Aside from water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world! Even here in coffee-loving America, 80% of households have tea in their cupboards, and iced tea is now even more popular than soda.
In Britain, tea is famously the national drink, with poorly-made tea being the cause for many an argument. In India, chai wallahs are an ever-present sight, and the country is the largest consumer of tea in the world, drinking 30% of global tea output each year.
And yet, very few people know where tea and "tea" (tisanes) come from, how they are made, what they look like, or about the different types. In this article, we'll cover:
- What is tea?
- What is a tisane?
- What are tea blends?
- How does processing affect the taste of tea?
- What are the types of tea?
- What are popular types of herbal tisanes?
Ready to expand your tea knowledge? Let's go!
A classic cup of milky black tea in Penang, Malaysia. Delicious, but not a whole lot of antioxidants due to the milk!
What is Tea?
Tea is simply dried leaves from one specific type of evergreen: a type of camellia. Its Latin name is Camellia var. sinensis.
There are two main varieties of tea plants: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (translates to the Chinese Chinese camellia) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (the Indian Chinese camellia). ~~
There are other varieties that are used to produce smaller quantities, as well as a host of other hybrids, but these two provide the vast bulk of tea produced worldwide. (For those curious to Google about, other varieties include Camellia sinensis var. pubilimba, Camellia sinensis var. dehungensis and Camellia sinensis var. cambodiensis.)
In addition, there are thousands of cultivars of tea, "cultivar" meaing a cultivated variety, as in: human made! Why create cultivars? Well hybrids have been made to try to expand on a particular trait in a tea, perhaps hardiness, or reduce others perhaps a change of natural flavor.
Wild tea plants can grow up to 15’ and 60’ tall (depending on the variety), but cultivated tea is kept trimmed into low, waist-high bushes. For example, such as pictured in the cover image above - one of our favorites we took while in the a tea plantation in Malaysia.
One tea plant can produce tea for hundreds of years, though usually they are retired/chopped down after around 80 years.
Withering fresh tea leaves for 1-2 days is the first step when making tea, as seen at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation, Munnar, India
What Is a Tisane? Is It Different from Tea?
There are many beverages that are referred to as "tea," but are not. Any plant other than Camellia sinensis that has been steeped in hot water and turned into a drink is an "infusion" or "tisane," not tea.
Many of the "teas" at Matcha Alternatives are not actually teas, but tisanes. A full description of all these tisanes is given below.
What Are Tea Blends?
Blending means adding an extra flavor to a tea, whether it’s an oil, flower, fruit, spice or so on.
One of the most classic blends is, of course, Earl Grey, which is made by mixing oil from the Bergamot orange into loose tea (most usually black tea, but we've found that red rooibos makes for a gorgeous Earl Grey base. Click here if you want to try it!)
We have a seriously extensive range of rooibos blends, by the way, ranging from delicate to strong, sweet and fruity to rich and robust.
Blended teas are a mix of tea leaves, herbal teas and/or natural flavorings, such as rose petals, bergamot oil & blossoms, and jasmine flowers
How Does Processing Determine How a Tea Tastes?
How the tea (or tisane) is processed makes all the difference. A bag of Lipton and a top-quality loose leaf white tea selling for hundreds of dollars per kilo could easily come from the same plant, just as Bells and Lagavulin whiskies are both made from barley and water.
Which leaf has been plucked?
Tea professionals have names for each leaf on the branch on the Camellia sinensis plant, with the youngest leaves (including the buds) being the most valuable.
The older leaves further, down the branch, are used for bulk black teas like Twinings, Lipton and Bigelow, where a strong malty flavor is required but not much delicacy.
How tea plant leaves are graded when making black tea in India, Nepal, Tibet and Sri Lanka.
Whether the tea has been oxidized or not
Like an apple, tea leaves start to go brown after being picked; green tea has not been oxidized, whereas black tea has been. This oxidization process happens to any plucked leaf.
As a rule of thumb, the less a leaf is oxidized, the more antioxidants, nutrients and minerals it retains. For example, green rooibos has far more antioxidants than red rooibos, simply due to it being dried before oxidizing rather than after.
If the tea has been fermented or not
Fermentation creates pu’erh teas, which taste and smell like a wood-room or cellar or rotten log, in a good way.
