Last post I gave a rundown of how tea grew from its beginnings as a humble bush, to becoming a hero in the beverage world. Now that you’ve gained a better appreciation of tea’s epic journey, it’s time to take your personal tea experience to the max! First up, I’ll give you the tea type lowdown: the differences between teas, and how to properly prepare them.
It’s hard to go wrong with herbal tea. Calling it a tea is a actually slight misnomer, as there are no actual leaves from the tea plant Camellia Sinensis, so herbal tea is technically a tisane (still, it’s plant bits in hot water, so most people just count it as a tea). Tisanes date back to ancient Egypt and ancient China, making them the oldest ‘tea’ ever.
Herbal teas are made with a combination of herbs, dried fruit and other plant parts, which can give some of the greatest health benefits of all the teas. These benefits, as well as it’s lack of caffeine, make it a great tea for evenings, kids, and sick days.
To properly prepare herbal tea, boil water, add it to the tea, and steep for 6-8 minutes. You can add a sweetener, or not, but I feel that honey is an awesome choice for its added health benefits and gentle flavour. If you want to make an iced herbal tea, double the strength of the tea, then pour it over a cup with ice cubes in it.
Rooibos is made from a South African plant called Aspalathus linearis, or ‘redbush’. Redbush has bushy needles, kind of like an evergreen shrub, which are what is used for the actual tea.
Rooibos is a great alternative to coffee, as it has a similar sort of deep, earthy flavour, but no caffeine. In Africa they often drink it straight up like this, but it’s much better with added flavours. I’ve tried several fruit versions, but found the natural taste of the rooibos needle overpowered the more lighter fruit notes, so in my personal opinion the best rooibos teas are those with chocolate, coffee or caramel attributes.
To prepare, boil water, and steep for 6-8 minutes.You can drink it as-is, but I think that rooibos teas taste better with added milk and sugar.
This is on of my favourite types of tea! Green tea is famous for its fresh flavour, its health benefits (the greatest antioxidant levels of all the teas), and the beautiful ceremonies associated with it.
Green tea comes from the same Camellia Sinensis plant as black tea, but what’s different is the special varieties of the plant that are used, the growing conditions, time of harvest and of course how they process the leaves. The leaves aren’t withered or oxidized, which preserves the EGCG in them, a powerful antioxidant that fights cardiovascular disease, bad cholesterol, glycemic fluctuations, inflammation (the kind seen in chronic illnesses), and cancer. Go green tea go!
There is caffeine in green tea, but at an average of 34mg per cup, it’s low. Compare that to a bar of milk chocolate which has 20mg, or dark chocolate which has 70mg of caffeine. You see where I’m going with this? If you guessed ‘you can have your chocolate and tea it too’, well, you’re right. Some people think that the alertness they get from drinking green tea is from the caffeine, but it’s actually caused by L-theanine, which simultaneously has a calming effect and boosts concentration. In addition, antioxidants are shown to slow the absorption of caffeine, eliminating that jittery buzzing feeling as well as the crash often associated with caffeinated drinks.
I used to hate green tea. It was bitter and gross, and I only recently figured out why. The problem was that I treated it like herbal tea; hot boiling water and 6-8 minute steep times. No! No! Bad Elise! If you use water at 90 degrees C (no more) and steep only 2-3 minutes, you’ll notice a huge difference! The tea will taste fresher and won’t have that soapy bitterness to it. If you’re still on the fence with but want to explore green teas more, I suggest a flavoured version, with a tiny bit of sweetener (white sugar works well).
A green tea, but specially processed and prepared. Matchas are made from the same green tea plants, but they’re grown in the shade for a few weeks before harvest, producing more theanine and caffeine. L-theanine, as you recall, is the stuff that makes you feel calm, and we all know what caffeine does. The stems and veins are removed, and the remaining leaf is ground to a fine powder. And I do mean fine. Be careful scooping or you’ll end up inhaling the stuff.
Matcha is an integral part of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which is meant to demonstrate respect and appreciation through grace and good etiquette. It’s a sort of meditation, and there are specific rules and procedures you follow to perform the ceremony correctly. I’ll do a post on the Tea Ceremony some later time; it’s truly beautiful.
I love matcha, and have begun to use it often in my personal morning routing. It has a fresh, grassy flavour that can be drunk plain, sweetened, with milk, or even used in smoothies and baking. Traditionally, matcha is prepared with a whisk in a special bowl, but I cheat. I bring my water to just under boiling and throw in a small scoop of matcha powder to the cup. I then add a tiny bit of water and stir a bit to make a thin paste. Once the lumps are smoothed out, I fill with water about halfway, and use an electric whisk to get some good stirring and frothiness. Finally, fill with water to the top and enjoy!
If you want to prepare it traditionally, get yourself a lovely little bowl, and add a small scoop of matcha. Add fully boiling water (it froths better with hotter water, and cools off more quickly because of the greater surface area of the bowl), and whisk, either with and electric whisk or by hand with a bamboo one.
