Camellia Sinensis = Tea Bush
Like all tea newbies, when I first started enjoying tea several years ago, I assumed that black tea, green tea, herbal tea, white tea, berry tea, and every other kind of tea were made from different plants and flowers. While that's true to some extent, I was shocked to learn that "tea," no matter the color, all came from the same plant! Let me explain...
TEA - Tea is made up of the leaves and buds of the Camellia Sinensis plant. While this plant can grow into tall trees, most tea gardens keep them pruned into short bushes so it is easier to harvest the leaves. From this one plant, we derive white tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea, and pu'erh. So now you're asking youself "how is that possible?" The color of the tea is determined by how long the leaves are left to oxidize (how long they are left to dry out off the bush). Once the leaves are picked, they are laid out on mats or trays to dry for a few hours. The leaves are then rolled by hand or machine to release the enzyme that allows them to begin the oxidation process. How long they are left to dry after that determines the color of the tea. White teas are the least oxidized (left out for the least amount of time), followed by green, oolong, and black teas (which are left out for the longest time). Once the teas have reached the desired level of oxidation, they are pan fried, or steamed to stop them from oxidizing further. Pu'erh teas are packed into cakes and are left to age and ferment.
You may have noticed however, that not all black teas, green teas, or white teas taste the same. That flavor variation is based on where the tea is grown. Like wine grapes, tea leaves are effected by the plant varietal, geographical location, soil, weather, harvest year, age of the leaves, etc. Just as a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Napa, CA will taste different from a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Santiago, Chile, a black tea grown in the Assam region of India will taste vastly different from a black tea grown in Kenya, Africa. There are even differences between teas grown in the same region but on different estates.
HERBAL TEAS - The term herbal tea is really a misnomer, as herbal teas don't actually contain any tea leaves. All teas harvested from the tea bush (as listed above) will contain caffeine. It is a natural part of the plant. As you know, herbal "teas" don't contain caffeine, and that is because they don't actually contain tea! The proper name for an herbal blend is 'Tisane.' Herbal Tisanes ("teas") are made up of various flowers, herbs, spices, and dried fruits which are naturally caffeine free; such as chamomile flowers, lemongrass, basil, rose buds, etc.
Often times, herbs, spices, or fruits will be added to an actual tea for flavoring (such as Chai tea); be sure and check the ingredient list. If there is no tea listed in the herbal blend, then there is no caffeine, but if tea is one of the ingredients, it will contain caffeine.
It's a lot of fun to learn about the differences in teas from various regions. Consider getting some friends together and holding a "Tea Tasting" to compare, contrast and discuss your favorites!
Dezerai Seitzer is the owner and founder of Global Teas, a retail line of tea that gives people the opportunity to help change lives by donating $1 from every pouch of tea sold to a non-profit organization.