If you’ve done any tea drinking in your life, it’s likely you’ve heard that all tea comes from the same plant. Most people I’ve told this interesting fact have one of two responses, either thinking ‘How can that be?’, or never really giving it a second thought.
No matter your camp, this statement needs a little more refinement and background information to really understand how such a broad range of flavors, colors, and names can truly come from the same plant.
Let’s first look at herbal teas - raspberry, orange spice, and thousands of other flavors. Unless combined with a green or black tea base, most herbal teas are not actually proper tea. This is also why many herbal teas are not caffeinated, because they don’t contain the actual tea leaf, which is responsible for releasing the caffeine when brewed. If we draw a comparison to the wine industry, Arbor Mists comes to mind. They produce some white wines with a “splash of fruit”. If you are a wine nerd, you know that these sugary concoctions, while delicious on a hot summer day, barely qualify as wine.
Once herbal teas are removed from the equation, what remains are White, Black, Green, Oolong, and Pu’erh teas. All of these varieties of tea are made from the same plant, known scientifically as the Camilla Sinesis. The tea plant itself can vary greatly, just as grapes can be red or white, with a few distinct species that have evolved regionally.
Continuing the wine parralells, just as the same wine produced from the same winery can differ in tast from year to year, or two merlots can taste radically different; tea leaves too, inherit their flavor from their soil conditions, weather patterns, harvest times, altitude, and more.
All of these factors that affect the final flavor of the tea are taken into consideration when selecting a processing method for the harvested tea leaf. The processing methods and times are what create the differentiation between Green, Black, White, Oolong, and Pu’erh. Processing methods can include when and how the leaf was plucked, drying or cooking in one of several different methods, physically altering the shape of the leaf through rolling or folding, oxidization, fermentation, and a final drying or firing period. Typical tea will undergoe several of these unique processes, for large ranges of time, and different orders. The sheer number of permutations between processing methods, species of Camilla Sinesis leaf, and growing conditions is what has helped this fascinating product become the most consumed beverage in the world (excluding water).
With such a range of flavor profiles, and a rich contribution to human history, there seems to be an endless number of things to learn about this beverage. I hope you will follow along as we explore different aspects of tea processing, taste, culture, and history, preferably with a cup of your own in hand.