rolled, a process that breaks open the leaf’s cells and allows oxygen in. Rolled leaves then rest and oxidize, a chemical process where the exposed enzymes interact with oxygen and transform the tea’s taste and appearance. As a final step, the tea is rapidly dried over heat to remove any remaining moisture and stop oxidation.
Not all tea types go through every step of the drying and production process, and not all are allowed to oxidize (such as white or green teas), which is what creates separate tea varieties. As tea processing has evolved, machines that heat-dry and roll or cut tea can impact the lengthy process.
Types of Tea
A lot of plants can be infused in boiling water, but tea purists say only the leaves of Camellia sinensis plants count as tea (anything else, like chamomile or ginger tea, is considered an herbal drink). But even though all true teas come from the same plant, the finished products have drastically different flavors based on how they’re harvested and processed. After picking, tea leaves are sorted into six categories: white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and pu’erh.
White teas are made from the smallest, youngest leaves, and are the least processed. The tea leaves are sun-dried to keep them from oxidizing, which gives the tea a light, floral taste without any bitterness and a light yellow hue when steeped. Green teas also have limited processing; the leaves are allowed to wither in the sun and are then roasted or steamed to prevent oxidation (which helps retain their green appearance and grass-like flavor). Less common yellow teas are withered and dried, then dunked in water before being twisted. This step allows the tea to oxidize slightly, giving it a light flavor similar to green tea but without the grassy taste.
Oolong teas walk the middle road between black teas that are packed with deep flavor and lighter green and white teas, which allows them to share deeper, earthier flavors. Oolong teas are oxidized longer than lighter teas but for less time than black teas; there’s no specific amount of oxidation required, which allows many varieties to fall in the oolong category.
Black teas undergo every step of the tea drying and oxidation process, giving them a strong, deep flavor that takes on a burgundy color in your cup. Black teas have versatility — they’re widely produced and often used as a base for tea blends (such as chai, which is black tea mixed with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and other spices). Even more fragrant are pu’erh teas, sometimes called vintage teas. These leaves are grown specifically in China’s Yunnan Province, where the rolled leaves are exposed to bacteria and yeast to develop deep flavors. Pu’erh teas are highly sought after for their deep, fruity flavors, with some varieties costing hundreds of dollars per gram.
Herbal teas, or tisanes (a steeped or simmered herbal drink), form a large category of their own that encompasses tea drinks from around the globe. Some of the most popular include rooibos, a naturally sweet tea made from the South African rooibos bush; yerba maté, a caffeine-packed bitter tea stemming from the South American holly plant; and chamomile, made from small daisy-like flowers that are known to aid sleep. Almost any herb can be used as a tea on its own, while some herbal blends use a base of Camellia sinensis with added herbs.
Bagged Tea vs. Loose Tea
At their core, bagged tea and loose tea are, in fact, both tea. But because they’re processed differently, the finished products taste different. While loose teas use entire rolled leaves — often called whole leaf teas — many tea bags are filled with machine-chopped leaves. These smaller bits of leaf have less surface area to release the tea’s natural oils and flavors, creating a more bland cuppa. Some tea manufacturers fill their bags with the leftover bits of cut tea, called the dusting or fanning, and this makes for a lower-quality cup. The cut leaves also age more quickly — within months, compared to whole leaf tea’s two-year lifespan.
Even whole leaf teas in bags can have a different flavor than the same leaves allowed to infuse freely in a teapot, because bags can restrict the leaves from unfurling and fully releasing their flavor. That’s not to say bagged tea should be avoided — selecting a tea depends on the flavor you’re seeking, the level of artistry you’re interested in, and convenience.
Good Tea Etiquette
Regardless of what kind of tea you settle on (or types — there’s a lot to explore), a few solid practices can help you enjoy a nice cuppa each and every time. Consider purchasing fair trade teas or from small growers, which support tea farmers focused on artisanal and traditional tea harvesting. When your tea arrives, store it properly — away from light and moisture in a dark, airtight container to maintain freshness. And when making a fresh cup, know that not all tea is steeped in boiling water — white and green teas often steep around 160 to 190 degrees, while oolong and black teas are often best at 180 to 200 degrees. Steeping at the wrong temperature for too long can lead to a flavorless or bitter brew — the opposite of what a relaxing cup should be.