They say tea is the most popular beverage in the world, after water. Saying water is the most popular, though, is to me like saying sunshine is more popular than electric light; popularity doesn’t really come into it. Meaning that tea is really the most popular drink of choice, for the entire world.
Even here in coffee-loving America 80% of households have tea in their cupboards and iced tea is now even more popular here than soda (note that much of these teas are actually tisanes, or 'tea' if you can pronounce inverted commas).
In Britain it is famously the national drink and carries a lot of emotion, with the most common source of family strife being poorly made tea. (I have guestimated that last statistic, but I expect it’s true.) 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. Let’s start with the basics.
[ A classic cup of milky black tea in Penang, Malaysia. Delicious, but not a whole lot of antioxidants due to the black tea + 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 and there are two varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (translates to the Chinese Chinese camellia) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (the Indian Chinese camellia). Wild tea plants can grow up to 15’ and 60’ tall (depending on the variety, respectively), but cultivated tea is kept trimmed into low waist-high bushes. 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 other plant that has been steeped in hot water and turned into a drink is an ‘infusion’ or ‘tisane’, not tea. Common (and delicious) infusions include rooibos, mate, moringa and all the plants you can think of (chamomile, mint, liquorice, orange, lavender, vanilla, raspberry, and so on). Most of the ‘teas’ at Matcha Alternatives are not actually teas, but tisanes. No tea bushes in sight! 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. The classic blend is of course Earl Grey, which is made by mixing oil from the Bergamot orange into loose tea. Other favorites are adding jasmine or rose petals, candied fruit pieces like pineapple and strawberry, and refreshing spices like ginger and lemongrass. 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 leaf and tasty additions, such as rose petals, Bergamot oil & blossoms, and Jasmine flowers ]
What determines how a tea tastes?
How the tea (or tisane) is processed makes all the difference. A bag of Lipton and top-quality loose leaf white tea selling for hundreds of £$€ per kilo could easily come from the same plant, just as Bells and Lagavulin whiskies are both made from barley and water. Factors include:
- 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 - completely and utterly). This oxidization process happens to any plucked leaf, and 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.
- How the leaves have been treated: chopped up into tiny dust-like pieces (see photo below of this process in action in Munnar, India), rolled into balls, rolled up like a rug, chopped and dried into little disks, etc. etc. The shape effects what parts of the leaf flavor come through during brewing, and how many times the leaf can be steeped. For example, Gunpowder tea, so called due to the tea leafs being rolled into tight little balls, can be steeped multiple times as the leaves slowly unfurl and release more oils and goodness. Yerba mate, on the other hand, is 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 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.
[ 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 tea has been dried at the very end of the process, with some types being roasted to add a smoky flavor, like with many oolongs, the famous Russian Caravan black tea and our Roasty Toast Yerba Mate.
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What are the main 'true' tea types?
[ Types of tea by caffeine content and oxidization, which is also an indicator of antioxidant levels. Note how the brewing temperatures go up the more oxidized a tea is! Purple tea is included in the green tea category ]
The main ‘true’ tea types, from the Camellia sinensis plant, are:
- White: 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!
- Green: 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.
- Purple: 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 bush only cultivated in Kenya. The leaves of the bush are a beautiful reddish purple colour, hence the name, due to high levels of anthocyanins. Anthocyanins is the antioxidant 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 is somewhere between a green and black tea.
- Yellow: 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 oxidised after harvesting, via 'sweltering' (wrapped up in cloth or paper) and then steamed or pan fried loose, then wrapped again, repeatedly. A sort of 'post-oxidation' as usually this heating is what stops oxidation (the 'fixing'). This process makes it less vegetal, seaweedy or grassy than green tea due to the extra oxidisation, and has a strong semi-roasted aroma. A touch too long and it becomes a raw puerh tea and its value drops through the floor.
- Oolong: As with green tea, but 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. Has a decent caffeine kick, too, that increases with the level of oxidization.
- Black: The classic. Fully oxidized, from any leaf. The most caffeine of any tea except pu’erh, and not nearly as many antioxidants as in green and white tea. Most black tea is from Kenya and India and is predominantly consumed via cheap teabags.
- Pu’erh: A fully oxidized tea that has also been fermented. Also from any leaf on the tea bush, as the processing tends to obscure some of the more astringent flavors of older, cheaper leaves. The processing also tends to degrade the antioxidants in the leaf.
- Matcha (click for a dedicated blog post about matcha): Any of the above 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: 99.9% of matcha is made in Japan from shaded tea which boosts chlorophyll content, and so is a very green tea. However, it is possible to make any of the above into a matcha as the word simply means ‘ground-up tea’ in Japanese (mat cha). Technically, our Moringa Superpow(d)er counts as ‘matcha’, although it is a herbal tea and not from the Camellia sinensis plant.
What are the main 'tisane' 'tea' types?
The main tisanes that we sell here at Matcha Alternatives are below. Click the link to read our dedicated blog posts about them!
- Chamomile: 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.
- Tulsi: Also known as Holy basil, Tulsi is, unsurprisingly, a type of basil, but when dried and brewed does not taste anything like the basil you are imagining. The flavour is rich, warm, herbaceous and with a light spice and sweetness. The powerful flavour 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.
- Yerba Mate: 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.
- Rooibos & Honeybush: 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 a 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 flavour is a beautiful honey-like rich sweetness.
Moringa: 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, vitamins A & C, and protein 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. It also gives a natural, all-day energy boost thanks to being an adaptogen and is used to feel energetic and focused.
Whether it’s a tea or 'tea', though, the same principals apply to how to brew a cup, with a few small variations. See brewing instructions here.
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So 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. It makes it taste even better.
- Elizabeth, Co-Founder, MatchaAlternatives.com
[ Elizabeth sieving the chopped up and dried tea at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation, Munnar, India ]
P.S. For those of you keen to learn more about tea, subscribe so you never miss a post, visit our personal tea blog TravellingforTea.com, and post your questions in the comments so we can answer them in future posts.
P.P.S. For those of you excited to try some of the teas and tisanes mentioned above, you can try them in their pure/unblended form here:
- The ‘Purist’ Rare Purple Tea
- The ‘Purist’ Green Yerba Mate
- The ‘Purist’ Green Rooibos
- The ‘Purist’ Honeybush
If you want to try some of the blends mentioned, start with:
We will be expanding our tea offerings to include green and white teas soon, too, so watch this space!
P.P.P.S. And of course, all of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. The information here is for educational use only.
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