Malabar Tea Estate, statue at the entrance of the tea factory, originally uploaded by jmhullot.

Let us begin at the beginning with the little plant that started it all:

File:Camellia sinensis - Köhler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-025.jpg
Camellia sinensis

The humble Camellia sinensis is native to China, South and Southeast Asia, it has been used as a beverage for about 3,000-5,000 years. This one humble plant (through its several varieties) is responsible for all the tea you drink.

There are many varieties of tea that you can buy in the store. Perhaps you have been like me at some time in the past: staring open-mouthed at the incomprehensible selection of breakfast teas (English, Irish, Scottish, London, French) and afternoon teas (English, Darjeeling, Sapsang Souchong, Jasmine, etc.), not to mention the colors (black, white, green, herb, fruit, spiced) place names (Ceylon, Assam), and nobility (Prince of Wales, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Lady Londonderry). And I’m not even straying into the Tisane, Rooibos, Yerba Mate, Pu-erh, and Honeybush variants. Whose idea was it to make tea so complicated? Ah, well. At least it’s not as complex as wine. Yet.

After a bit of research, it seems that the major difference between tea-types is the way in which Camellia sinensis is processed. Let us begin with the basic varieties (more detailed info here):
  • Black tea undergoes the most oxidization, giving it a robust flavor. Most of it comes from India, Africa, and Ceylon. Picture black tea as your large, hearty, red-faced uncle.
  • Green tea is not oxidized. The leaves are just withered, dried and grassy tasting; supposed to be very healthy for you. This is your thin, wrinkled aunt who’s always trying to make you eat your vegetables.
  • White tea is the creme de la creme of the tea family. The rarest and priciest white teas are grown in the Fujian province of China, the buds and young leaves are used, and have a delicate flavor with almost no processing at all. This is your pale, snooty socialite cousin.
  • Oolong tea is somewhere between black and green when it comes to processing and varies between an floral-green flavor and an earthy-black flavor. This is the weird little cousin who can’t decide what he wants to be when he grows up.
  • Pu-erh tea is “strong”, “smooth”, and “organic”–an acquired taste best appreciated by connoisseurs. It even has its own website: This is the Eastern mystic in your family whom nobody understands, nor particularly wishes to.
So–with familial tea analogies out of the way–what do you do when you’re faced with a huge wall of colorful boxes with mysterious labels and just want to try out something new?

Here are the quick and dirty facts. 

Looking for something quintessentially English to start the day strong? Go with a breakfast tea. These usually start with malty, full-bodied Assam, and go well with milk and sugar. English, Irish, Scottish, oh my! Well, not to fear. English will probably have tea from Sri Lanka, China, Kenya and Assam, Irish is strong with a lot of Assam, and Scottish varies with tea from India, Sri Lanka and China.  

Something light and subtle, or refreshing after a hard day’s work? Get an afternoon tea like Darjeeling (the “champagne” of teas with a muscatel flavor), Lady Londonderry (the fruity and floral coquette), Jasmine (refreshing, something to unwind with), Earl Grey (heavenly citrus bergamot), or Lapsang Souchong (sweet, clean, and smoky). 

Looking for something on the delicate and beneficial side? Check out green teas, but remember that not all are created equal. Gunpowder (rolled into tiny pellets) is strong, nutty, and smoky. Matcha gives a taste of Japan (powdered and whisked into a foamy beverage). Also try the less-expensive and easier to prepare version of Matcha, Sencha. Green tea also lends itself to dozens, hundreds, probably thousands of flavor variations (cranberry, coconut, mint, ginger, peach….). 

Finally, if you’re in the mood to pamper yourself, consider white, herb, and fruit teasWhite tea is considered to be the purest tea in the world. Herb and Fruit tisane teas are great hot or cold, and are caffeine-free! Treat yourself to spicy apple, smooth raspberry, fruity strawberry, or lemon.

So hopefully our little adventure into the varieties of tea has clarified, enlightened, and invigorated you. Now go out there and hit the shelves, put on the kettle, and enjoy!

Fun Fact: Apart from tourism, tea is the biggest industrial activity in India.

Types of Tea by William I. Lengeman was a big help

“Like” Picture Britain on Facebook for exclusive links, photos, and information!

Written by Abigail Young

I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *