A Brief History of Tea:
Legend has it that tea was first discovered in 2737 B.C. when the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nong, was boiling water and the leaves of a nearby tea plant blew into the water. He was pleasantly surprised by the drink that emerged and tea was born. This is of course is just a legend, what we do know is that tea was born in China some time before 1000 B.C.
It is generally accepted that tea does have a lot of health benefits and these benefits can vary depending on the type of tea being enjoyed. However what these exact health benefits are is constantly being debated. If you do a simple google search for "health benefits of tea" you will be bombarded with a range of health benefit claims. Everything from: "This tea will instantly make you sexy and irresistable" or "if you buy this type of tea it will instantly cure you of cancer" or "this tea will completely stop the aging process (and may even reverse it), it will also give you the red hair that everyone wishes they had." Obviously there is no question as to why doubts arise about some of these claims. However if you would like to read some articles about legitimate research that has been done in regards to the health benefits of tea then I highly encourage you to read these articles that compile facts from different research projects:
Traditional tea all has one thing in common, it all comes from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. Your traditional categories of tea are: Black, Oolong, Green, and White. Sometimes the plant will be grown differently depending on what type of tea the farmer is trying to make. However the big difference between these teas comes in how the leaves are processed once they have been harvested. This is discussed in more detail below for the different types of teas. There are of course subsets of these traditional categories and other types of "teas" that are not considered a traditional tea since they do not come from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Such as Herbal, Rooibos, Mate, and Guayusa just to name a few.
There are many different techniques for processing tea leaves and it can vary greatly from farm to farm. The processing of tea is what gives a tea its unique taste. Asking a farmer to give you their exact process would be like walking into Coca-Cola and requesting that they give you their recipe for Coke. Obviously they're not going to share that with you, for this reason, below we only talk about how different types of tea are generally processed. It's important to keep in mind that these processes vary greatly from region to region as well as from farm to farm.
The most processed type of tea and is fully oxidized, it also has the highest caffeine content, making it a great tea to enjoy in the morning. The color of the brewed tea is usually a very dark brown, red, or black and the taste can be very bold and strong, much like coffee. If a black tea is being made, after the leaves are plucked they are laid out on mats to wither. Withering dries the leaves so they don't crumble throughout the rest of the tea making process. Next the leaves are rolled, this can either be done by hand or machine. This is where the leaves get their initial shape, the shape that the leafs are rolled into can greatly effect how the end product tastes. After rolling, black tea is allowed to oxidize or "ferment" as it is usually referred to. How long a tea is oxidized greatly changes how a tea tastes in the end. The oxidation process is why black teas have a very dark color and strong taste. Once the tea maker has determined that a tea has been oxidized enough, the leaves are immediately heated to stop the oxidation process and to finish drying the leafs. When the leaves are dried all that's left is for the tea to be inspected, tasted, and packaged!
Is in the middle as far as the amount of processing and it is partially oxidized. It doesn't have as much caffeine as a black tea but it has more than green tea. It typically takes on a yellow or amber color and the tastes range greatly from subtle to a bold taste that black teas have. After the tea leaves are plucked they are laid out to wither, just like black teas are. After this withering process the leafs are bruised, which is basically a continuation of the withering process but the leafs are continually moved around bamboo baskets and pressed by hand which "bruises" the leaves. The bruising starts the oxidation process, generally leaves are bruised and then laid out to oxidize several times. Next the leaves are pan fried for a short amount of time to stop the leaves from oxidizing then the leaves are immediately rolled and shaped. It is common for the leaves of an Oolong tea to be rolled into balls. Then the leaves are baked so the leaves keep their shape and to finish the drying process. Next the tea just needs to be inspected, tasted, and packaged!
The most common type of tea in the western world, it is minimally processed and has a low amount of caffeine so it can be enjoyed throughout the majority of the day. As you would expect from the name, this tea has a green hue and it ranges in color from a very light to dark green. It usually has a "grassy" taste to it. After the leaves are plucked they are generally allowed to wither for a short amount of time then they are immediately steamed or roasted. Next the leaves are rolled into the desired shape and dried for the final product. All that is left is for the tea to be inspected, tasted, and packaged!
Two common variations of green tea are Sencha and Gyokuro. There are more variations, but we're only going to cover these two for now. Sencha and Gyokuro teas often look and smell the same with subtle differences in the way that these teas taste. These teas are processed the same way, the difference is in how the leaves are grown. Sencha is grown in full sunlight until the leaves are picked. Gyokuro is grown in full sunlight and is then shaded for an amount of time determined by the tea maker. This shade makes the plant grow at a slower pace and gives it the deep forest green color as well as the sweet taste that Gyokuro teas are known for.
The least processed type of tea and it also has the lowest caffeine content. It is usually a very light color and a subtle taste. The buds and leaves for a white tea are simply laid out to wither and dry. Followed by inspection, tasting, and packaging. You may be wondering, if this is the least labor intensive tea then why is it so expensive? While the processing of this tea is not very labor intensive the picking of this tea is. White tea can vary from being 100% young buds (leaves that are budding but have not yet opened up) to being a young bud with a few young leaves attached. This means that white tea has a very small window for harvesting, usually just a few days a year. On top of that the leaves and buds must be handled very carefully to keep the young leaves and buds intact. For the highest grades of white tea, you should be able to look at the bud and see very small silver hairs on it.
This type of tea is very common in China and it is commonly seen as being a "healing" tea. The processing is similar to a green tea but it is aged or fermented before it is dried. This aging can be done with the tea in loose leaf form or it can be pressed into pu'erh cakes, which are commonly found. This stage of fermentation is basically a way to bring out some very unique flavors in the tea. There are two main factors that determine the price of a Puerh tea: How old are the trees that the leaves came from? How long has the tea been aged for? Generally speaking the greater that these two numbers are, you can expect the price to be higher.