Teas that have mistakenly fermented are often then roasted, to cover up the slightly funny taste.
If the tea has been steamed or fried
The Japanese tend to steam their green teas, whereas the Chinese tend to fry them.
Steaming leads to a fresher, brinier taste which can almost be salty, while frying results in sweeter, more floral flavors.
To learn more about the difference between Chinese and Japanese green teas, check out our post on the subject.
Chopping up the withered tea leaves to make very fine tea used for strong brews and teabags, as seen at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation, Munnar, India
How the leaves have been treated
Tea leaves can be chopped up into tiny dust-like pieces (see photo above of this process in action in Munnar, India), rolled into balls, rolled up like a rug, chopped and dried into little disks, and more.
The shape affects what parts of the leaf flavor come through during brewing, and how many times the leaf can be steeped.
For example, Chinese Gunpowder green tea, so called due to the tea leaves being rolled into tight little balls, can be steeped multiple times as the leaves slowly unfurl and release more oils and goodness.
Yerba mate leaves, on the other hand, are sold in disc shapes, and the traditional way of brewing is slowly adding hot water to a corner of the mug, drinking it, adding some more, drinking it, and so forth until all the leaves have finally been wetted.
Once all the yerba mate leaves have gotten wet a few times, they won’t have much flavor, and the mate will be "lavado," or washed. Then it’s time to throw it out and start a new cup.
How the tea has been dried at the very end of the process
Some types of tea are roasted to add a smoky flavor, like with many oolongs, the famous Russian Caravan black tea and our Roasty Toasty Yerba Mate.
What Are the Main Types of Tea?
The main ‘true’ tea types, from the Camellia sinensis plant, are:
Made from the buds and two youngest leaves, not cooked, oxidized or roasted. Generally delicate, floral and smooth. It also needs to be brewed for at least five minutes - sometimes up to 10!
For an in-depth introduction to white tea, check out our white tea spotlight post here.
Made from any part of the tea plant, but not oxidized or roasted at all; at most, a green tea will be 5% oxidized. However, the leaves are cooked (fried or steamed as discussed above), which gives them a bit more strength and taste than white tea leaves.
To learn more about green tea, its benefits, and the difference between the Japanese and Chinese types, check out our green tea spotlight post!
Brewed and unbrewed looseleaf purple tea from Kenya
Technically the same as green tea (same processing and oxidization, and therefore not on the above chart), purple tea is only from a specific type of tea cultivar. Although originally from China, Kenya has led the way in developing this cultivar and is now a world-leader in purple tea production.
The leaves of the bush are a beautiful reddish purple color, hence the name, due to high levels of anthocyanins.
Anthocyanins are the antioxidants responsible for giving blueberries and blackberries their purple hue, and may offer anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-cancer benefits according to initial studies.
The flavor of purple tea is like a rich green tea, and the liquor is a lilac-green, perfect for impressing easily impressed people. Our Purple Tea looks somewhere between a green and black tea.
To learn more about purple tea and its benefits, check out our purple tea spotlight post here.
Yellow tea is extremely rare, even within China, where it is normally reserved for diplomats and high-ranking government officials.
However, there are a lot of knock-off 'yellow' teas on the market that are actually 'yellowed' green teas. A true yellow tea is exceptionally difficult to produce; it's gently oxidized after harvesting via 'sweltering' (wrapped up in cloth or paper or heaped in a special way), steamed or pan fried loose, then wrapped again, repeatedly.
This process is a sort of "post-oxidation," since this gentle heating usually stops oxidation (the "fixing"). This process makes it less vegetal, seaweedy or grassy than green tea due to the extra oxidization, and it has a strong semi-roasted aroma.
Heat it for a touch too long, and the yellow tea becomes a raw pu'erh tea, making its value drop through the floor.
This is prepared similarly to green tea, but it is semi-oxidized, from 5-90% oxidization. Cheaper oolongs tend to be roasted to cover the flavor of cheap tea or mistaken fermentation.
Higher quality oolongs aren’t usually roasted. They have a decent caffeine kick, too, that increases with the level of oxidization.
The classic tea we all know and love, fully oxidized, from any leaf. Most black tea is from Kenya and India, and is predominantly consumed as fannings, 'dust' tea or CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl), normally in teabags. Lower caffeine levels than green or white tea, with the major caveat that the smaller the leaf size (e.g. 'dust' tea in teabags) and making it with boiling water means more caffeine in released. So a cup of black tea can still pack a punch!
