Discover the World of Tea: An In-Depth Guide to Different Tea Varieties

types of tea

The primary tea types are black tea, white tea, green tea, oolong tea, pu-erh tea, Rooibos tea, and herbal infusion teas. Some teas are common, and some are extremely rare. All, apart from herbal teas, are variations of the same tea plant, Camelia sinensis.

Are black teas stronger than green teas? What about herbal teas or rooibos? Can you differentiate the whites from oolongs or the herbals from pu-erh?

If you’re new to tea or a tea enthusiast, you may find the number of options overwhelming. Hopefully, our comprehensive guide will help

Camellia sinensis, the source of all teas

Camellia sinensis

All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub that may grow up to sixty feet tall in the wild. When cultivated for harvesting, tea bushes are kept to a height of about three feet. There are over 3000 varieties of tea, each with its specific characteristics.

The naming of teas is in many ways similar to wine. For example, Assam tea is named after the Assam region in India and Yunnan tea is named after the Chinese province of Yunnan. Climate, soil conditions, and how the tea is processed will all together determine its flavor characteristics.

Here is a brief introduction to the main tea groups:

Black Tea

black tea

Black Tea Origins:

The origins of black tea can be traced back thousands of years to ancient China. According to legend, Emperor Shen Nung accidentally discovered it when some leaves from a tea plant blew into his boiling water. Why he was boiling the water, nobody knows 🙂

Black tea was originally cultivated and consumed in China before spreading to Asia and the Western world. The first documented imports of black tea to North America were in the 1700’s when the drink gained popularity as an alternative to coffee. 

Black Tea: Recent History

The British East India Company played a major role in introducing tea to the American colonies through their tea shipments. Never known to pass up the opportunity to make money, the East India Company heaped taxes on tea imports. This led to the Boston Tea Party protest in 1773, which defiantly rejected the tea shipments in an important and symbolic moment in American history.

Despite these early political tensions over black tea in America, it continued to rise in prominence, and by the early 20th century, iced black tea had become a staple beverage in the Southern United States.

How Black Tea is Produced:

Black tea, like all teas, is made from the Camellia sinensis plant. The leaves go through a full process of oxidation to produce their dark color and complex flavor.

Farmers cultivate tea plants in humid, tropical climates in countries like India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. The best leaves and buds are selected for black tea and are usually picked by hand. They are then dried, rolled, and sorted. After these steps, they are ready to be sold.

Chinese black teas are typically lighter and mellower in flavor compared to Indian black teas. Chinese black teas are often drunk without adding milk or sweeteners. They tend to have a slightly lower caffeine content than Indian black teas as well.

Well-known Chinese black teas are Keemun from Anhui Province and Yunnan Gold from Yunnan Province. Keemun is aromatic with fruity notes, while Yunnan Gold has a bold, malty taste.

Black Tea Health Benefits:

Black tea can improve heart health by reducing bad cholesterol, improving blood vessel function, and lowering blood pressure. The antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties of black tea may also strengthen immunity. Overall, in moderation, black tea offers various health benefits due to its abundant antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Adding milk may reduce the antioxidant capacity.

More black tea health benefits

White Tea

White tea

White Tea Origins:

White tea originates from Fujian province in China. It has been produced for centuries, potentially dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). This tea has a refreshing taste with floral notes, honey, and melon, making it a perfect choice for those who prefer a milder beverage.

How White Tea is Produced:

White tea is made from the younger leaves and buds of the Camellia sinensis plant. It undergoes minimal processing, which allows it to retain its natural flavor and appearance. The name “white tea” comes from the silver-white hairs on the unopened buds, which give them a silvery appearance.

White tea is typically drunk without milk or sweeteners. It is brewed at lower temperatures to avoid bitterness. White tea works well with light citrus, honey, fruits, and cocktails. It is often used chilled in iced tea or enjoyed hot with dim sum. The delicate flavor of white tea is best experienced without additions.

Health Benefits of White Tea:

Aside from a pleasant taste, white tea offers numerous health benefits. It is known to be rich in antioxidants, which are believed to help combat the damaging effects of free radicals in the body. Antioxidants help with health by reducing chronic disease risk, improving heart health, and boosting the immune system.

Additionally, white tea contains lower caffeine levels compared to other teas, making it a great choice for those looking to reduce their caffeine intake. The popularity of white tea has been steadily growing as more people become aware of its unique qualities and potential health benefits.

More white tea health benefits

Green Tea

Green tea

Green Tea Origins:

Green tea has its roots in China, where it originated over 3000 years ago during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). The earliest written reference to green tea is found in a Tang Dynasty text called Ch’a Ching. This book from 780 AD describes how tea leaves were steamed and then dried into a powder form that could be whisked into hot water.

Green tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks who traveled to China and brought back seeds and tea production knowledge in the 1200s. The Japanese went on to invent and refine various manufacturing processes for different types of green tea.

