Many people don't realize that all types of tea begin with the leaf from a single plant, Camellia sinensis. Tea is the processed leaves of this plant. Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub indigenous to Southeast Asia that thrives in subtropical and highland tropic regions. The leaves and buds, and sometimes even the stems, of Camellia sinensis are harvested and processed in various fashions to produce the range of tea varieties available today. This includes black, oolong, green, white, and pu-erh. With the popularity of herbal infusions in today’s marketplace (such as chamomile, peppermint, etc.), a whole gamut of brews have come to be referred to as “tea.” Technically speaking, however, only those beverages derived from the plant Camellia sinensis should be referred to as such. To distinguish them from true teas, herbal teas are often referred to as herbal infusions or tisanes (pronounced TEE-san). Americans consume more than 50 billion servings of tea annually - 85% of which is on ice!
What Exactly is Tea?
Although tea comes from very specific botanical origins, it has come to be known by many names across the globe: cha (China, Japan), chay (Turkey), chai (SE Asia, Middle East and Russia), chá (Portugal), tay (China - Fujian province), thé (France), tee (Germany), thee (Holland), and té (Spain and Italy). One can even trace tea’s historical journey through its linguistics. The Mandarin Chinese “cha” was the first name for tea. It followed tea through China and beyond when it spread throughout Asia in the 5th century. Much later, in the 17th century, Dutch merchants found their way to the Fujian province of China to set up trading posts. Along with Camellia sinensis, they exported the Fujian word “tay” to Europe, which they spelled “tea.” In contrast, the Portuguese followed a trade route via Macao rather than Fujian, and consequently use the Cantonese-derived cha. To learn more about tea's globe-trotting history, visit our History of Tea page.
To many, tea is much more than the leaves of Camellia sinensis steeped in hot water – tea is also an act, an experience. Cultures across the globe have developed myriad traditions revolving around the service of tea, from the Japanese tea ceremony to the English high tea. In many ceremonies, one will often hear talk of “the agony of the leaves.” The agony of the leaves is a poetic description of the unfurling of the dried tea leaves when steeped in hot water. To learn more about the world’s tea traditions, visit our Traditions of Tea page.
Tea (Camellia sinensis) is grown in literally thousands of tea gardens and estates throughout the world. While tea is manufactured in dozens of countries, the five traditional tea producing countries are China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and Taiwan (Formosa). As with wine, variations in plant strains, soil type, altitude, and climate lend character and flavor unique to each tea estate.
All types of tea begin with the tea leaf from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. How the tea leaf is processed after it is picked determines if it becomes white, green, oolong, black, or pu-erh tea. Tea can be manufactured using one of two approaches, orthodox or CTC. Orthodox production methods, whether done by hand or by machine, generally preserve the integrity of the tea leaf. On the other hand, CTC manufacturing (or “crush-tear-curl”) uses machines to mince, shred or crush the leaf.
Both methods can produce excellent teas; however the orthodox method is typically considered the more “traditional,” and produces tea that is generally more complex in flavor and aroma. All of Arbor Teas tea is manufactured using the orthodox method.
Orthodox Manufacture: Orthodox manufacture begins by selectively picking (often by hand) tea leaves. The leaves are allowed to wither, reducing their water content and making them soft and pliable. Once withered, the leaves are gently rolled to break down the cellular structure, beginning the oxidation process. The oxidation stage is primarily responsible for differentiating tea into its various categories – white, green, oolong, and black. The longer the oxidation process is allowed to continue, the darker the leaf becomes. Once the desired level of oxidation is reached, the leaves are dried to halt the oxidation process and make them suitable for distribution. The dried leaves are then graded and sorted into various sizes.
CTC Manufacture: CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl) is the most well known non-orthodox method of manufacture, and was invented during WWII to increase the weight of the tea that could be packed into a chest. It also eliminates some of the labor required to produce tea, thus increasing the speed and efficiency of tea manufacture.
In the Crush-Tear-Curl process, tea leaves are plucked and withered. After they are withered the tea leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers that crush, tear and roll the tea leaves into tiny, irregular balls that somewhat resemble coffee grounds. Once completed, the leaves are left to oxidize and are finally fired. After the tea is fired, it is sorted into different grades. CTC tea is used primarily in mass-market teabags. Given the small particle size, CTC tea has a greater surface area ratio than whole leaf tea, causing it to brew quickly and generally have a thicker body with more astringency.
There are five main categories of tea: black, green, oolong, white, and pu-erh. Don’t forget, all types of tea begin with a tea leaf from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. How the tea leaf is processed after it is picked determines if it becomes black, green, oolong, white or pu-erh. After tea is processed into one of the five basic types it can also be blended, flavored or scented.
Mixtures of tea and other botanical ingredients and flavorings have increased the selection of tea available in the marketplace exponentially. Earl Grey is a popular example of a flavored black tea.