An uncommon type of Pu'erh: packed into a hollowed out mandarin orange and then baked. Known as Ju Pu tea, it's difficult to find but well worth the hunt!
A fully oxidized tea that has also been fermented and is (meant to be) from the Pu'erh region of China. "Fermented" is often confused with "oxidised"...even by English speakers outside the world of tea, but they are different things. As we just described, black tea has been oxidized fully, but has not been fermented (as in, with bacteria and fungus such as yeast).
Pu'erh can also come from any leaf on the tea bush, but generally the larger leaves are used. The processing tends to obscure some of the more astringent flavors of older (and cheaper) leaves. The processing also tends to degrade the antioxidants in the leaf.
What is the Difference Between Shou vs Sheng Pu'erh?
There are two main types of pu'erh tea: sheng pu'erh (raw or unripened) and shou pu'erh (ripened). (These are anglicizations so you will see other spellings and names for the same thing.)
Sheng pu'erh has been naturally fermented: after initial processing, it is stored in a warm, moist environment which will aid the growth of the natural bacteria and fungi. Pu'erh can be left to mature for anything from a few years to well over one hundred. As you can imagine the price reflects this patience!
Shou pu'erh is made when, instead of waiting all these years, the producer manually accelerates the fermentation process. Moisture and heat can be added, with further heaping, turning and mixing. This is a more recent development only a few decades old in an attempt to meet rising demand for pu'erh tea.
Effectively shou producers are trying to imitate the flavors of sheng pu'erh, but don't fret too much - consider how in whisky production barrels from wine or sherry or port are used to age and impart flavor to even the finest most expensive Scotch. Traditionalists of course, differ in their opinion!
Both types are usually pressed into "cakes" of tea (round discs wrapped in paper). This is to help prevent drying out whilst fermentation is occuring as well as for ease of storage and transport.
Matcha means any of the above teas ground up into a fine power, so you drink the actual leaf.
What? you say. I thought it was Japanese! Well, you’re basically right: Most matcha is made in Japan from special shaded green tea with a high chlorophyll content.
However, it is possible to make any of the above teas into a matcha, as the word simply means ‘ground-up tea’ in Japanese (mat cha). The Chinese matcha market has also been growing over the last decade due to popular demand.
Technically, our Superior Organic Moringa Powder counts as "matcha," although it is an herbal tea and not from the Camellia sinensis plant!
What Are the Main Herbal Tisane Types?
A tisane is anything treated like a tea, but not from the C. Sinensis bush. Almost all herbal teas are naturally caffeine free, with the major exceptions of yerba mate and coffee leaves, and range from leaves, such as lemon verbena, to flowers, such as rose or lavender petals, to fruits, such as dried apple and pear, to roots, such as turmeric, ginger and licorice. Many spices can also be used to make a tisane, such as cardamom pods or cloves.
Across the board, tisanes typically require longer brewing than 'true' tea and are generally quite tolerant of boiling water. (Yerba mate is again the exception though, with very sensitive leaves that burn easily.) Because of this, tisanes are commonly used as blending ingredients - this sounds intimidating, but it's really not! It's as simple as adding a spoonful of your herbal tea to whatever else you are brewing. Because of how resilient most tisanes are, you can brew at whatever temperature your tea requires, worry free.
The main tisanes that we sell here at Matcha Alternatives are below. Click the headers to read our dedicated blog posts about them if you want to learn more.
Chamomile’s sweet yellow flowers have been infused as a drink for millennia by those seeking its calming effects. Its name comes from the Greek word chamaimelon, meaning "ground apple", due to its sweet, gentle smell.
Chamomile can be made into a pleasant aromatic tea, which is slightly bitter with a fruity flavor. It is often sipped for relief of health problems, ranging from toothache to indigestion to nervousness.
Chamomile has also been noted as beneficial for soothing headaches, and is a natural relaxing herb known to assist the restless and those suffering from insomnia.
To learn more about chamomile and its benefits, check out our chamomile spotlight post!
Also known as holy basil, Tulsi is, unsurprisingly, a type of basil. When dried and brewed, though, it does not taste anything like the basil you are imagining.