How Green Tea is Produced:

The leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant make green tea, which, like all teas, originates in China. Green tea undergoes minimal oxidation during processing because the leaves are quickly steamed or pan-fried after picking. The leaves dry at low temperatures, preserving their natural color and nutrients. This process sets it apart from black or oolong teas that go through more extensive fermentation.

Health Benefits of Green Tea:

Green tea is sometimes marketed as an aid to weight loss. However, there is no firm evidence that green tea has a potential role in weight loss. Studies show that green tea and its compounds may help burn fat and boost metabolism. However, the effects are generally modest without other lifestyle changes.

Green tea may improve brain function by enhancing focus, attention, memory, and cognitive performance, in addition to managing weight. Caffeine and L-theanine together provide a balanced energy boost without jitters or crashes.

Furthermore, green tea has immune-boosting properties. Its high concentration of antioxidants helps protect the body against free radicals, reducing stress and inflammation. This may contribute to a strengthened immune system and lower the risk of chronic diseases.

More green tea health benefits

Oolong Tea:

Oolong tea

Oolong Tea Origins:

Oolong tea originated in China and can trace its history back to the Ming Dynasty around the 17th century. Oolong tea was first produced in the Wuyi Mountains in southeastern China’s Fujian province. 

The term “oolong” means “black dragon” in Chinese, referring to the dark color of the leaves after processing. Oolong tea started in Fujian and later expanded to Guangdong and Taiwan in China.

How Oolong Tea is Produced:

Oolong tea is made from the same plant as black and green tea, but it goes through a partial fermentation process. This is different from black tea, which is fully fermented, and green tea, which is not fermented at all. Oolong tea gets its unique taste, smell, and color from a process called partial oxidation.

One of the key factors contributing to Oolong’s popularity is the wide range of flavors it can offer. The lighter Oolongs have floral notes reminiscent of orchids or jasmine flowers and with a subtle sweetness. Darker Oolongs have deeper flavors like toasted nuts or caramelized sugar with hints of roasted undertones.

Health Benefits of Oolong Tea:

Like green tea, Oolong contains beneficial antioxidants such as catechins, which may help protect against stress. 

Furthermore, researchers have associated the polyphenols present in this variety with boosting metabolism, stabilizing blood sugar levels, and supporting weight management. Oolong tea may also help with digestion, heart health, and the immune system.

More Oolong tea health benefits

Pu-erh Tea:

Pu-erh tea

Pu-erh Tea Origins:

Pu-erh tea comes from Yunnan province in China, specifically the Pu’er region. It has a history of over 1700 years. Production and cultivation of pu-erh tea in Yunnan date back to the Tang Dynasty in 618–907 BCE.

By the 1500s, pu-erh tea production had grown substantially in Yunnan, including compressed tea cakes. Pu-erh remained a largely regional tea until its wider distribution in China’s 1980s reform period. In 2008, pu-erh tea from Yunnan received Protected Geographical Indication status. Yunnan province remains the source of nearly all quality pu-erh tea, as indicated by “Yunnan Pu-erh” labels.

How Pu-erh Tea is Produced:

Pu-erh tea production begins with harvesting the leaves and stems of the Camellia sinensis plant. The leaves wilt and oxidize to remove moisture and initiate oxidation. Next, frying the leaves rapidly stops oxidation and reduces the water content, giving them a dark green/brown “kill green” color.

The leaves are then rolled into curly shapes by hand or machine which further removes moisture. After rolling, the leaves are completely sun-dried over 1-3 days until reaching very low moisture levels.

The dried leaves are compressed into cakes, bricks, or bowls or left loose. Compressed pu-erh is wrapped and fermented for months or years, improving its flavor based on temperature and humidity. The loose leaf pu-erh can also be aged or immediately sold unfermented as “green pu-erh”. Longer aging of five or more years creates a “vintage” dark, earthy pu-erh.

Health Benefits of Pu-erh Tea:

Pu-erh tea is rich in antioxidants that may help reduce free radical damage, lower inflammation, and protect cells. The fermentation process may further increase the tea’s antioxidant capacity.

Pu-erh teas’ unique chemical profile makes it a valued Chinese medicine for treating digestive issues, promoting weight loss, detoxification, heart health, and general preventative healthcare.

insulin sensitivity. The calming effects of L-theanine in pu-erh tea can ease anxiety and depression while improving mood. In moderation, the unique chemistry of aged, fermented pu-erh tea can provide a variety of research-backed health benefits, although high caffeine levels may be a concern.

More pu-erh tea health benefits

Rooibos Tea:

Rooibos tea

Rooibos Tea Origins

Rooibos is indigenous to South Africa and grows nowhere else in the world. Rooibos is found exclusively in Cederberg, a mountainous region north of Cape Town. Local Afrikaners have harvested rooibos leaves for centuries, using them to make a tea-like beverage. In 1772, Swedish explorer Carl Thunberg first documented Europeans drinking “rooibos” or “redbush” tea.

Rooibos Tea History

Indigenous Khoisan tribes of South Africa were the first to forage and use rooibos long before European settlers arrived. They harvested the needle-like leaves from wild rooibos shrubs and brewed them into a tea, which they called “konchai”.

