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What is Tea?
Did you know that tea is the most consumed drink in the whole world after water? That's right! But what is tea? Furthermore, what is tea made of?
Many may be surprised to find out that tea types — White Tea, Green Tea, Yellow Tea, Oolong, Black Tea, and Hei Cha (incl. Pu-erh) — all come from the same plant! That plant is the mighty Camellia Sinensis. Camellia Sinensis is an evergreen plant native to China. When tended to, you'll usually see it growing in small bushes. However, it can become as big as a tree when allowed to grow wild. You can find some ancient tea trees in South China.
In the 19th-century, Great Britain smuggled the tea plant into India in an attempt to demonopolize China's tea exports. Before India could cultivate and produce its own tea, it was a long journey of spying on Chinese tea farmers and bribing them to learn their growing and processing secrets. Eventually, India's clonal Assam tea plant replaced China's tea plants.
With time, Camellia Sinensis spread across the globe, providing millions with its desirable tea leaves.
On the other hand, although called teas, herbal teas are instead considered tisanes. They don't come from the Camellia Sinensis plant but from various herbs, fruits, berries, and spices. Tisanes are always caffeine-free, while all teas coming from Camellia Sinensis are caffeinated.
History of Tea
Tea dates back arguably 5000 years. The first written traces of the tea plant's human cultivation date back to 3000 years ago, in Southwestern China. There, people consumed the leaves of Camellia Sinensis in various forms for centuries. People mostly used it as medicine before the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD). When Lu Yu wrote his famous tea book, the Cha Jing, drinking tea for pleasure started becoming more popular throughout China. Eventually, people started paying more attention to the flavor of the tea leaf itself, and farmers would grow tea to give to the royal court as tribute.
Tea was introduced to Japan in the 12th century by a Buddhist priest named Eisai. Then, it made its journey West thanks to Portuguese merchants who brought it to Europe in the 16th century.
When tea made its way to Europe, its popularity spread like wildfire. Of course, not everyone could afford this delicious drink at the time. However, everyone wanted to get their hands on some tea leaves. Governments used tea as an essential trade product and a valuable gift throughout history. After eventually being smuggled out of China, it now grows worldwide.
What are the Different Types of Tea
Green tea, Yellow Tea, White Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea, and Hei Cha (incl. Pu-erh) are the six main types of tea.
How Many Types of Tea are There?
There are six main types of tea along with a few other categories:
• White Tea
White tea (白茶) undergoes the least amount of processing and is a lightly oxidized tea. Due to the sparing 2-step processing, tea leaves remain as close as possible to their original state. White teas possess a very delicate flavor and a smooth mouthfeel. Silver Needle Tea is one of the most popular white teas.
• Green Tea
Green teas (绿茶) is the only unoxidized tea among the other types. It's best to brew most green teas at a low temperature to preserve their freshness and avoid bitter taste. The popular Japanese powdered tea, matcha, is also green tea. The taste is refreshing and slightly grassy.
• Yellow Tea
Yellow tea (黄茶) is a rare tea category with few variations within it. The taste is fresh and mellow, without grassy notes. Not many farmers know how to make this tea type, so we, unfortunately, consider it a disappearing tea type nowadays. • Oolong Tea.
• Oolong Tea
Oolongs (乌龙) are semi-oxidized teas. During production, farmers shake, bruise and then roll the tea leaves, which brings out oils trapped in leaves and results in a rich taste. Some oolongs are lightly oxidized and closer to green teas. Others, the highly oxidized ones, are dark and robust. Their taste tends more to black tea. Oolong teas undergo various stages of roasting, which results in a unique and very comforting taste. Oolongs generally come from Fujian, Guangdong, and Taiwan.
• Black Tea (Hong Cha)
What we call black tea in the West is red tea (hong cha 红茶) in the East. Black tea is a fully oxidized tea with a mellow and sweet flavor. We can brew black teas at high water temperatures. Lapsang Souchong is an ancient black tea with an intense smoky profile since farmers smoke it over pinewood. Today many types of black tea exist, including Non-Smoky Lapsang Souchong.
Black tea is a popular tea in the West. Most black teas were exported from China because they didn't go bad over lengthy ship journeys. Unlike green teas, which don't stay fresh as long, red teas retain a pleasant taste over long periods. In China, merchants viewed black tea as an inferior export product, and most people enjoyed green teas. It wasn't until relatively recently that quality black teas started gaining popularity in China.
• Pu-erh Tea
Pu-erh teas (普洱) have an ancient history of over 2000 years. Pu-erh is a kind of fermented tea common in China. It's a geographically specific product, so farmers can only produce it in Yunnan, China. Although tea leaves for pu-erh tea are grown and collected in the neighboring regions such as Burma, Vietnam, and even Thailand, they don't have the right to be called "pu-erh". It is a Chinese fermented tea with a strong, robust, sometimes bitter taste that might take a while to get used to. However, it's a complex and exciting tea that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries and is excellent for digestion.
