Americans rely more on coffee to get their daily boost of caffeine, but tea is king in almost every other corner of the world. It’s the second-most consumed beverage globally after water, and Brits drink nearly 62 billion cups of it every year. It’s also one of the oldest drinks on Earth: It was first brewed as early as 2737 BCE in East Asia. It’s now a tradition enjoyed everywhere, with many parts of the world making it their own way.
South Asian chai boosts the brew with milk and a blend of spices. Taiwanese milk tea uses flavored syrups and tapioca balls to turn the tea into a sweet treat. And some tea drinkers in the U.S. swear by a certain Sleepytime blend before bedtime (the adorable bear in pajamas is only part of the appeal).
Tea can be found just about everywhere. But with so many brands, flavors, and varieties, choosing which tea to drink can get pretty intimidating. So we’re breaking down the main types of tea you can buy in the United States. We chatted with Emeric Harney, marketing director of Harney & Sons, to unpack everything you need to know before brewing your cuppa.
The word tea is colloquially used as an umbrella term for any warm, brewed beverage. But if you want to get technical, real tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant. This evergreen tree is native to China, India, parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Both the leaves and the fragrant white flowers are used to make tea.
There are also tens of thousands of cultivars of the plant that are used in different applications. Different types of teas rely on different cultivars, growing techniques, and processing methods to achieve their signature flavors. Here are the main categories you can find while browsing the tea aisle.
White tea has a delicate flavor and naturally low caffeine levels. The reason why it’s so mild is because it’s minimally processed. “It’s usually comprised of the bud of the plant,” Harney says. “Sometimes you’ll find leaves in them as well.”
White teas are carefully hand-picked to avoid bruising and then air dried before they’re ready to be sold. This prevents the tea from undergoing the process of oxidation, which happens when the enzymes of the plant interact with oxygen. Harney compares the oxidation of tea to when you slice open an apple or avocado. “The plant goes through that defense mechanism and starts to turn brown,” he says. Because white tea is handled so gently, it never has the opportunity to release those enzymes.
“They’re barely touched by human hands or processing methods,” says Harney. Without this oxidation, white teas are typically very subtle in flavor with slight floral and vegetal notes. Some common comparisons include lightly steamed vegetables, fresh herbs, and melon. White tea is low in tannins with minimal bitterness, which makes it an ideal introductory tea for pickier drinkers—especially if you don’t already enjoy coffee.
Green tea is a popular, yet varied category. China and Japan have the most robust green tea traditions, and both countries use distinct methods. But at its core, green tea is made by exposing the leaves to heat soon after they’re harvested to stop the oxidation process.
If white tea is the lightly dressed spinach salad of the tea world, green tea is like blanched spinach. “The process involves harvest, withering (which is air drying), and then fixing is the last step, which helps them keep that bright green color,” Harney says.
Green tea leaves in China are typically hand-harvested and then either pan- or oven-fired. The flavor can vary from mild and grassy to more toasted and full. In Japan, however, there are many different ways to prepare green tea. The leaves are typically picked by machines, and can be fixed in many ways—but steaming is a popular method that’s specific to Japanese tea production.
The green tea that’s consumed in Japan on a regular basis is sencha. It’s grown in the sun, steamed right after harvest, and then air dried. This technique gives you an unoxidized tea with a grassy flavor.
You may also be familiar with matcha, which is the same plant processed in a different way. Rather than keeping the tea plant constantly exposed to the sun, tea used for matcha is covered to block the light around 40 days before harvest. “Basically what happens is that [the plant] has all this energy that it gained from the sun, and it’s supercharging the leaf with all of these great chemical compounds,” Harney says. Most notably, this process boosts the levels of chlorophyll, which is why matcha is such a bright green.
The leaves are then carefully harvested, steamed, air dried, meticulously de-stemmed, then ground into the powder we know as matcha. Compared to sencha and Chinese green teas, matcha tastes sweeter and creamier with a richer texture.
If you think the green tea category is vast, oolong is even more so. It starts simply, with harvesting and air drying the tea leaves. But then oolong goes through the process of rolling—basically bruising the leaves to jump start the oxidation process. Oolongs are partially oxidized teas, and can range anywhere from 15-80 percent oxidation. Because the range varies so widely, two oolongs can taste wildly different from each other.
“They really run a large gamut of flavor profiles. For a lot of people, that’s really exciting,” Harney says. He compares the taste of lighter oolongs to flowers and citrus, while darker varieties take on flavors like peaches and ginger. Increased oxidation also imparts a darker shade of the brewed tea and higher caffeine levels.
Black tea is not 100 percent oxidized, but it is the most oxidized variety you can find on the market. The process is similar to oolong, except it is exposed to oxygen for much longer. This causes the leaves to take on a much darker color and deeper, tannic flavor.
It’s also one of the most ubiquitous types of teas. When most people in the West think of tea, black tea is likely the first variety that comes to mind. It’s consumed all over the world and enjoyed for its full-bodied flavor.
It’s also used as the base for some of the most popular tea-based drinks. Black tea is used to make Thai iced tea, chai, and beloved blends like Earl Grey. Because of its intensity, it holds up well to added flavorings like milk and sugar.
You may reach for herbal teas like chamomile and peppermint when you’re winding down before bed, but they’re technically not tea. These brewed beverages are often consumed the same way, but don’t contain the Camellia sinensis plant. But that doesn’t mean they’re not delicious!
Herbal teas, also called tisanes, steep other aromatic plants in water to extract their flavors. Some common ingredients include hibiscus, rooibos, Yerba Mate, ginger, and even dried fruit. A few varieties contain caffeine while others don’t have any at all.
Gabby Romero is Delish’s editorial assistant, where she writes stories about the latest TikTok trends, develops recipes, and answers any and all of your cooking-related questions. She loves eating spicy food, collecting cookbooks, and adding a mountain of Parmesan to any dish she can.