Basic Tea Varieties and Notable Subtypes
As a habitual coffee drinker myself, I sometimes forget about how much I love tea. Then, I’ll get a wild hair and fix myself a cup of Lady Grey (my personal tea of choice). I’ll remember just how delicious tea can be and wonder why I don’t drink it more.
One of the things I love about tea is the huge variety available to choose from; there is seriously a type of tea to suit any taste.
On top of that, you also stand to gain from a phenomenal array of health benefits if you drink it regularly.
In case you’re not familiar with the many the types of tea there are or their myriad medicinal qualities, this is the guide for you.
Here, I’m going to break down the different varieties and list a few of the potential health benefits of each one. I hope you’ll find this helpful if you’re delving into the world of tea for the first time.
After you’ve finished with this, check out my teapot and equipment article to help hone your brewing techniques. And don’t forget that you need to store your tea correctly in order to lock in the flavors.
All types of true tea come from the Camellia sinensis plant that is a shrub native to China and India. These include white, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh teas.
Teas made from other plants (herbal teas, African rooibos tea, and so on) are not true teas but should be considered tisanes – a catch-all for any beverage made from the infusion or decoction of herbs, spices, or other plant material in hot water, often for medicinal purposes.
I will cover all of the true teas as well as a few of the herbal varieties for you here.
True teas have these awesome compounds called polyphenols which offer a multitude of health benefits. The polyphenol most strongly associated with cancer prevention is epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG, and this is present to some extent in all types of tea.
Besides the potential benefit of helping ward off cancer, polyphenols can also help to prevent heart disease, diabetes, promote weight loss by boosting metabolism, assist in lowering cholesterol, and increase mental alertness.
If the caffeine from coffee is what gets you going in the morning, tea has caffeine as well. But not as great a quantity as you will find in coffee, so you will get the wake-up you need without the jitters that can come from too much caffeine consumption.
White tea is the purest and least processed type. As a result, this variety has the highest level of polyphenols, and thus more potentially beneficial cancer-fighting properties than any other type available.
Light in color and flavor, this comes from only the youngest leaves and buds of the plant. These are first steamed, and then dried. This type of processing results in a drink that’s very low in caffeine.
One of the most popular varieties of white is Silver Needle, which is also on the pricier side.
These hand-picked buds are only harvested for two days out of every year, which is the reason for their higher price.
An interesting side note is that white tea was the preferred beverage of Chinese royalty dating back to the Tang dynasty, which ruled from 618-907 A.D. If you weren’t a part of the imperial family, it was against the law to consume this tea.
Fortunately, this isn’t the case any more!
I suggest starting with Tealux’s Organic White Silver Needle Tea (Bai Hao Yinzhen), pictured above.
Even today, green tea is the drink of choice all throughout Asia. Minimally processed through steaming alone, green tea is also high is ECGC and other polyphenols, and its health benefits are the most widely studied among tea varieties.
The antioxidants found in green tea have been shown to inhibit the growth of bladder, breast, lung, stomach, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers.
It’s also been proven to help prevent the clogging of arteries, help burn fat, counteract the effects of stress, reduce the risk of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and reduce the risk of stroke.
These are just a few of the amazing benefits of consuming this beverage on a regular basis.
Only two cups a day can give you some benefit, but most studies that have shown health benefits were based on consumption of 2-3 cups a day.
Not sure what to get? This Heavenly Tea Leaves Sampler, available from Amazon, gives you nine green varieties to try.
China and Japan both produce green tea in large amounts, using slightly different methods. In both countries, leaves are picked, dried, and then heat-treated to stop fermentation.
In China, the heat is applied via roasting, whereas in Japan the heating is done through steaming. This difference results in the Chinese tea being more of a yellow-green color with a slightly toasted flavor.
Tea from Japan is a darker green with a grassy flavor.
Interestingly, green tea also started out as a royal drink. But by the 1400s, everyone was drinking it, from the emperor all the way down to the lowliest villager.
Now, it’s consumed daily by billions of people worldwide. One of the most popular varieties today is Japanese Gyokuro. The plants for this are only grown in the shade, which boosts the chlorophyll content of the leaves and gives the tea a very unique taste.
Leaves from these plants are the same type used to make Matcha – the powder used in green tea ceremonies.
Dragonwell is the most popular type of Chinese green tea, and it was previously reserved strictly for the Chinese imperial family.
Read Foodal’s Complete Guide to Green Tea for more information on this style.
If you’ve ever ordered hot tea in a Chinese restaurant, this is the kind you most likely were served. This is a full-bodied infusion with a sweet aroma, and it is very easy on the taste buds.
The Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong By Art of Tea is a well-reviewed pick that’s worth trying.
The processing method for this type is a little more involved than with white or green. After the leaves are picked they are intentionally bruised, and then dried.
While the leaves are drying, the edges of the crushed leaves turn a reddish color and the centers a light yellow, due to oxidation.
After a brief fermentation period, the leaves are roasted in pans, creating a semi-fermented tea. As a result of the oxidation period, the final product is a reddish-brown.
Health benefits of oolong specifically include a proven reduction in chronic conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, and high cholesterol.
It’s also a commonly held belief in China that daily consumption of oolong results in lower body weight, as it boosts the metabolism.
