Tea varies as much in appearance as the different faces of men. ~Hui-tsung, The Chinese Emperor (1082-1135)
Chinese Empero, Hui-tsung, had the right of it. With all the different types of tea out there and with all their different packaging and brewing styles, it’s difficult sometimes to know what’s what. Is a black tea significantly different than a green tea? Why is chamomile tea full of flowers? Knowing the answer to these questions can ultimately help you decide which teas are best for you and with a little help from us you can brew it perfectly every time!
1) Every type of tea comes from the same plant.
Yes, that’s right! Whether it’s black, green, white, or oolong each variety is made from the Camellia sinensis plant. The differences in taste, look, and smell come from the way that the teas are processed. Black tea, for example, undergoes a complex process during which the tea leaves are fully oxidized. This creates the dark color that is reflected in both the leaf and your cup as it steeps.
2) Herbal teas are not, in fact, tea.
The proper term for these “teas” is herbal infusion or tisane, pronounced tih-zan. Typically tisanes are made by combining water with fruits, leaves, seeds, grains, flowers or roots and depending on the blend of plants used they can have stimulant, relaxant, or sedative properties. Chamomile blossoms are a classic example of a tisane that people have been using for centuries to calm upset stomachs or aid in sleep.
3) Iced Tea and Tea Bags were both American inventions.
While iced tea had been consumed in America since just after the Civil War, it wasn’t until 1904 during the St. Louis World Fair that it became an American staple. A heat wave ruined the plan to give away free samples of hot tea to fair goers and so, to satisfy the need for cold beverages, the fair put their tea on ice. Then, in 1908, a New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan began bagging his tea for delivery to restaurants as samples. However, he soon realized the restaurants were brewing his samples still inside the bags to avoid the messy tea leaves and he suddenly found himself the accidental inventor of the modern tea bag.
4) Tea has more caffeine than coffee.
Compared pound to pound, tea contains more caffeine than your favorite coffee beans. However, we use much less tea to brew a cup of tea than the amount of beans needed to brew a cup of coffee which means that compared cup to cup, coffee will have more caffeine in its final product.
5) You shouldn’t use boiling water for brewing.
Depending on the type you like to drink, the optimal temperature for brewing your tea will change. Green tea, for example, usually has an optimal brewing temperature somewhere between 145-185 degrees Fahrenheit. Any hotter than this and you run the risk of scorching the leaves which can cause the tea to turn orange and have a bitter taste. Black teas have the highest heat tolerance, but even in their case, it is recommended that you let your boiling water cool for 2-3 minutes after boiling before you begin brewing.
Photography: Tea Bud (left) by Mandeep Singh – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0; Tea Flower (middle) by By Sanu N – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0; Camellia sinenis (right) by By Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen – List of Koehler Images, Public Domain