One of history’s most popular beverages is also one of the healthiest drinks that consumers enjoy today— yep, we’re talking tea! Thanks to its functionality and diversity of flavors, there’s a style to satisfy any palate. That’s also why tea has remained the world’s second most widely consumed beverage, eclipsed only by water. If you’ve never given much thought to the history or production methods behind the brew in your cup, don’t stress (though if you do, there’s a tea for that!) Instead, ease your mind with this brief background on two of the most consumed tea types— green and black tea. Grab your favorite mug and settle in.
From Ancient Medicine to Global Favorite
Experts believe tea began as a medicine in Southwest China. The earliest evidence of tea drinking comes from an emperor’s mausoleum dating back to the 2nd century, BCE. During this time, the first known accounts of tea cultivation were also recorded. For many centuries, tea drinking would remain centralized around Southern China.
It wouldn’t be until the 8th–century that tea would become a staple throughout China and surrounding Asian countries, eventually making its way to Europe and the rest of the world. As the popularity of tea spread, new production techniques would also emerge, evolving many of the styles we continue to enjoy today!
Believe it or not, all tea comes from the same plant— camellia sinesis. The breadth of color, aroma, flavor, and even caffeine content variations in tea can be mostly credited to differences in cultivation and processing of the plant.
The oldest recorded methods of tea production yield what we now call green tea. To create green tea, mature leaves are typically either steamed or dry roasted, and then dried for preservation and to prevent too much oxidation. Steaming conserves brighter colors in the leaf, while dry roasting intensifies its flavor. This technique was perfected in the late 2nd–century BCE, and since that time, little has changed— after all, why fix what isn’t broken?
Green tea tends to have a lower caffeine content than black tea, coming in at around 24 to 40mg of caffeine. This is also much less than coffee’s average of 95 to 200mg. But remember— cultivation and processing styles can have a major impact on the defining characteristics of a tea; that’s how we can get another member of the green tea family, Matcha, to boast a whopping 70mg per teaspoon of powder.
Matcha is a variant of green tea that involves a special shaded growing period just before harvest. This allows the tea to develop higher levels of caffeine and L-theanine, the chemical compound that allows your body to absorb caffeine more slowly for a longer-lasting and less jittery experience. When paired together, these two chemicals can decrease stress while improving alertness, mood, and cognitive performance.
After harvest and processing, the leaves are ground into a fine powder that is then mixed directly into hot water or milk before being served. Today, applications for matcha powder have extended beyond tea and lattes to include drinks of all types— especially functional beverages— and even food.
Where green teas tend to be astringent, grassy, and light, black tea is dark, malty, and rich. This is also why Europeans may have developed an affinity for it when they first experienced the beverage in the 16th–century.
The process for making black tea is very different than that of its green cousin. The first step is bruising or tearing the leaves to promote oxidation. During this period, the leaves turn from green to a brown or black color, allowing new aroma and flavor compounds to develop. Each tea producer will control the oxidation process differently to achieve their desired aroma and flavors.
For modern consumers, an increasingly popular use of black tea is in brewing kombucha. This bubbly, fermented drink further enhances the health benefits of the tea plant by introducing helpful microorganisms to aide in digestion and gut health. Beyond this functionality, the fermentation process also introduces more unique flavors— a fact that has helped the emerging category establish a new frontier in the beverage space.
Elevating kombucha to a similar level as craft beer, brewers can create complex profiles to serve more adventurous, health-forward consumers with the fresh flavors and sensations they crave. If you’re not ready to venture into the unknown, then you might recognize other world-famous black teas including Chai, English Breakfast blend, and Earl Grey.
Other Tea Varietals
While green and black teas may be the most familiar styles, there are thought to be over 20,000 other tea varietals around the world. We won’t overwhelm you, but there are a few notable members of this side of the tea family we feel deserve an honorable mention. Each of these have specific production methods that combine elements of techniques used for both green and black tea production:
Classified as neither a green tea nor a black tea, Oolong tea is a semi-oxidized style that can widely vary in production methodology.
As in the case of black tea, the amount of oxidation is closely monitored to achieve the producer’s desired flavors. The leaves are then rolled into the shape of long curls or small beads with a tail.
This type of tea, which can possess flavor characteristics of both green and black teas, is mainly consumed in China or by Chinese expatriates; however, this delightful style has the potential to attract tea drinkers from around the world.
White tea is made from the youngest leaves of the tea plant. This sometimes includes unopened buds covered in fine white hairs— the inspiration for its name.
In the production of this “un-oxidized” tea, the young leaves are treated in a similar manner as green tea leaves, skipping that part where they are rolled and allowed to dry in direct sunlight. In the 16th century, this process was especially coveted for the high-quality tea it produced. It provides the mildest of flavors, but with complex fruity and floral undertones.
It’s clear that tea, in all its forms, has changed what the world is drinking. And as functional beverages continue to provide more bang for their buck, innovations in the tea category are sure to attract a new generation of consumers.
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