• Liu Bao Tea and other Hei Cha
Hei cha (黑茶) is a post-fermented type of tea. This means that fermentation is still ongoing even after the completion of the production process. This tea dates back hundreds of years and has excellent medicinal properties. Furthermore, it's sweet, nutty, mellow, and easy to prepare! A traditional hei cha preparation method is boiling the tea leaves.
Liu Bao Hei Cha is a unique tea within this category. It's similar to pu-erh but still different. Liu Bao is a traditional tea for Guangxi province, where it appeared during the Qing dynasty. According to some sources, the production process of Liubao tea was at the base of the creation of artificial fermentation in the Menghai tea factory during the '70s. In turn, they were the first ones to produce artificially fermented pu-erh.
Tisanes are what we also call herbal teas or herbal blends. These aren't tea leaves derived from camellia sinensis but various herbs, fruits, and rooibos.
• Tisane vs. Tea
A tisane is always caffeine-free, while tea isn't. Tisanes are great to have before bed and are perfect for kids.
The Difference Between Raw and Ripe Pu-erh Tea
There are two types of pu-erh — raw pu-erh (sheng pu-erh 生普洱) and ripe pu-erh (shou pu-erh 熟普洱). Farmers often make these teas from Camellia Sinensis Var. Assamica - a broad-leaf tea plant that is native to Yunnan, China. Both sheng and shou pu-erh come from the same raw product — Mao Cha. Then, farmers process raw pu-erh similarly to green tea and compress it into cakes they age, often for many years. It is refreshing and slightly bitter at first. As it ages, the taste gets transformed. The bitterness goes away, and the flavor becomes more rounded.
Ripe pu-erh, on the other hand, goes through a process called "wet-piling", which ferments the tea. Ripe pu-erh usually doesn't go through a long aging process. The taste of this fermented tea from China is often robust and intense yet mellow and smooth.
Pu-erh tea caffeine content is often (but not necessarily) high compared to other types of tea. However, it's still far less than a cup of coffee. When drinking this fermented tea from China, you will feel alert and productive, yet without the jittery feeling and caffeine crash that coffee gives you.
Health Benefits of Tea
A quick google search will show you claims that tea clears skin, halts cancer, or melts body fat. For the most part, scientists haven't proven these claims. Indeed, research generally supports the claim that tea is good for you. However, results on specific tea health benefits are inconclusive. Though, there are a few benefits of tea that we know for a fact. – It is a hydrating and nutritious beverage. Modern-day scientific research has proven tea to contain many healthy compounds, like antioxidants, L-theanine, and potassium.
Is Tea Acidic?
Many ask about the acidity of tea (pH of tea). Every type of tea has a different pH level. For example, the acidity level of black tea is around 5, while green tea ranges from 7-10. In general, loose leaf tea is not acidic and leans towards the alkaline side.
Is Tea Gluten-Free?
Yes. Since we make tea by steeping tea leaves in water, it is 100% gluten-free.
How Much Caffeine in Tea vs. Coffee
A common misconception is that caffeine levels vary depending on the tea type. It is wrong. Caffeine levels will vary depending on numerous other factors but not the tea type. However, one thing is true — a cup of tea will always have less caffeine than coffee. One of the most caffeine-concentrated teas, matcha, has about 70% caffeine of a cup of coffee. In contrast, most others will have anywhere from 10-30%.
If you are looking for an energizing tea that can be a suitable replacement for coffee, we recommend trying matcha or gu shu pu-erh.
Caffeine in Tea
If you need a boost of energy and creativity but don't want to get all jittery, try a tea that helps you focus. It's important to note that the effect of caffeine in tea is different from that in coffee because teas have L-theanine, a naturally-occurring calmative in tea. While L-theanine increases alpha activity, it is also an amino acid. Amino acids naturally have a calming effect on the brain. Consequently, we don't get that typical caffeine crash even if we drink a lot of caffeinated tea! Tea helps to focus and keeps you stimulated yet relaxed and calm. It can be from any tea type, and you might find the right one for you from experimenting.
If you're thinking about what to try first, perhaps go with a ginseng oolong, ripe pu-erh, or an aged white tea.
Caffeine in Tea Types. Black Tea vs. Green Tea
A common myth is that black tea has more caffeine than green tea, which is not true. In fact, caffeine content doesn't depend on the type of tea at all. Some things that may influence caffeine levels in tea are the time of harvest, type of tea leaves, tea plant varietal, oxidation levels, steeping time, and brewing temperature. For example, teas harvested during warmer months (late spring / early fall) will have a higher caffeine content because plants produce caffeine to protect themselves from awake and active pests.
