2019. After dinner on New Year’s Eve, we asked our guests (my brother and his family) if they wanted coffee or tea. My brother said he’d have tea and my daughter, Alex, asked what kind. “Green tea, lotus tea or jasmine tea?” My brother forwned not expecting that he’d have to make a choice. “Any,” he replied.
We’re tea drinkers at home. We have tea with most meals but our after-meal drink is coffee. And, yes, we keep different kinds of tea in various flavors.
What is tea exactly?
Tea is Camellia sinensis
Story has it that around 2737 B.C. when it was the practice in China to boil water before drinking due to sanitation issues, dried leaves landed on Emperor Shen Nung’s cup of hot water. He liked the aroma, tasted the brew and tea was born.
Tea can refer to the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes (let’s just call them leaves for brevity) of the Camellia sinensis; the beverage made with the leaves of the Camellia sinensis; or the meal during which the beverage is traditionally drank.
Types of tea
There are three (four, if you want to split hairs) types of tea although they are all leaves of the Camellia sinensis. The differences lie in the way the leaves are prepared and cured. But to better understand the types of tea, let us first look at the four-step preparation and curing process that the leaves undergo.
After the leaves are picked, they are first withered to remove moisture. Then, they are rolled to release the natural juices and aromas. Third, they are oxidized (the common term used is fermentation which seems to be a misnomer) by exposing them to air. Fourth, they are fired to dry the leaves evenly. Every step of the process yields a different type of tea.
Leaves that undergo all four processes are sold as black tea. Leaves that are only partially oxidized are black and gold in color and sold as oolong tea.
Green tea leaves stay green because they are not oxidized.
A fourth type, white tea, which is really a variation of green tea comes from leaves that are picked before they open and while still covered with fine silky hairs.
Because they have been least subjected to processing, green and white tea are said to have the most beneficial effects on our health.
When buying commercial tea, especially those that come in tea bags, it pays to know exactly what you’re getting.
Flavored tea contains real tea
Flavored tea is a combination of Camellia sinensis and aromatic fruits, flowers, roots or leaves of some other plants. Blended teas are a combination of one or more types of tea.
Earl Grey tea (black tea and bergamot), jasmine tea (oolong or green tea and jasmine flowers) and genmaicha (a combination of green tea and toasted brown rice) are flavored teas.
Malunggay tea is a herbal tea.
Herbal tea is not real tea
Herbal teas are not real teas as they contain no part of the Camellia sinensis. They are more in the nature of infusions (or what the French call tisane) — a blend of fruits, flowers, roots and leaves of plants other than the Camellia sinensis. That’s why most of them are labeled caffeine-free. It’s not because the caffeine had been removed from the tea but because they contain no tea at all.
Then, why are they sold as tea? What started the practice is a situation similar to Which came first: the chicken or the egg?
If sellers started the practice of calling tea what is essentially a herbal brew, it’s marketing, most likely. I mean, how do herbal brew sellers make their products more understandable for English speakers? Label dried butterfly pea flowers as “Butterfly Pea Flower Drink” and English-speaking shoppers likely won’t give it a second glance. But call it “tea” and they become attentive and curious.
If buyers were the first to call tea every herbal brew they drank, it may be a case of cultural appropriation. Westerners being unable to fully comprehend the nuances of Asian tea and tea drinking culture, they simplify things for themselves by removing the distinction between tea and herbal brew.
Yes, it adds to the confusion. It’s even quite annoying how many products we find on grocery shelves (and even health stores, for that matter) are labeled as “tea” when they do not contain even the smallest amount of Camellia sinensis. Take honey citron tea, for instance.
A close inspection of the ingredients list shows that there is not even the smallest amount of tea in it. While it can be drank hot or cold just like real tea, I find the misleading label more than a bit annoying. It’s a Korean product so, perhaps, the label is a case of getting lost in translation? Maybe, but is that really an excuse? Any company that can afford to export it products surely can afford to hire a translator.
(Citron is a fruit that belongs to the citrus genus. Just so it’s clear — citron and citrus are not interchangeable terms because citron is a fruit while citrus is a genus. Lemon, lime, grapefruit and orange are all citrus but they are not citron. The size and shape of citron varies.)
How we buy tea
Many people tend to look at tea as an instant drink largely because modern tea is packaged in convenient tea bags. But did you know that the first tea bag was not made to be dropped into a cup of hot water? Story has it that tea bags were invented by a New York merchant as a way to give tea samples.
Whenever available, we buy loose leaf tea — abroad mostly in tea-producing countries including Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and Thailand. The Philippines does not produce Camellia sinensis; only herbal brews marketed for their supposed health benefits. Meanwhile, tea-producing countries have a serious tea culture mostly untainted by Western misunderstanding of what real tea is.
That’s not saying, of course, that you have to go abroad to buy good tea. Plenty of stores in Chinatowns all over the world sell tea in loose leaf form too. Don’t be intimidated by the price. Loose leaf tea might seem expensive but when you consider that (1) you’re getting real tea and (2) you only need a pinch to make a cup of hot tea drink.
Updated from posts originally published in May 25, 2012, July 19, 2014, January 13, 2016 and February 22, 2020.