Despite the fact many different beverages prepared in hot water are called “tea”, strictly speaking, it is only “tea” if it is a drink made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis, or, tea plant. The camellia sinensis is actually a type of evergreen plant originating in China and India, where tea has been traditionally grown and consumed for thousands of years. Today, tea is grown all over the world, from Japan, to parts of England, to Kenya.
It may be surprising to some to learn that all these teas we may know and love, green, white, black, pu’erh, oolong, are all actually made from the same leaves of the same plant. Tea, however, like wine, is altered and develops variation based on the environment and terroir of where it is grown, as well as what varietal of the camellia sinensis the leaves are gathered from, (there are two main official varietals, with a few regional ones too!). But what makes an Oolong an Oolong and a black tea is largely based on how the leaves are processed.
So how does a green and a pu’erh differ? It all comes down to oxidation. Oxidation begins as soon as a tea leaf is harvested from the plant. The following processes include the leaves being dried, withered, rolled and then heat treated. White teas are on the least oxidized end of the spectrum. They retain their silvery down and youthful softness, their taste and color are also usually much lighter and milder compared to other teas. After white is green, then Oolong, then black. Black tea is the most oxidized, with the leaves turning, well, black! The taste and color of the leaves when brewed are also much darker and stronger than other teas. Where pu’erh fits into this scale of oxidization is that it is also fermented as well as highly oxidized.
And tea is no small deal, it is the second most consumed drink worldwide after water. Today, Americans are joining in the trend of consuming more tea. With increased research and understanding of tea’s many health properties, such as the role of antioxidants in weight loss and prevention of diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease, more people are enjoying tea. If you needed any more reason to down a cup or two, freshly brewed tea is not just fat-free, but it is 100% natural, sugar-free, gluten-free, calorie-free and free of preservatives. While tea possesses caffeine, it is a lower amount than many other drinks and the L-theanine amino acid that naturally occurs in tea gives the energy boost from its caffeine a calm and relaxed feel, rather than an erratic, jittery one.
So, while the proper use of the term “tea” would be in reference only to beverages made with the leaves and parts of the camellia sinensis plant, we will be using the looser definition of tea as well. Drinks prepared with ingredients from non-camellia sinensis plants are often distinguished as “tisanes” or “infusions”. Here we will refer to them also as “tea”, and distinguish them as herbal, floral, root, etc. Tea from the camellia sinensis will be distinguished as “leaf tea”. That should clear things up, right?