The basic categories of tea, and their more common variations, are described below. Popular herbal infusions (or tisanes), have been included as well.
Black Tea: Fully oxidized during manufacture, black tea has dark brown/black leaves. Notable types of Indian black tea include: Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiri. Varieties such as Yunnan and Keemun come to us from China. Ceylon (Sri Lanka) is also known for excellent black teas.
Green Tea: Unoxidized, green tea maintains the leaves' green color through processing. Brew made from these delicate leaves is often vegetative. Most green teas are produced in China and Japan, both of which are known for excellent, yet very distinct, green tea manufacture. Japan uses steam to halt oxidation of its green tea during manufacture, while China uses pan or kiln firing.
Oolong Tea: Oolong tea is only partially oxidized in the manufacturing process. Because of this, the color, flavor and aroma of oolongs range widely between that of green and black teas. Formosa (Taiwan) is renowned for the quality of its oolongs.
White Tea: After harvesting, white tea is simply withered and dried (similar to an herb). Occasional baking and firing is used for particular styles of white tea. As a result, white teas offer a wide range of flavors, but they are generally subtle tea drinking experiences. These teas originated in China's Fujian province, and continue to be produced in limited quantities in only a few parts of the world to this day.
Pu-erh Tea: Pu-erh, a city located in the Yunnan Province of China, is the namesake of pu-erh tea, the most famous subset of Chinese heicha (dark tea). Produced only in China, pu-erh processing is a closely guarded secret. Properly cared for, pu-erh tea is actually alive as enzymes in the tea are allowed to ferment and age, greatly enhancing the tea’s flavor over time. Pu-erh is the only “aged” tea, and can be fully-oxidized like black tea or unoxidized like green tea. Qing Cha (sometimes referred to as “raw” or “green” pu-erh) is the oldest and most famous version of pu-erh processing. Shu Cha (“ripe” or “cooked” pu-erh) is an accelerated version of Qing Cha that was developed in 1972 to help meet consumer demand. Both methods can produce an excellent tea that improves in value and taste with time, and can be finished as loose leaf tea or pressed into shapes.
Herbal Tea (Tisanes): Tisanes, Herbal Tea, or Herbal Infusions are brews made using botanical ingredients other than Camellia sinensis, such as herbs, fruit, and flowers. Peppermint and chamomile are common examples of herbal teas.
The South African herb rooibos (pronounced ROY-bus) is an herbal tea of particular note these days. Native to the beautiful Cederberg region, it is often mistakenly referred to as "red tea." Rooibos is made from the leaves and stem of Aspalathus linearis (a bushy legume). It is naturally caffeine-free and offers a whole host of medicinal benefits. It can also be blended and flavored in much the same way tea is.
Yerba Mate (pronounced YUR-ba MAH-tay) is also a well known herbal tea. From a small tree related to the holly plant, native to the subtropical highlands of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina, Yerba Mate is a vegetative brew with distinct roasty and minty notes that contains its own variety of caffeine (called matteine). Yerba mate is a healthful brew that is considered "the drink of the gods" by many indigenous peoples in South America. So prevalent is the consumption of yerba mate in South America, that mate bars are as widespread as coffee shops in the US.
Flavored Tea: Flavored teas are teas or herbs that are mixed with liquid flavors. This is often done by spraying or pouring the liquid on the leaves and thoroughly distributing. These flavorings are ubiquitous in the tea industry and account for the multitude of tea options -- including everything from the well known Earl Grey (flavored with bergamot) to more specialized options like Apple Pie. These flavors are sometimes referred to as essential oils, extracts, authentic flavors, artificial flavors, and natural flavors. Technically, the terms “artificial flavors” and “natural flavors” should be listed on ingredient lists in the USA.
An artificial flavor is one derived from a synthetic process. The definition of a “synthetic process” can vary depending on the country. In organic regulations in the USA, "synthetic" means a substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant (except when created by naturally occurring biological processes). In contrast, natural flavors are derived from the botanical itself without chemical changes. In organic certified products (such as ours), only natural flavors are allowed.
Blended Tea: Blended teas are teas or herbs that are mixed with other teas, herbs, fruit, and/or flowers of multiple origins and/or varieties. The key distinction between blended teas and flavored teas is blended teas can be physically separated into its distinct parts, while flavored teas cannot. Well known blended teas include English Breakfast and Lipton. Masala Chai is also a blended tea that is particularly noteworthy. Hailing from India, masala chai is an increasingly popular blend of tea and spices. Traditionally, black tea serves as the foundation for this flavorful beverage, however chai using green tea, rooibos and yerba mate are becoming popular. Exotic spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and pepper give chai its enticing flavor. Chai is usually served with warmed milk and honey.
