For non-tea drinkers, the popular assumption is that the major categories of tea e.g white tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea and pu-erh type tea, comes from different plants. We have also been asked about this seeming enigma by well-meaning friends and customers. So we decided to write about it for everyone's benefit and to set the record straight.
Tea comes from the Mandarin character 茶 which, strictly speaking, is derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. In short, only the infusion made from this plant is, and can be called, Tea. Beverage and infusions that are derived from flowers are called tisanes e.g. lavender, hibiscus, marigold, lily while those that are made from local leaves, herbs, and roots e.g Guyabano, Sambong, Moringa, Turmeric, Ginger etc should be called herbal infusions.
Tea belongs to the plant kingdom family of Theaceae, formerly of genus Thea until 1818 when it was renamed as genus Camellia, in honor of Georg Joseph Kamel, a Jesuit lay missionary who worked and lived in the Philippines in the 17th century. Kamel was acknowledged as a pioneer in the field of botany in the country, having collected species of different plants all over Luzon that was published by the Royal Society of London. He also opened a plant-based apothecary right at their convent in Intramuros dispensing medicine to the poor. His contributions had been widely acknowledged in the fields of biodiversity, botany, and pharmacy.
Tea is classified as White, Yellow, Green, Oolong, Black and Pu-erh depending on the process they go though after harvest. At the outset, the tea type is determined by the tea leaf's oxidation levels. The leaf can undergo zero oxidation like the process used for green tea production where the leaf is either pan-fried or steamed right after harvest, minimal oxidation for white and yellow teas, partial or approximately 30-80% oxidation level for Oolong tea and full oxidation for Black tea. Pu-erh tea starts as a maocha, then fermented with the introduction of microbial enzymes through to the processed leaves. The process for each type is unique and totally affects the final product's taste, aroma, chemical composition e.g. caffeine content, tannin and polyphenol levels. We prepared an infographic below for a simpler explanation.
This ancient beverage has come a long way from the time it first found use as medicine for common maladies and as a poison antidote 5,000 years ago. It has also evolved into many different applications for food (ice cream and desserts, tea-based culinary wonders), tea cocktails and cold brews. Even the beauty, wellness and pharmaceutical industries are taking notice of its many health benefits and is now incorporated in many modern products and services.
Today, there are over 22,000 variants of tea in China alone, and it is the only country where all six types are produced. We are only scratching the surface of information on tea. We promise to provide you more practical knowledge about our favorite drink in the days to come. Until then, remember that it's always tea time!