what is tea?

Believe it or not all tea comes from the same leaf of the camellia sinensis bush and its three major varieties. 

Depending on how the leaf is processed, it becomes one of the following varieties of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black or pu-erh. The main difference between these teas is the level of oxidation - the chemical change that occurs in the leaf due to air exposure, similar to the process a piece of fruit undergoes if allowed to sit on your kitchen cupboard for a long time! White tea leaves are the least processed and are dried naturally after picking, without giving the air much chance to change their chemical makeup. But black and pu-erh teas are highly processed, allowing the leaf to release higher levels of caffeine and alter their flavour.

Overall, any of the following can impact a tea’s flavour, including:

  • Terroir – soil, climate and altitude where the plant is grown
  • Harvest methods – time of day/month leaf is ‘plucked’, machine or hand-picking
  • Processing methods – level of oxidation
  • Size of tea leaf – full-size loose leaf tea vs smaller ‘fanning’ pieces found in bags
  • Infusion methods – filtered vs non-filtered water, steeping time

How can one leaf create all of those types of tea?
As soon as a tea leaf is picked the chemical makeup will begin to change, just like a piece of fruit starts to brown or turn soft. Leaves that are allowed the most exposure to air, and therefore the most changes in their chemical makeup, create oolong, black and pu-erh teas. These teas have more caffeine because during this longer oxidation process they release more tannins as their chemical structure changes. White, yellow and green teas are the least processed, meaning the leaf is immediately allowed to dry in the sun or steamed to stop the air from changing its chemical makeup after being picked. This means they are lower in caffeine and are often higher in antioxidants.

Where does tea come from?
The world’s biggest and most popular tea producing countries include:
  • China
  • Taiwan
  • Japan
  • Kenya
  • India
  • Sri Lanka
  • Turkey

So what’s the difference in taste and is it all good for you?
All of these teas have different flavours ranging from floral to nutty to fruity. Some have chocolate notes, others might remind you of sweet potato and mushrooms and some taste like drinking an orchid flower. They all have amazing health benefits such as aiding in weight-loss and digestion, fighting free radicals that cause aging and disease and even helping with hangovers! Teas are also lower in caffeine than coffee and at something like 10 cents per cup of loose leaf tea, it’s one of the cheapest ways to satisfy your thirst.

Is herbal tea the same as ‘tea’?
Herbal tea is NOT made from this same leaf. Herbal tea, often referred to as a ‘tisane’, refers to any leaf that doesn’t come from the camellia sinesis bush. Popular examples of herbs (tisanes) include mate from Argentina, rooibos from South Africa and popular herbs such as peppermint, chamomile and lemon myrtle (grown in Australia!).

Why should I drink loose leaf tea versus tea bags?
Tea bags don’t contain the same flavour or health benefits as loose leaf tea. Generally speaking, tea bags contain ‘dust’ or small pieces of tea leaves left over after processing loose leaf tea leaves. You wouldn’t eat the crumbs off your floor would you??? So don’t give in to the bag!