In the 1700s, European settlers like Carl Thunberg learned of rooibos’ uses from locals. But it wasn’t until 1904 that Russian immigrant Benjamin Ginsberg realized the commercial potential of wild South African rooibos. He began offering it as “Mountain Tea.”

By the 1950s and 1960s, scientists like Dr. Le Fras Nortier were working to cultivate rooibos agriculturally to meet growing demand. Advancements in cultivation, processing, and distribution helped rooibos become widely popular by the 1970s. Today, it is a thriving global industry.

How Rooibos Tea is Produced

Rooibos only grows in its small Cederberg homeland. The shrub needs specific climate conditions only found in this region: hot summers, cool winters, and limited rainfall. Rooibos is still a wild crop, but cultivated plantations make harvesting more efficient.

The green, needle-like leaves and stems are cut by hand when plants reach maturity. They are bruised and left to ferment, which creates rooibos’ signature reddish-brown color and rich, earthy taste. Fermentation time determines the final flavor. Longer fermentation produces a smoother, sweeter tea.

Once fermented, leaves are dried in the sun or by machines. The withered leaves are then cut again to produce loose tea leaves ready for steeping. Unlike ordinary tea, rooibos do not grow dark leaves or buds, only fine needle-like foliage. This gives it a unique appearance and taste.

Rooibos Tea Health Benefits

Traditional folk medicine used rooibos to treat infant colic, stomach pains, allergies, eczema and more. Modern research has found antioxidants like aspalathin and others that may promote health.

Studies show rooibos is rich in polyphenols that act as antioxidants in the body to help combat cell damage from free radicals. Rooibos may assist with heart health by boosting HDL cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. The antioxidants may also support liver health, bone health, and immune function.

Rooibos is naturally caffeine-free, making it a soothing beverage before bedtime. It is also low in tannins and gentler on digestion than true teas. Rooibos provides hydration without overstimulation. These attributes have contributed to rooibos tea’s enduring popularity around the world.

Herbal Tea:

Herbal teas

Herbal Tea Origins:

Herbal teas have a rich history, dating back thousands of years. The ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilizations valued herbal infusions for their health benefits, such as chamomile tea in Egypt and chrysanthemum tea in China. Indigenous peoples worldwide also brewed local herbs, roots, berries, and flowers for hot water infusions.

The Romans brought herbal teas to Europe. Monks and apothecaries in medieval Europe improved how they grew and made them. In the 1600s, imported peppermint and citrus herbs were mixed with European herbs for taste and healing.

The Victorian era in 19th-century England popularized the tradition of afternoon herbal tea. In the early 20th century, modern herbal tea blends emerged, combining flavors with perceived wellness benefits.

Today, herbal tea is a global market that respects regional tea traditions, with popular varieties including chamomile, hibiscus, rooibos, and mint.

Herbal Tea Production:

Herbal teas are made from plants such as chamomile, ginger, rooibos, mint, and hibiscus. These teas are created by collecting the leaves, roots, bark, flowers, or seeds of these plants. For roots, cleaning, chopping, and peeling may precede the drying process, and seeds may be toasted before drying.

The dried herbs are then either sold loose or processed into tea bags, often blended with other herbs, fruits, or spices. Flowers like chamomile and rosehips stay whole in tea bags, while ginger roots are chopped finely.

Some herbal teas, such as rooibos, enhance their flavor through oxidation, while others retain freshness with minimal processing. Specialized herbal teas, such as pu-erh blooming teas, may involve additional steps like pressing and fermenting.

Health Benefits of Herbal Tea:

Different herbal teas promise different health benefits. Here are some examples:

  • Chamomile tea has antioxidants that may reduce inflammation, relax the body and mind, and help with sleep.
  • Peppermint tea aids in digestion and also serves as a decongestant for colds.
  • Hibiscus tea is abundant in antioxidants that may contribute to the reduction of blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Echinacea tea boosts the immune system and helps with colds because it fights viruses and reduces inflammation.
  • Licorice tea helps soothe and protect the throat, providing relief from coughs, sore throats, and bronchitis.
  • Dandelion tea helps remove toxins, cleanse the liver, and reduce water weight by increasing urine production.
  • Ginger tea aids in digestion, alleviates nausea, combats the flu, and reduces inflammation through compounds like gingerol.
  • Holy basil tea helps lower blood sugar, reduce anxiety, and protect against infections.
  • Rooibos tea is rich in antioxidants, has the potential to improve cholesterol levels, and is naturally caffeine-free.

More herbal tea health benefits

White, Green, Black, and Oolong Tea: What’s the Difference?

If you prefer a visual introduction to tea from ACS Reactions (American Chemical Society) then press the play button on this video:

Every day, more than 159 million Americans are enjoying a cup of tea, as reported by The Tea Association of the USA.

If you want to go into detail about the health benefits of individual teas, then please follow one of these links for a deep dive.