The flavor is rich, warm, herbaceous and with a light spice and sweetness. The powerful taste has hallmarks of the menthol effect of a strong mint tea, with notes of peppermint, clove, or lemon.
Tulsi has a long history in its native place of the Indian subcontinent, being considered a sacred plant by Hindus. It is often planted around Hindu shrines and around the home, and is used extensively in Ayurvedic traditional medicine across hundreds of different remedies.
Tulsi is an adaptogenic tea, meaning that it helps the body regulate stress. To learn more about what adaptogens are and what they do, read our post about adaptogens.
To learn more about tulsi and its benefits, check out our tulsi spotlight post.
Mate is made from a cousin of the holly tree, and is native to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.
It is known as a coffee replacement due to its high caffeine content, and is made by brewing the dry roasted leaves of the tree, which are processed somewhat like tea leaves.
A cup of mate has 85mg of caffeine, and a cup of coffee has 95mg, but mate's caffeine doesn't cause the jitters or shakes of coffee thanks to its other antioxidants.
To learn more about yerba mate and its benefits, check out our yerba mate spotlight post here.
Rooibos is from the rooibos (red) bush, and honeybush from the…you guessed it, honeybush.
Rooibos has a rich, distinctive taste, and is only grown in a 3000 square-mile area in the Cedarburg Mountains near Cape Town, South Africa. Post harvest, the naturally green rooibos needles turn a deep red during the oxidation process, and brings another level of richness to the brew.
Honeybush has a similar reddish appearance to red rooibos (albeit a little brighter), and is a botanical cousin of rooibos, similarly grown in South Africa. Its flavor is a beautiful honey-like rich sweetness.
To learn more about rooibos and honeybush, check out our ever-popular rooibos vs honeybush spotlight post here.
Moringa is a rather large tree native to North India, and is one of the most remarkable teas we have discovered.
It is super rich in antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and nutrients, and is our only tea sold in powdered form. This means that you consume the ENTIRE leaf, not just an infusion from the leaves, so you get all the moringa goodness.
Moringa provides more fiber, vitamin A and vitamin C than matcha. Matcha doesn’t provide any protein, whereas Moringa provides all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein - a rare thing for the plant world.
Like tulsi, moringa is an adaptogenic tea, meaning that it gives you a natural, all-day energy boost. It is used to feel energetic and focused.
To learn more about moringa and its benefits, check out our moringa spotlight post here.
Whether it’s a tea or "tea," though, the same principals apply to how to brew a cup, with a few small variations. See our guide to brewing here.
Other Herbal Teas
Common herbal teas include lavender flowers, rose petals or buds, hibiscus petals, jasmine flowers, osmanthus flowers, lemon verbena, mint / peppermint, lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, licorice, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. They are almost always sold whole rather than powdered, and are used both for flavor and health.
To read in-depth about most of the herbals above, check out our spotlight piece Tea Blending Guide: 8 Blend@Home Herbals for Health.
A Note From Elizabeth
Next time you make yourself a cup of tea, have a think about which far-flung country it has come from, and how much work went into making it. There is so much to learn about tea, and even after studying it for over ten years I feel like I've just scratched the surface!
Between different tea varietals, brewing methods, harvesting methods, and plant types, there is a never-ending amount to learn. I originally had focused only on 'true' tea, but then in the hunt for a caffeine-free tea stumbled into the world of herbal teas. The above list is a sampling - I think I'll need to write a book to cover all the different amazing tisanes out there! For now, though, time to make a cup of tea.
- Elizabeth Ta'eed, Co-Founder, MatchaAlternatives.com
Article first published June 2019, edited and updated February 2021
Elizabeth sieving the chopped up and dried CTC tea at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation, Munnar, India
Our unconventional blend for those who want to add a coffee-like caffeine kick to their rooibos
Light, citrusy, organic and super high in antioxiants. If you find red rooibos too strong, this is the tea for you.
A round tea, slightly astringent with floral notes and the traditional seaweed flavor of a good sencha, but with a hint of sweetness.
Antioxidants in Rooibos, Honeybush & Chamomile: What Do They Actually Do?
Rooibos vs. Honeybush: What's the Difference?
Chinese vs Japanese Green Tea: Which is Healthier and How to Brew