How Much Caffeine in Green Tea
Green teas usually consist of young tea leaves and buds, generally with higher caffeine content. Furthermore, shaded, nitrogen-fertilized green teas also have more caffeine. It is more common in certain Japanese teas.
How Much Caffeine in Black Tea
On the other hand, it's well-known that teas made of more mature leaves and oxidized for a more extended period have slightly lower caffeine content. This is, in fact, black tea!
Drinking Tea Before Bed
Should you drink tea before bed? It will always depend on the person. While some have a heightened caffeine sensitivity, others can easily drink tea before bed. If you are more sensitive to caffeine, we recommend sticking to teas with minimal caffeine content. For instance, hojicha and yabao are great options before bed. On the other hand, if you wish to keep your nightly caffeine intake at zero, the best caffeine-free tea is a tisane or herbal blend. Many tisanes will actually make you sleepy and ready for a good night's rest!
Loose Leaf vs. Tea Bag
Today, 95% of all tea sales in the U.S are teabags. These bags, however, usually contain the cheapest materials possible, delivering little more than a brown-colored liquid. Not to mention the inorganic and potentially harmful materials these bags include.
Many are under the conception that drinking premium tea will cost you a fortune. It's quite the opposite — buying loose leaf tea may save you money. Of course, there are pricey artisan tea teas out there. However, if you choose to purchase something mid-range, it will always be much better quality than what you find inside tea bags and, in many cases, even cheaper!
How to Brew Loose Leaf Tea
Brewing loose leaf tea is easy. There are two main methods you can brew loose leaf tea. Western-style is when we brew tea in large quantities, like in a big teapot. We pour in the dry tea leaves and add water of the proper temperature, then steep the tea for a few minutes. Western-style brewing is easy and doesn't require much equipment, just a good ol' teapot. This style of brewing will usually yield 1-3 brews. We recommend using a tea kettle with an infuser.
The other method we call Gong Fu Cha. It's is the Chinese way of brewing tea. We add tea leaves to little teapots or gaiwan in concentrated amounts and brew the tea for short intervals, usually 5-30 seconds. Then we drink the tea from tiny cups. This brewing method provides you with the best taste possible, and you can (and should!) re-brew the tea many times. Furthermore, each time the flavor will transform and offer you something new.
What is the Best Water Temperature For Tea?
Water temperature is a crucial component when we wish to extract the best possible taste of tea. It will always depend on the type of tea that we're brewing. Usually, you can see what temperature is best in the tea description, but here's a general rule of thumb:
Green tea — 175ºF (80ºC)
White tea — 185ºF (85ºC)
Yellow tea – 185º (85ºC)
Oolong tea — 200-212ºF (95-100ºC)
Black tea — 195ºF (90ºC)
Pu-erh tea & Hei Cha — 212ºF (100ºC)
How to Taste Tea
Properly tasting tea requires practice! Of course, you can drink tea, and it will taste great. However, when we learn to taste tea properly, a whole new world of flavors opens up to us!
Here are some quick tips:
1. Slurp the brew in small sips. Let it sit in your mouth for a moment, coating every part of the palette. Note the taste.
2. Note the mouthfeel. Perhaps it's thick, creamy, or buttery? Is it thin and refreshing? Or maybe it leaves a tingling feeling? Does it tickle the back of your throat? Are you craving another sip? Or, on the other hand, is it a satisfying, thirst-quenching feeling? All this is good to note!
3. Note the aftertaste (finish). Certain teas are particularly revered for their aftertaste. It may be brief and potent in flavor or long-lasting and sweet.
And, of course, the taste is so intertwined with the smell that we always recommend smelling the tea leaves, wet and dry, and the cups after drinking. You'll be surprised by all the new notes you'll notice!
Consider keeping a specially designated tea notebook whenever you're taking part in a tea ritual. Write down every little thing you've noticed. We're sure when you go back and compare your notes after months of note-keeping, you'll be amazed at how much your palate has expanded!
How to Make Green Tea Taste Good
How to make green tea sweeter? Brewing a good cup of green tea is primarily all about the water temperature and brewing time. Since green tea requires a low temperature, hot water and prolonged steeping times result in an overly bitter taste. This is because water releases the tannins responsible for bitterness in tea. At the same time, high temperature destroys the amino acids that balance the bitterness in tea leaves. Follow this simple rule of thumb, and you are sure to have a fresh, sweet-tasting green tea!
What is Gong Fu Cha
Gong Fu Cha (功夫茶) is a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Concentrated amounts of tea leaf brew in small vessels for a short period. Translated, Gong Fu Cha means "making tea with skill".
Gongfu Tea Set
To brew tea Gong Fu style, we need a special Gongfu tea set. This set usually comprises a small teapot or gaiwan, little teacups, and a cha hai (also called gong dao bei) — at a bare minimum. Complete gong fu sets will also have tea utensils, like tea picks, brushes, strainers, and a Chinese tea table ('cha ban' or tea tray). While having a complete set isn't crucial, it does create a great tea aesthetic for enjoying mindful ceremonies. Another unique component of a gongfu set is a tea pet.
