The people of China have been drinking tea for thousands of years. According to legend it was first discovered by the Chinese cultural hero Emperor Shennong in 2737 BCE when a leaf from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) fell into a pot of boiling water. Deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, tea is considered as essential to life as rice, oil, soy sauce, firewood, salt and vinegar.
The most familiar form of tea, black tea is made from leaves of the tea plant which have turned black from oxidation. It has the strongest flavor and most caffeine of any form of tea. Unblended black teas are usually named for the region they grow in, and each region's tea is known for a particular flavor characteristic. Black tea is also the basis for many familiar tea blends such as Earl Grey, Irish breakfast, English breakfast and Masala chai.
One of the most popular forms of tea in China, green tea undergoes minimal oxidation. Like black tea, green tea varieties from different provinces have different flavor characteristics and levels of quality. Green tea is well known in the West where it is heavily marketed for its health benefits such as reducing risk of heart disease, lowering blood pressure, reducing negative effects of cholesterol and aiding weight loss.
A specialty of China's Fujian province, white tea is made from the buds and young leaves of the tea plant. Like green tea, white tea undergoes minimal oxidation before drying. It is described as having a light and sweet taste compared to the grassier taste of green tea.
Oolong tea undergoes more oxidation than green tea but less than black tea. Its aroma is not as flowery as black tea and its flavor is not as grassy and vegetal as green tea. Brewed strong, it has a bitter taste with a sweet aftertaste. It is commonly served in Chinese restaurants.
Made from a large leaf variety of the tea plant, Pu-erh tea comes in both green tea and post-fermented varieties. Post-fermented teas are are aged in the open air for several months or even years. This allows for further oxidation than ordinary black teas and creates mellower flavors in teas that would otherwise be too bitter. Pu-erh teas are considered a delicacy and classified like wine by year and region. Like wine enthusiasts, tea connoisseurs are willing to pay handsomely for older selections, some dating back as far as the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912).
Yellow tea is similar to green tea, but it has a slower drying process and the tea leaves have been allowed to yellow as they dry. It smells different from white or green tea but has a similar flavor.
Chrysanthemum tea is not a true tea but rather an herbal infusion made with dried chrysanthemums and occasionally rock sugar and wolfberries. The transparent beverage ranges in color from pale to bright yellow and has a flowery aroma. A popular beverage, it is also used as an herbal medicine for sore throats, fevers, varicose veins, atherosclerosis, liver problems and eye problems. Westerners can find chrysanthemum tea at Chinese restaurants, Asian markets and herbal medicine shops.
Developed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), jasmine tea is green or white tea flavored with jasmine flowers. Sweeter and more subtle than other teas, jasmine tea is familiar to Westerners from Chinese restaurants.
Kuding tea is a bitter herbal infusion made from several plants, particularly the wax tree species Lingstrum robustum and the holly species Ilex kundincha. It is used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine as a treatment for common colds, stuffy nose, headaches, itchy eyes, red eyes and bronchitis.
- Tea time image by Photosani from Fotolia.com