White tea is the young, immature leaf and buds of Camellia sinensis. The leaves aren’t rolled or oxidized, making it lighter in flavour (and caffeine) than black tea. White tea gets the name from the silvery-white hairs on unopened buds of the plant, which makes it look – yup, you guessed it – white.
White tea contains a fairly high amount of something called catechins, which act as antioxidants (they remove oxidizing agents in the bloodstream). With this health benefit, low caffeine level (only 30-55mg per cup), and light, delicate flavour, white tea is a great choice for your floral and fruity teas.
Prepare whites close to how you would green tea: water just under boiling, and steep for only 3-4 minutes.
Another version of Camellia Sinensis, oolong has amazing variety in its natural aromas: sweet and fruity; woody and roasted; green and fresh; this tea is a show-off. The leaves are bruised then rolled, and the oxidation process requires very specific times and temperatures. The biggest difference between oolong and black tea is in the last roasting step, which is specific to this tea type.
Oolongs do great as all sorts of flavours. One of my favourites is a strawberry rose, which is just amazing! It tastes like ladies dancing. Caffeine levels vary depending on the tea variety, leaf age and production process, but it averages 62mg per cup, so don’t drink it at night.
Steep the leaves in just under boiling water (90-96 degrees C) for 3-4 minutes. Unlike some other teas, oolong is special because the flavour actually gets better when you re-steep it.
Black is the popular girl in the tea world, and counts for 90% of all tea sold. It’s the mostly highly oxidized tea leaf, the strongest in flavour and, unlike the other tea types, can actually keep its flavour for several years. The harvested leaves are withered, rolled or crushed, oxidized under specific temperature and humidity, and finally dried to stop the oxidation process.
Black teas are generally named after the region they’re produced, like Assan or Ceylon. Really, there’s too many to list them all, but several special blends I’m sure you’ll recognize: Earl Grey, for example, is an aromatic blend of black tea and bergamot oil; English Breakfast is a full-bodied mix of several black teas; English Afternoon is lighter-bodied, and usually a blend of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon teas; and Irish Breakfast is mostly a blend of Assam blacks. As mentioned in All About Teas Part I, my favourite tea ever is masala chai, which is a blend of several black teas with spices added.
To prepare a black tea, bring water to a boil, and steeped for 4-5 minutes. Add milk, sugar and/or lemon. This tea has the highest caffeine level at 60-90mg per cup. It’s still not nearly as much as coffee, but… ya. ‘Common sense’ is all I’m going say.
The Caffeine Lowdown
If you’re concerned about caffeine, here’s a quick guide of the AVERAGE amount of caffeine per cup:
Herbal and Rooibos = 0 caffeine
Milk Chocolate Bar (20mg) < Green Tea (34mg) < Pepsi (35) < Dark Chocolate Bar (43mg) < White Tea (45mg) < Oolong Tea (62mg) < Black Tea (70mg) < Coffee (147mg)
Note that the actual caffeine amount changes even within tea varieties. Darker, low grade white tea, for example, has much lower caffeine content than the lighter high grade. Caffeine is also released from the leaf over time, so the shorter your brew time, the less caffeine you’ll get. Also, as I’ve mentioned, antioxidants slow the absorption of caffeine, so teas like greens or whites give a gentler high and pretty much eliminate any crashes. Just so you’re aware.
If you want to learn more about caffeine and tea, I recommend The Truth About Caffeine, and Caffeine Content of Tea.
Go Forth and Tea
All these tea facts are cool, but what you really want to know is: how can I enjoy my tea-time to the fullest? I understand that desire, friends, so here’s how to make it happen.
First, I recommend the obvious,which is to explore teas. Don’t get stuck in a tea rut, try different varieties and flavours. Branch out on your sweeteners and try things like brown sugar, white sugar, honey, high quality maple syrup, or stevia. What does a tea taste like with milk, or a squeeze of lemon? Experiment with tea strengths too: don’t steep longer, add more leaves or another tea bag.
Tea steeping times can make a huge difference (just ask those poor greens!). Start by following the recommended time, and then adjust if it sucks. Teas with smaller bits of leaves will need less steep time because of the greater surface area, and of course every tea is unique with unique steeping requirements.
A quick way to improve your tea is to use better quality water. Tap water has a nasty taste that can muddy the flavour of an otherwise delicious tea. Britta filtered water is safe, economical choice, and purified reverse osmosis water lets the flavour of your tea really shine. Once you’ve decided on a water you can live with, don’t over-heat it. In some herbal teas you can get away with hot hot hot water, but anything with leaves will scorch and release tannins like crazy. This makes for some nasty, bitter tea.
Some Last Words of Advice
As a last word of advice, I encourage you to explore the different tea ceremonies and traditions of cultures around the world. It’s not just about what you drink, it’s about how you do it. Host an English tea party. Reserve a quiet morning for some alone time and perform a Japanese matcha ritual. Pick a week to make a big deal of offering visitors masala chai at every opportunity.
Whatever you do, make tea part of your day; something special, a personal ritual to appreciate and savour!