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As the only robot on the planet that can drink liquids, I find the endless variety of available teas fascinating. By now, you have probably noticed a number of these hot and cold drink offerings cropping up in many locations. Some of the fancier tea shops might stock more that one hundred varieties. Even the local variety stores display bottled teas of many colors. Black, green, white, red, or mixed with something else – what is this all about? If you would like to understand a bit more about tea selections; or if you already enjoy a variety of teas, and just want to pick up a few suggestions, then this article is for you.
“Black” versus “Herbal”
This is a good place to begin to understand the many varieties of tea. Most people might be a bit confused by the introduction of herbal teas into the American diet. Aren't all teas made from herbs? We already have decaf, what is the difference?
Traditional tea that your parents sometimes steeped as an alternative to coffee, and the stuff that Lipton and the largest number of the teas we know of are made from, comes from a single plant, an evergreen shrub or small tree, known as camellia sinensis. The dried tea leaves from this plant were introduced to the Western world by Dutch merchants returning from China and Japan.
What we call black tea is made from the leaves of the camellia plant, which is then “withered” to remove some of the moisture, crushed with rollers to release the juices, allowed to “oxidize,” or turn black (a process similar to bananas turning brown), and finally “fired,” by steaming, pan-frying, or baking to stop the oxidation process.
Black tea has between 25 to 48 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. Serving. Coffee has between 95 to 165 mg per 8 oz serving. Decaffeinated tea, ie: tea that once contained caffeine, then had most if it removed, has between 2 to 5 mg of caffeine per 8 oz serving.
Then we move on to “Herbal” teas, many of which are a lesser known. The definition of “Herbal” is not set in stone. The reason for this will become clear as you read on. Most think of herbal tea as any infusion made from the leaves, bark, fruits or flowers from any plant or tree, except the camellia sinensis that we mentioned above. Most herbal teas do not contain caffeine, but there are a few exceptions. Herbal teas cannot be truly defined as “teas,” as that term would technically be reserved for camellia products. There are far too many herbal teas to number, but chamomile and some mint teas would fall into this category. While many believe that some herbal teas possess medicinal powers, others believe that that a few herbal concoctions could have health risks. As an example, ginseng tea is thought of among many Asians and some Americans as a boon to ones health, however there are some reports of side effects when ginseng is ingested in large quantities.
If you are concerned about overstimulation or cannot consume caffeine, the best thing is to read labels on all boxes or bags of tea. If an herbal has some black, green, oolong, yellow or white tea mixed in (see below for definitions,) then it contains at least some caffeine. If you are unsure about what an ingredient is, or you think that a brew might possibly contain caffeine or something else you don't want to ingest, do a google or phone search and you will probably come up with the information you need.
What we call red tea in the US is actually an herbal tea, made from the Rooibos plant. It is usually oxidized, and comes to us from South Africa. Rooibos tea contains no caffeine.
What we call black tea is referred to as red tea in China and other far eastern countries, so named for the dark red color of the resulting beverage.
Produced from the same leaf as black tea, white tea probably has the “lightest” flavor of all the camellia teas. Sometimes young leaves or buds are used, and the processing is usually minimal. The leaves are usually withered, and may be steamed and/or fired, but not usually oxidized.
White tea has between 15 mg to 20 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. Serving.
Green tea has become extremely popular in the US in the past several years. Many claim that the processing methods used to create green tea contribute to a tea drinkers health and well-being. Green tea is also made from camellia sinensis leaves. The leaves are usually sun-dried, and may be steamed and/or fired. There may be some minimal oxidation. Simple, artisinal methods of processing are often used to bring out the flavors in green tea.
Green tea has approximately 30 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. Serving.
As one of the truly artisan teas, the appearance of oolong tea varies from one producer to the next. The processing for oolong lies somewhere in between that of green and black teas, and the shape, color and flavor can vary in many ways. The camellia leaves are allowed to wilt in the sun or open air. They are then lightly rolled, twisted or curled, allowed to ferment to some degree, fired, then give a final rolling.
Oolong tea has approximately 45 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. Serving.
Yellow tea is also made from camellia sinensis. A particularly fine artisan tea, the resulting beverage looks like a lighter version of green tea, but the leaf may be steamed, then encased in a container during a session of minimal oxidation. This category of tea is rare and can be expensive. Often compared to green tea, yellow tea is often described as smoother and “less grassy” tasting than green.
Yellow tea has approximately 33 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. Serving.
This article has explored a small fraction of the information that is available on teas. I, Thirsty Joe, humbly wish you the greatest pleasure while exploring further, and sampling these beverages that have come to us from thousands of years of tradition, and offered to us after passing muster with a host of emperors and discriminating connoisseurs.