Monkey-Picked Oolong is a particularly popular variety.
It was named by the Buddhist monks who trained monkeys to climb to the tops of the plants to pick the leaves that the monks couldn’t reach. This is a premium oolong with a rich orchid-like aroma, and an especially smooth finish.
The most processed of all the teas made from the Camellia sinensis plant, making black tea involves withering the leaves, then rolling them, a long period of fermentation, and then firing the leaves.
This results in a complex and full-bodied sweet extraction. It has the highest caffeine content, so it will give your nervous system a level of stimulation similar to drip coffee.
With lower polyphenol levels, you won’t get as many cancer-fighting properties from drinking this brew. But it is still chock-full of antioxidants, some of which have been shown to help protect the lungs from the damage caused by cigarette smoke. Drinking this type may still help to lower your risk of stroke as well.
Iced tea and southern sweet tea are both made with the black type. The most widely recognized varieties of pure black tea are Darjeeling and Ceylon, and then you have your famous black tea blends – Earl Grey and Irish Breakfast.
My own favorite, Lady Grey, is another popular black tea blend. It has an almost floral taste and is lighter than the traditional Earl Grey.
You can read more in my in-depth article on choosing the best black teas.
I consider Pu-erh to be another form of black tea. The only difference here is that after the fermentation period, Pu-erh is then aged for prolonged periods, creating a greater depth of flavor.
Whereas black tea is sold as loose leaves, Pu-erh is pressed into patties or cakes, and they are even sometimes molded into various decorative shapes.
Pu-erh is often drunk to improve mental alertness, reduce high cholesterol, and especially as a weight loss aid. It contains chemical compounds that aid in the digestion of fatty foods, help to speed up metabolism, and lower cholesterol.
As a weight loss aid, it is said that if you drink a cup following each meal, it may prevent your body from storing any extra fat that isn’t digested.
I have long been a fan of home and herbal remedies – honey for burns, peppermint and ginger for nausea, thyme for coughs, lavender for relaxation, and so on. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I love herbal teas for the countless different medicinal uses they provide.
Chamomile tea is one of the most popular herbal teas. Other than its most common use as a calming sleep aid chamomile also contains antioxidants that may help to prevent complications from diabetes, such as vision loss and nerve or kidney damage.
These antioxidants have also been shown to stunt the growth of cancer cells.
Valerian is another herb that is commonly used in teas as a sleep aid, often in combination with chamomile.
Made from the South African Red Bush, Rooibos (a.k.a. African Red Tea) is an herbal tea for which leaves are harvested from the plant, ground and bruised, fermented, and dried.
Rooibos is naturally caffeine free, sweet with a sometimes nutty flavor. Green rooibos is also available, made by skipping the fermentation period before drying. This type has a lighter taste.
Rooibos also contains polyphenols known for their cancer-fighting properties.
Another common herb to infuse is peppermint, which is used for nausea, cough, sinus problems, and breathing issues.
Echinacea is frequently given as a decoction to help treat colds. Hibiscus tea is used to help lower blood pressure. And eleuthero is an Asian herb used for its calming properties as a drink before bed.
The last tea I want to talk with you about is made from the Yerba Mate plant, native to Argentina. While Mate is also an herbal tea, I have so much to say regarding it that I wanted to give it its own section.
To make it, both the stems and leaves from the plant are harvested, blanched, dried, aged, and then cut. The taste is surprisingly similar to that of coffee and many times is marketed specifically to attract coffee fans.
Early South American tribes considered Mate the drink of the gods. It is ridiculously rich in antioxidants, possessing 90% more antioxidants than even green tea.
As if the potential immunity-boosting powers of Mate weren’t enough, it has also been shown to help minimize the signs of aging, reduce stress, and even to help prevent certain cancers.
It is also highly touted for offering increased mental energy and clarity, and enhanced focus.
Perhaps the best part of drinking Mate is that it has chemical compounds and nutrients that may help to boost metabolism and help the body to use carbohydrates more efficiently.
For habitual mate drinkers, this means the potential for burning more calories and obtaining more useful energy out of the foods you eat.
It also has qualities that help to make you feel full sooner and may slow digestion to help you feel full longer, improving satiety. Furthermore, it has been known to work as an appetite suppressant.
Finally, this wonder tea has antioxidants and amino acids that may help fat and cholesterol to move through the bloodstream better, preventing them from accumulating on artery walls.
This helps to prevent hardening of arteries and the formation of blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes. Now, with a resume like this, who wouldn’t want to add a few mugs of Mate to their diet? Available at Amazon.
To Sum It Up
Okay, I realize that this is a lot of information, but there are really so many different kinds of teas out there. I didn’t even get into the different flavors that complement each type of tea, such as lemon or orange with green tea…
Hopefully this has given you a place to start if you’re looking to begin drinking tea on a regular basis. Want to know more? Read all of Foodal’s Tea Guides and Reviews.
About Ashley Martell
Ashley has enjoyed creative writing since she was six years old, when she wrote her first short story. She majored in English literature at the University of Montevallo. After years of professional work, she is now a stay-at-home mom of three, who uses her craft to write about her life and adventures in and out of the kitchen.