In 2007, Americans consumed well over 55 billion servings of tea, or over 2.50 billion gallons of hot, iced and ready-to-drink (pre-bottled) tea beverages. Tea is a refreshing choice with no natural sodium, fat, carbonation, or sugar (always read labels on pre-bottled beverages to look for added sugar and sodium). When unsweetened, tea is almost completely calorie-free. Some of the other health benefits of tea include promoting proper fluid balance and heart health as well as cancer prevention. Tea contains naturally occurring antioxidant compounds. Tannin is one of the major components which contributes to the taste and pungency of tea and is the main chemical thought to be responsible for tea’s health benefits.
Any tea drinker has seen a wide variety of tea types and flavors. There are some important distinctions to make when choosing your tea. There are four "types" of tea all made from the same plant where the difference is in how the fresh leaves of the tea plant are processed and their level of contact with oxygen. During oxidation, tea leaves undergo natural chemical reactions that result in distinctive color and taste characteristics. Then there are a multitude of varieties and blends that are influenced by the geographic region where the tea is grown, methods of processing and exposure to other ingredients for added flavor.
The Four Types of Tea
Black, Green, Oolong and White teas all come from the same plant, a warm-weather evergreen called the Camellia sinensis. Each type of tea results from various degrees of processing and the level of oxidization. Black tea is oxidized for up to 4 hours and Oolong teas are oxidized for 2-3 hours. The tea leaves undergo natural taste and color changes through the oxidation process, allowing for distinguished characteristics. Green & White teas are not oxidized after processing and they most closely resemble the look and chemical composition of the fresh tealeaf. Each type has unique antioxidant properties and health benefits associated with drinking them.
You may also have heard of Red tea, which is not actually tea as it comes from the Rooibos plant. Herbal teas such as Red tea are not really "tea" at all, because they do not come from Camellia sinensis. Herbal teas are concocted of leaves, roots, bark, seeds or flowers of other plants.
Tea is grown in thousands of tea gardens or estates around the world, resulting in thousands of flavorful variations. The most common growing regions are in China and India and some of the most popular flavors are named after the places where they are grown.
Earl Grey- Smoky and fragrant with hints of citrus Earl Grey refers to any black tea with bergamot flavor added, but traditionally it is a blend of Indian and Ceylon teas. Earl Grey is one of the most popular of all the flavored teas in the world and is usually enjoyed with a slice of lemon and without milk or sugar. Bergamot is a citrus fruit, somewhat like a lemon, orange and grapefruit mixed together.
Darjeeling Tea - Darjeeling tea is produced only in the Darjeeling region of India, a high altitude region where there is a mist in the air almost constantly providing a cool and moist environment for the tea trees. This unique terrain produces tea leaves that have a very distinct flavor. The flavor is often described as muscatel, leading Darjeeling to be known as the champagne of teas. Darjeeling is a lighter than many black teas and has a fruity, nutty and floral palette. For this reason the English have considered it to be one of the best afternoon teas.
Breakfast Tea - Breakfast tea is more strongly flavored than afternoon teas such as Darjeeling, and is often enjoyed with milk and sugar similar to how coffee is consumed. The most commonly drank breakfast blends include English and Scottish with a heavily malty flavors, and Irish, slightly stronger with Kenyan and Assam (another region in India) leaves.
Jasmine Tea – This is one of the most fragrant and flavorful of the tea blends and Jasmine tea is the most popular Chinese flavored tea. Jasmine tea is a special blend of high quality loose tea leaves with jasmine petals. The jasmine petals impart a delicate aroma and slightly sweet flavor to the tea. Jasmine tea is most often made using green tea but it can also be made using oolong, black or white tea leaves.
Herbal Teas - Unlike flavored tea and other blends, herbal "teas" are not technically tea at all because they are not made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal teas are concoctions of leaves, herbs, spices and flowers from a variety of plants added to boiling water. Herbal drinks are typically recognized for their caffeine-free quality and also for soothing and rejuvenating effects. Popular herbal tea flavors include chamomile, peppermint, fennel, rose hip and lemon verbena. Considered a floral tea, chamomile has a very aromatic, fruity flavor and is credited to help alleviate toothaches, insomnia, muscle cramps, and to reduce the swelling of skin irritations.
The term "Red Tea" has always been confusing. Red tea is not akin to black, green or white teas. Red tea is made from the South African herbal plant called Rooibos or Red Bush but similar to real teas the Rooibos leaves are rich in antioxidants. This kind of tea has been proven to help boost the immune system, and is also caffeine-free.
"Honeybush Tea" is another herbal tea from Africa which has a sweeter taste than most teas and the fragrance of honey. A cousin of red tea, honeybush tea has no caffeine and very little tannin but plenty of antioxidants. It is used by many people to help alleviate digestive and heart problems that are aggravated by stimulants such as caffeine.
Some other unusual examples from the Tea Association of the USA (www.teausa.org):
Ceylon Breakfast: A blend of fine teas grown on the hillsides of Sri Lanka producing a rich golden liquor with superb flavor.
Chai: A blend of black tea with various spices and steamed milk as commonly drunk in India.
Flowery Orange Pekoe: A large leaf size containing an abundance of tip (the leaf bud of the Camellia sinensis plant).
Gunpowder: A type of Green tea which has been rolled into pellets.
Gyokuro: A prized Japanese Green Tea which is rich to the taste and pleasing to the eye. The tea undergoes special handling at every stage of its growth (shaded) and processing (hand-fired).
Imperial Tea: A rolled Green Tea from Ceylon, China, or India made from older leaves. It has a good aroma and is refreshing.
Keemun: A fine grade of Black Tea from China. It has a dark amber color and unique sappy liquor.
Lapsang Soucho: A fine grade of China Black tea with a distinctive smoky flavor which results from a unique drying process. Tea drinkers either love or hate the taste of this unusual tea.
Pan-fired: A Japanese tea which is steamed and then rolled in iron pans to halt further oxidation.
Pingsuey: In Chinese, the term means ice water. A Black Tea from the Hangchow district of Zhejiang Province. An excellent mild tasting tea.
Pouchong: Some of the finest quality and high priced teas. A very fragrant tea which is also used as a base for making Jasmine Tea.
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Lisa Parker is a freelance writer who writes about food and beverages, often focusing on certain brands such as Tassimo.
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