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Tea 101: An absolute beginner's guide

If you’re new to tea - especially loose tea - you might feel overwhelmed by the sheer variety. There are literally thousands of types, far more than what you’ll find on a grocery store shelf. We’ve broken down all the details into a series of easy-to-follow segments, so you can increase your tea knowledge and explore the many varieties tea has to offer.

What is tea?

Tea is a beverage that has been enjoyed for centuries in various parts of the world. It is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which is native to China and other parts of Asia. There are several types of tea, including black, green, oolong, white, and pu-erh, each with its own unique flavor and aroma.

There are also herbal teas and tisanes. Herbal tea does not contain leaves of Camellia sinensis but instead leaves or flowers of other plants. The most familiar would be peppermint or chamomile. Blenders will often mix many herbs together. Tisane (pronounced “tea-zahn”) is also considered herbal tea, and the term is often used interchangeably. There are also some herbal teas that have their own category.

Where's tea come from?

Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub that generally grows in subtropical climates. It prefers acidic soil and can also withstand high altitudes. Like wine, the soil and surrounding environment influence the flavors and aromas. Most tea is cloned, not seeded directly, but propagated using cuttings from a mother plant.

Tea is generally grown on estates where the plants are arranged in neatly spaced rows, allowing just enough room for workers to pass through, and are pruned to waist height for easy picking or harvesting.

Like wine, different growing regions can impart different flavors and attributes to a tea. Check out our "Intro to Growing Regions" lesson to get an overview on where tea is grown.

How does tea get to me?

Everything is dependent on weather, but springtime is often a peak time for premium teas. Some teas have 1st or 2nd flushes (i.e., 1st or 2nd pickings). Some regions have almost continuous flushes.

Generally, the newer and tender leaves are desired for harvest. Depending on the tea type, it can be just an immature bud or several leaves.

The highest-end teas are handpicked using expert tea pickers. They are especially adept at selecting the best leaves in an efficient manner, and they often take years to get to optimal speed.

Mechanical pickers range from a type of hedge clipper to almost lawnmower-style machines. They aren’t as precise as handpicking, so higher-end teas require handpicking.

Once picked, the raw tea leaves are processed in different ways to turn them into a finished product ready for us to enjoy.