The Rainbow of Tea

by Nina Rubin

Green, black, white, red–the vast array of tea varieties can be dizzying. With the sudden upsurge of interest in high-quality loose-leaf teas, where does a newcomer begin? How about starting with the one plant that produces every tea in the world? The Camellia sinensis is an evergreen native of China. It takes a variety of forms, growing 15 to 20 meters tall, with leaves ranging from smooth and shiny to fuzzy and white-haired. The plant gives rise to more than 3,000 varieties of tea worldwide, which can be roughly classified into six basic categories: white, green, oolong, black (the Chinese call these red teas), pu-erh, and flavored. Some specialists would add another category, blends. And then there are countless herbal infusions, informally referred to as “tea” but entirely unrelated to “real” tea made from Camellia sinensis leaves.

White Tea

White tea is the rarest of all tea types. A specialty of Fujian province on China's east coast, it was relatively hard to come by outside of China until recently. The name comes from the almost colorless liquor, and from the silvery hairs found on the buds of the plant. Delicate in flavor as well as color, the tea has a subtle, slightly sweet flavor and a mellow creamy or nutty quality. White tea consists of the whitish buds of the tea plant; lower quality varieties contain some leaves as well. The buds (and leaves) are naturally dried using either sun drying or steaming methods. This is the final step in the production process, as white tea is unfermented.

Green Tea

Green tea makes up approximately ten percent of the world’s tea. The production process, like that of white tea, starts with withering, followed by pan-frying or steaming to prevent fermentation. (The two types differ in that white tea has a higher proportion of buds to leaves.) After steaming and before drying, green tea leaves are rolled to give them the desired shape. In China, this consists of eyebrow-shaped or twisted pieces, tight balls, flat needles, or curled whole leaves. Japanese green tea leaves are shiny green blades with reddish stalks and stems. Green tea is greenish-yellow in color, with a grassy, astringent quality reminiscent of the fresh leaves. Scientific studies have shown that both green and black teas prevent cavities and gum disease, and increase the body’s antioxidant activity.

The Desired Shape

Tea comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from whole leaves to dust, and tight curls to jagged shards. Tea can also be compressed into balls, cakes or bricks.

Oolong Tea

Often referred to as “the champagne of teas,” oolongs are considered to be among the finest–and therefore most expensive - teas in the world. Most oolongs hail from Taiwan; in China they are also referred to as pouchongs. Oolong tea is “semi-fermented,” meaning that it goes through a short period of oxidation (fermentation) that turns the leaves from green to red-brown. The liquor is pale yellow, with a floral, fruity quality - reminiscent of peaches – and a hint of smoke. Due to the delicacy of the flavor, connoisseurs generally prefer drinking it without milk, sugar or lemon.


After being withered, the leaves are shaken briskly (and repeatedly) to bruise the edges. It is these edges that turn red during the oxidation process; the un-bruised centers of the leaves generally remain green.

Black Tea

Though known to most of the world as “black tea,” the Chinese call it “red tea” due to its characteristic reddish-brown color. Black tea is the most common type of tea worldwide. It has a broad range of flavors, but is typically heartier and more assertive than green or oolong teas. It is made by fully fermenting the harvested leaves (for several hours) before the heating or drying processes occur. This oxidation imparts a dark coloring and triples the caffeine.

Pu-erh Tea

Pu-erh (or Puer) tea is in a category all its own. Though it could simply be classified as a type of Chinese black tea, it is differentiated from other black teas by the fact that it is fermented not once, but twice. The double oxidation process is followed by a period of maturation, which is often used to develop a thin layer of mold on the leaves. The mold imparts a distinctive soil-like flavor that many people find off-putting. For this reason, pu-erh tea is often consumed for medicinal purposes rather than for pleasure – aside from being known for its strong earthy quality, it is recognized as a powerful digestive aid.