What is a Tea Pet?
Tea pets are small clay figurines that tea masters use during gong fu cha for various purposes. Some of these "pets" can even test water for the right temperature! Although primarily many use them as decoration, some enthusiasts also have them for good luck.
The tea pets are usually made of yixing clay and come as animals or various Chinese good luck symbols. Many tea enthusiasts believe that tea, which has a soul, fills the tea pets with a soul.
Does Tea Go Bad?
Can tea go bad? Yes, it most certainly can! Not in the same way that food goes bad, though. Most likely, your tea won't be covered in mold or give you food poisoning. However, keeping tea leaves past their prime will result in a lackluster brew with a dull taste and almost no benefits.
How Long Does Tea Last?
How long does loose leaf tea last? Well, this will always depend on the tea type.
Here's a quick rule of thumb:
Green tea and yellow tea — consume within a year of harvest.
White tea, oolong tea, black tea, pu-erh, and hei cha can be stored for multiple years and even aged for longer.
How to Store Tea
How to store tea leaves? The best way to keep teas is away from sunlight, oxygen, humidity, and odors. If the tea leaves get a lot of light or sunshine, they will lose taste. And if there is too much humidity, the tea can easily mold. We recommend storing tea leaves in tins or ceramic jars. When it comes to pu-erh cakes, you can keep them in their original wrapping. It's best to let the pu-erh cakes breathe, especially if you wish to age them even further.
Cha Qi (茶气) is a fascinating concept. A direct translation for it would be "the energy of tea." Indeed, this is the energy that tea possesses. It's something that we feel rather than describe. Chances are if you've felt this tea experience — you are well familiar with what we're getting at.
Most tea enthusiasts encounter Cha Qi when drinking a mighty good pu-erh. This tea energy shouldn't be confused with the energy we get from tea's caffeine content. It is more of subtle energy. We feel it when we drink tea for the soul — becoming one with the tea. To feel Cha Qi, we recommend meditating while drinking your tea. It might be easier to capture the feeling this way.
What Does "Tea Drunk" or "Tea High" Mean?
Tea drunk (茶醉 – Cha Zui) is a state we are in when we drink significant amounts of a particular type of tea. It comes from the interaction of caffeine, L-theanine, and catechins within the tea leaves. Being tea drunk is a state of feeling alert, creative and blissful, at the same time peaceful and relaxed.
The tea that gets you drunk doesn't have to be too specific, but it should be a high-quality loose leaf tea. You might have better luck with teas that contain a large amount of catechins (gyokuro and matcha), bud teas (Silver Needle white tea), or old tree teas (gu shu pu-erhs).
GABA oolong tea is processed differently than usual. Producers employ a unique nitrogen-rich / oxygen-free fermentation process, after which the tea leaves stock up on GABA. Other types of tea can also be used for such a process, though GABA oolong and green tea are, by far, the most popular ones.
GABA stands for gamma-Aminobutyric acid – a component directly responsible for our muscle tone regulation, improving sleep, calming the nerves, and balancing our mood.
Drinking tea with GABA may improve your mood and leave you feeling relaxed. Furthermore, we can receive GABA not only from the special GABA-rich tea but also from regular teas because the L-theanine found in tea aids the body in its GABA production.
Tea vs. Chai. What Does Chai Tea Taste Like?
The term "chai tea" is a bit of a misnomer. "Chai" means tea in Hindi, similarly to "cha" in Chinese. So technically, we are saying "tea tea" when we say "chai tea." However, this came to be the popularly accepted name for this delicious drink in the West.
Chai tea is an Indian black tea made with spices. Hence, chai tea is tea. Thanks to the addition of spices, chai is very aromatic and robust. Common spices that people add are cinnamon, cardamom, clove, black pepper, and ginger. Although the recipes vary by region, people usually add sugar and milk to chai tea.
No More Milk Tea
Drinking sweet tea became a popular tradition in Europe. The only reason that people added milk and sugar to black tea was to mask its bad taste. It could be because the leaves were old and the tea was tasteless or bitter. The thing is, with craft tea, you won't even want to add milk! Just give some proper Chinese hong cha a try, and you will notice it is already sweet and possesses a bouquet of flavors. You won't want to hide these beautiful notes with milk.
Tea Producing Countries
Although tea originated in China, now it's produced in nearly every country of the world. Of course, some countries lead in terms of tea production. They are:
1. China (43%)
2. India (22%)
4. Sri Lanka
At Path of Cha, we also source teas from Japan and Taiwan, which produce exceptionally unique and delicious teas. If we focus specifically on green tea production, then Japan is the second leading country in the world, after China.