Tea 101

Everything you've ever wanted to know about tea (and tisanes).

Tea is the second most popular beverage around the world, eclipsed only by water. In general, tea refers to dried leaves of the camellia sinensis plant prepared by steeping in hot water. It can be served hot or cold. In the United States, 85 percent of the tea consumed is iced, a uniquely American preference. One pound of tea leaves yields about 200 cups, making tea one of the cheapest beverages available, following tap water.

The camellia sinensis plant is grown at high altitudes in damp, tropical regions. Tea, like wine, is named for its place of origin, such as Darjeeling, Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) and Assam.

The three most common types of tea in the United States, black, green and oolong, vary by their treatment after picking. Black tea is fermented, or oxidized, for four hours, which produces an amber brown color and strong flavor when brewed. Green tea is not fermented and when brewed tastes slightly bitter and appears yellow-green. Oolong is partially oxidized for two to three hours in order to combine the characteristics of black and green tea. A fourth type of tea gaining popularity in the United States is white tea. This subtly-flavored tea is produced by picking the new buds of the tea plant before they open and drying, but not fermenting, them.

Herbal teas are not considered "real" teas because they are not produced from the camellia sinesis plant. Herbal teas, also called tisanes, are made from steeping fresh or dried flowers, herbs, seeds or roots in hot water. Popular varieties include chamomile, ginseng and lemon balm. Traditionally, indigenous herbal medicines were administered as tisanes. Today, many people believe in herbal teas’ therapeutic qualities, but should speak to their doctors about any possible adverse interactions with their current medications.

Drinking tea can be a tasty complement to a healthy diet. Tea prepared simply with water contains no fat, no cholesterol, no sodium and no sugar and contains antioxidants which studies have shown have many health benefits.

There are as many teas to choose from as there are tastes. The teas listed below are a few of the many varieties available.

Assam: A rich black tea from northeastern India, brews to a reddish color and is considered a breakfast tea due to its brisk, assertive flavor.

Ceylon: A full-flavored black tea from Sri Lanka, brews to a golden color with citric notes and produces an excellent iced tea that does not appear cloudy when cooled.

Rooibos:  A South African sweet, earthy and nutty tea that is lacking in tannins which makes it mild and less astringent than other tea types. Also known as redbush.

Chai: An Indian-spiced black tea blend, usually featuring cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves and black peppercorns; tastes spicy and complex and is usually served sweetened and with milk.

Darjeeling: A full-bodied black tea from the foothills of the Himalayas in northeastern India, called the "champagne of teas," brews to a soft amber color and has a pungent, floral aroma.

Earl Grey: A blend of black teas that usually includes Darjeeling, flavored with oil of bergamot oranges, fragrant and exotic, usually drank as an afternoon tea.

English Breakfast: A blend of Indian and Sri Lankan black teas, brews to a rich color with a full-bodied and robust taste that many prefer with milk and/or sugar.

Formosa Oolong: An expensive oolong tea from Taiwan, has the rich flavor of black tea and light tanginess of green tea, brews to a yellow-green color, aroma is reminiscent of ripe peaches.

Gunpowder: A green tea from China with a pungent flavor, roasted aroma and light straw color.

Keemun: A mellow black tea from China, has a strong aroma and a less astringent taste than other black teas.

Lapsang souchong: A smoked black tea from China, brews dark brown and often served as an afternoon tea or with dinner.

Matcha: A powdered green tea from Japan, has a light sweetness and can be used to flavor foods.

What is your favorite tea?
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