Fermented not once, but twice

Here is a visual representation of the relative degree of fermentation of common tea types:


Flavored Tea

Tea easily absorbs other aromas and tastes. Thus tea drinkers the world over have long enhanced their tea with additional flavors, from flowers and oils to herbs and spices. Flavoring tea is a well-established tradition in China, where, for centuries, people have brewed tea with onions, orange peel, peach leaves, and berries. The Chinese are also known for their flower teas - popular varieties include jasmine, orchid, rose, and magnolia.

In many Arabic nations, mint (plus a generous amount of sugar) is the flavoring of choice. In India, the spicy “masala tea” is a popular beverage. It is made by boiling black tea with spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and black or white pepper; milk and sugar are usually added as well. Beyond herbs and spices, the flavor craze has more recently spurred manufacturers to produce tea with just about <every flavor imaginable, from banana to toffee pudding.


The flavors are added after the manufacturing process is complete. Large-scale manufacturers typically employ one of two techniques: a flavored liquid is sprayed onto the leaves, or granules are mixed in with the tea.


Blends are the mutts of the tea world, possessing mixed heritages, so to speak, rather than a single lineage. Tea producers make blends by combining different types of teas, often in order to achieve flavor consistency from one season to the next. Common blends include English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast, and Caravan.

Common Blends

English Breakfast tea was, ironically enough, developed by a Scot. It acquired its full name only after becoming wildly popular with Queen Victoria - and thus the whole of England. It consists of a blend of black teas, often including Keemun tea. Earl Grey is also associated with England, as it was named after a British prime minister who presided over the country during William IV’s reign (1830-37 AD). It is a blend of black teas, its characteristic tangy flavor due to the addition of citrus oil from the bergamot orange.

Irish Breakfast tea, as the name suggests, hails from Ireland. It is a robust black tea blend, generally made with an Assam tea base. Due to the strength of the brew, it is usually drunk in the morning, and is served with a considerable amount of sugar and milk. Caravan tea is also heavily sweetened, most often with sugar but also with honey or jam. Caravan has its origins in imperial Russia, getting its name from the camel caravans that brought the tea (usually a blend of Chinese and Indian black teas) overland.

Herbal Infusions & Tisanes

The word “tea” is often loosely used to describe any beverage made with the leaves of a plant. But technically speaking, true “tea” is made from the Camellia sinensis – and everything else isn’t “tea” at all. Connoisseurs and tea professionals will tell you that all leaf-derived drinks other than true “tea” should be referred to as tisanes or herbal infusions.

Tisane (tee-ZAHN) is what many people think of as “herbal tea,” that is, a drink made by steeping various herbs, spices, flowers, etc. in boiling water. The term “herbal infusion” is pretty much the same thing: a drink made by steeping an herb in hot water. These herbal drinks are commonly associated with physical and mental health, and are consumed for their soothing or rejuvenating qualities. They also suit the needs of those who wish to avoid caffeine. Common herbal beverages are chamomile, peppermint, fennel, rose hip, and lemon verbena.


The mild stimulating effect of caffeine is thought to be one of the primary reasons for the long-term popularity of tea. Despite this fact, some drinkers prefer to limit their caffeine intake. As all varieties of Camellia sinensis contain caffeine – and thus all true tea - the choices are limited: drink decaf, or go herbal.

It is generally accepted that the decaffeinating process affects the flavor of the liquor. There are three main decaffeinating processes, each of which involves the use of solvents. While these solvents successfully dissolve the majority of the caffeine, they also affect other elements of the tea, ultimately creating a weaker brew.

An alternative to drinking decaf is to double brew the leaves. As caffeine is highly soluble, nearly 80% of it will be extracted from the leaves in the first 20-30 seconds of steeping. Thus to reduce the caffeine in tea with a minimum loss of flavor, pour boiling water over the leaves and allow them to steep for 30 seconds. Discard this first batch of tea and pour fresh boiling water over the rinsed leaves; brew for the prescribed time.