This is a basic guide to the most common varieties of tea, how they are produced and their most notable flavor qualities.

Tea 101: An Introduction

An ever-expanding selection of gourmet and specialty teas, combined with the proven health benefits of tea drinking is capturing the attention of even the most die-hard of coffee drinkers.

About The Tea Plant

The tea plant, an evergreen shrub from the magnolia family is originally native to China. Cultivation began there over 4000 years ago and tea's popularity has grown ever since.

Tea plants are affected by the different soil and climate conditions of their growing areas and although the plants are all of the same species, their leaves vary widely.

However, the method in which tea leaves are processed is what truly creates the distinctions in flavor. When harvested, tea leaves are sorted by size and the young and tender leaves are considered superior to those that are older and larger.

Varieties of Tea

Black Tea

Black tea is a common variety made by fermenting the leaves prior to being heated and dried. This process produces more robust flavor and color than green and oolong varieties. Among the better known varieties of black tea are English Breakfast, Lapsang Souchong, Ceylon and Darjeeling. Earl Grey is a blended black tea that is scented with the oil of bergamot.

Green Tea

Green tea is produced by steaming and drying the tea leaves without fermentation. The result is a more delicate brew with a taste closer to that of the fresh tea leaves. Green tea is the most popular variety of tea in Japan. Gunpowder Tea is a green tea from China produced by rolling each leaf into a little round pellet that resembles the gunpowder pellets once used for cannons.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is made by partially fermenting the tea leaves before drying which creates a brew with a flavor somewhere between black and green tea. Formosa Oolong from Taiwan is probably the best known variety from this category.

White Tea

White tea is the most delicate of all teas, as only the silver buds and select leaves are chosen for this variety. It is minimally processed through steaming and drying and thus retains the majority of its nutrients. Silver Needle is the most famous of the white teas and is fragrant and slightly sweet.