Herbal ‘teas’ are not teas at all; they are tisanes – hot water infusions made with some type of organic matter other than the tea plant. The most recognisable tisanes are peppermint, camomile, licorice and rose hip, but many other herbs and spices are popular in certain cultures. Before the advent of modern medicine, tisanes were used as traditional treatments for all manner of ailments, for example, peppermint and licorice are thought to help digestion, camomile is renowned as a relaxant before bedtime, and rose hip is thought to have restorative properties.
All teas are made from the leaves or buds of the tea plant (camellia sinensis), with the type of processing determining whether the end product is white, green, oolong or black. Worldwide annual tea production is roughly 78% black, 20% green, 2% oolong.
White tea is produced from the tea plant’s youngest unopened buds, which are plucked and air-dried with minimal processing. White tea infusions are subtle, lacking the earthy depths of black and green teas, and contain less caffeine.
Green tea is made from the fresh leaves that are steamed and ‘fired’, undergoing only a short period of oxidation to ensure retention of the tea’s distinctive light green colour and woody fragrance.
To produce the much stronger black tea, the leaves are cut, torn, and left exposed to the oxygen in the air until the leaves turn brown. After undergoing this natural enzymatic oxidation, these brown leaves are ‘fired’ until they turn black.
With black tea, the origin, type and grade of leaf creates distinct flavour variations when infused. We might know about English Breakfast, Darjeeling and Ceylon teas, but there are many other regional variations. India is known for its assam; China produces a robust provincial tea called pu’er or pu-erh; but their oolong is arguably the most exotic.
The fragrant and multi-talented oolong comes from a camellia sinensis variant, which can be used to produce distinctive black, green, yellow, and even red teas. The flavours differ depending on where the tea is grown and how it’s processed. Its infusions can be sweet and fruity with honey aromas, or woody and thick with roasted aromas, or green and fresh with complex aromas. Some oolong teas can naturally imitate the taste and fragrances of fruit and flowers such as orange blossom, ginger flower, orchid, grapefruit or almond. Oolong is nicknamed black dragon tea because the processed leaves are dark, long and curly like a scorched dragon.
While instant tea bags have become commonplace in Western countries, there has been a resurgence of interest in the ancient art of tea-making. By adding flower petals, dried fruit or spices, black tea has suddenly become exotic and fun all over again. Specialty tea retailers are stocking a dizzying array of flavoured loose-leaf teas. Check out the Australian websites for T2Tea and Lupicia; they will blow your mind.
Despite this trend back to loose-leaf teas, the humble tea bag should not be dismissed. They are convenient, inexpensive and readily accessible, and there are lots to choose from these days. My personal favourite is an organic black ‘chai’ – a tea with the spicy fragrance of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, black pepper, and pure vanilla bean.
With so many flavoured teas on supermarket shelves, you need to read the labels very carefully. Teas contain caffeine, a stimulant, whereas tisanes are caffeine-free. Because caffeine can keep you awake and disturb your sleep, tea-drinking should be limited to mornings. After midday, tisanes come into their own, but don’t overdo it.