Black Tea vs. Green Tea? An Explainer on Different Types of Tea
Plus, info on what to drink when.
With roots in Asia, tea is a worldwide staple—a drink that carries us through our days, from beginning to end. Go to any grocery store, and you’re likely to find a wall of tea to choose from, but have you ever stopped to consider how tea is made? Or how the various types of tea differ from one another? Believe it or not, as you’ll learn, some of the major tea varieties come from the same plant. Here, we delved into the specifics of some of our favorite types of tea to discover what makes them unique and deserving of a place in our kitchen cabinets.
Black teas are made from Camellia sinensis, which is also the base of all other teas besides herbal varieties. The majority of Camellia sinensis’ commercial cultivation takes place in Asia, and likely originated in China. The most obvious difference between different kinds of tea is the amount of time the picked tea leaves are oxidized before they’re dried. Oxidation browns the tea leaves and alters their flavor, transforming them into something richer and darker than their fresh beginnings.
Black tea leaves have been oxidized for a long time in order to develop a malty, full-bodied flavor before the drying process. You’ll often find that black tea leaves are crushed into small pieces, which encourages oxidation. For the most part, smaller leaves indicate a more concentrated cup of tea. A cup of black tea tends to contain between 40 and 60 milligrams of caffeine, and can support heart health thanks to the presence of flavonoids. Due to its caffeine content, you might be better off enjoying a cup of black tea earlier in the day, such as with breakfast or lunch, and not right before bed. However, since the amount of caffeine in a cup of black tea is relatively low, many people aren’t bothered by it.
If you want to taste the pure, grassy flavor of the Camellia sinensis plant, try green tea leaves, which briefly get heated after they’re picked to prevent oxidation and preserve their natural qualities. Depending on the variety, green tea can taste vegetal, floral, clean, and so on.
A cup of green tea typically contains between 30 and 50 milligrams of caffeine, and a high percentage of polyphenols—antioxidant compounds that protect the body against disease. Energizing and soothing, green tea is a perfect beverage for mornings and early afternoons.
The best way to think of oolong tea is a cross between black and green tea. While black tea is fully oxidized and green tea is barely oxidized, if at all, oolong tea falls somewhere in the middle.
The oxidation levels of oolong tea vary dramatically, which results in a wide range of oolong teas, some of which taste more like green tea (vegetal, fresh, floral) and some more like black tea (malty, rich, full-bodied). For the same reason, the caffeine content of oolong tea varies considerably. You’ll often find that oolong tea leaves have a twisted shape, formed by hand or machine to encourage oxidation and adjust the tea’s flavor profile. Sip on a cup of oolong tea if you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Like black and green tea, oolong contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which has been scientifically shown to reduce stress. The popular tea also supports good gut health and helps fight inflammation.
To produce white tea, Camellia sinensis leaves are harvested before they’ve fully opened, when the young buds still have a light coating of white hairs. After they’re picked, the leaves are left out to oxidize for a few hours before they’re dried. The final product is a light, delicate tea, with floral notes. A cup of white tea has between 15 and 30 milligrams of caffeine, which means that, while it’s still caffeinated, it’s lower in caffeine than many other varieties. Like other teas made from Camellia sinensis, white tea is packed with antioxidants and can reduce harmful inflammation.
Unlike the other teas mentioned thus far, rooibos tea is not made from Camellia sinensis, but from Aspalathus linearis—a shrub that’s native to South Africa. The plant’s stems and leaves get oxidized and dried, turning a distinctive reddish color in the process. Rooibos tea tastes mellow, subtly sweet, and nutty, and does not contain any caffeine. Like many other teas, rooibos provides antioxidants and is a heart-healthy drink. Plus, since rooibos is naturally caffeine-free, many people enjoy a cup before bed knowing it won’t disrupt their sleep.
Herbal tea is a broad term for any beverages made by steeping herbs and spices in hot water. Peppermint, ginger, and chamomile teas are popular examples of herbal brews. Generally speaking, herbal teas are caffeine-free, and each variety has its own health benefits. Peppermint and ginger teas can aid digestion, for example, while chamomile tea is a favorite calming beverage that’s great to sip before bed.