Scented Tea: Scented teas are teas or herbs that are exposed to a particular scent during manufacturing. As a result, the tea absorbs and retains the aroma throughout its lifetime. Some of the most well known scented teas are green tea combined with flowers such as jasmine, magnolia, and osmanthus. Others, such as Lapsang Souchong Black Tea, are more savory and scented with smoke. Scented teas are often confused with flavored teas, but are technically unflavored. Sometimes, inferior forms of scented tea are mimicked by using a flavoring.
Decaffeinated Tea: All true tea contains caffeine. Decaffeinated teas are leaves from the plant Camellia sinensis that have had at least 97.5% of the caffeine removed. The term “decaffeinated” is different from “caffeine free.” Decaffeinated refers to a product that originally contained caffeine (like Camellia sinensis) and underwent a process to remove most of its caffeine content. Caffeine-free, on the other hand, refers to a product that never contained caffeine to begin with. To learn more about Decaffeinated Teas visit our Tea & Caffeine page.
Once manufactured, tea is graded based on its physical description, including leaf size and color. Tea grading varies widely from country to country and from one type to another. It is important to know that tea grading does NOT reflect the quality of the brew (with the exception of graded teas from Taiwan). Indian black teas are subject to the most structured and extensive grading system.
The basic term used in grading Indian and Ceylon black tea is Orange Pekoe (pronounced PECK-oh), or OP. The word "pekoe" is derived from the Chinese word "bai hao," for white tip, a reference to the white downy hairs found on the bud leaves. The word "orange" has nothing to do with orange flavor or scent, but may be a reference to the Dutch House of Orange, the Dutch royal family in the early days of the European tea trade. In addition to the OP designation, additional letters are often assigned to describe the leaves' various characteristics. Black tea is broken down into four different categories: whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings and dust, each of which is described below:
Whole Leaf Grades
OP - Orange Pekoe: The basic term for whole leaf grade tea. OP contains long, pointed leaves that are larger than FOP and have been harvested when the end buds open into leaf. OP usually does not contain tips.
FOP - Flowery Orange Pekoe: FOP tea is made from the end bud and first leaf of each shoot. FOP contains fine, tender young leaves with buds, also referred to as tips (a mark of quality tea).
GFOP - Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: FOP with golden tips.
TGFOP - Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: FOP with a larger proportion of golden tips than GFOP.
FTGFOP - Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: Very high quality FOP.
SFTGFOP - Supreme Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: Very high quality FOP with lots of golden tips. The numeral "1" is often added to the end of the description to indicate a top quality tea (e.g. SFTGFOP1).
Broken Leaf Grades
The term Broken Orange Pekoe, or BOP, is used to describe large leaf fragments. The same grading terminology that is used for whole leaf (OP) teas is also applied to BOP teas (e.g. TGBOP = Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe). BOP teas retain much of the quality attributed to whole leaf, or OP tea, and are often used to make tea blends.
Fannings are leaf fragments smaller than the BOP grade, often used in tea bags.
Dust is generally the remnants of the grading process (after OP, BOP and Fannings have been removed). It is often used in ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages such as bottled iced tea.
Loose Leaf vs. Tea Bags
What is the difference between bagged tea and loose leaf? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Currently, Arbor Teas sells loose leaf tea only. This means that none of our tea is contained in a teabag, but arrives at your doorstep hand packed in our packaging in its original loose form. We only offer loose leaf tea because we specialize in sourcing high-quality leaf tea, which is principally available in loose leaf form. Additionally, keeping our tea loose eliminates the need for extra packaging material and keeps single serve packaging out of the waste stream. Plus, it gives you a chance to lay eyes on the beautiful tea leaves that make each cup worth it!
Both loose leaf tea and bagged tea begin with a tea leaf from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. However, the method of manufacture can vary significantly. The tea leaf can be processed using one of two methods, orthodox or CTC. Orthodox production is used to create the leaf teas that we offer at Arbor Teas, while CTC production is used primarily in mass-market teabags. Orthodox production, whether done by hand or machine, generally preserves the integrity of the tea leaf. On the other hand, CTC manufacturing (or “crush-tear-curl”) uses machines to mince, shred or crush the leaf. Both methods can produce excellent teas, but the orthodox method is considered more “traditional,” and results in tea that is generally more complex in flavor and aroma. CTC manufactured tea is usually in very small pieces, and brews up quicker with more astringency.
We understand that teabags are more familiar, and often thought to be more convenient. But loose leaf tea can be brewed just as easily! We recommend creating do-it-yourself tea bags with our TeaBrew, or investing in a reusable infuser. With these items, you can steep your tea and remove the leaves just as easily as with the traditional teabag.
Got questions? Check out our easy step-by-step guide on How to Brew Loose Leaf Tea.
Wanna Read More About Tea Production?
Here are our top picks:
New Tea Lover's Treasury by James Norwood Pratt
Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties by Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi
The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss