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Tea Types

All tea comes from one plant, Camellia sinensis. The difference in types—white, green, oolong, black and pu-erh—is due to the specific cultivar used, the local environment of the plant, and how the leaves are processed.

White tea is minimally processed; it is generally only picked and air dried. The highest-quality types are harvested early in the spring, when the unopened leaf buds are still covered with silky white hair. These delicate teas have clear, sweet flavors that tend toward savory, nutty and vegetal. Traditionally harvested in China, white tea is the focus of many studies on health benefits for its high levels of antioxidants.

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Green tea is plucked then quickly heated- by steaming or pan-firing- to stop the leaf's natural process of oxidation. The most well-known greens come from China and Japan; the flavors are grassy, vegetal, nutty, and sweet. Because the leaf is so delicate, this type of tea should be brewed in water that is well below boiling (160°-180°F) to prevent cooking the leaves and destroying the subtle notes of the tea.

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Partially oxidized and often bruised after picking, the processing of oolong tea allows the leaf's essential oils to react with the air. This turns the leaf darker and produces distinctive fragrances before heat is applied to set the taste. The resulting flavor lies between a green and a black tea, depending on the degree of oxidation. Oolongs can be recognized by their large leaves and a complexity of flavor that ranges from highly floral and intensely fruity to mildly roasted with honeylike nuances. The finest are best prepared and enjoyed Gong Fu style, to savor their complex tastes and fragrances.

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Black tea, or red tea as it's often known in Asia, is a result of the complete oxidation of the leaf. First produced in China, this style of tea increased in popularity when the British cultivated the plant in India, Sri Lanka, and Africa. The harvested leaf is spread out and left to wither (wilt), losing some moisture, stiffness and much of its weight. It is then rolled, exposing essential oils to the air and hastening the oxidization process; a final firing is the last step in processing. Black teas are known for their robust, full-bodied flavors of cocoa, earth, molasses and honey.

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Pu-erh is a post-fermented tea made from a large leaf varietal grown in Yunnan Province. This tea is often aged, which mellows and refines its flavor and character. It is made either in loose leaf form or pressed into a myriad of shapes; round cakes (bingcha), rectangular bricks and a birds' nest shape (tuocha) are the most common. Pu-erh can also be pressed into short lengths of bamboo, then dried and stored- a specialty of the Dai people in Xishuangbanna. Pu-erh has traditionally been savored in Hong Kong, Guangdong Province and Taiwan; other post-fermented teas are also made elsewhere in China as well as in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Japan.

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Herbal infusions, or tisanes, are not true teas. They are made from flowers and plants other than Camellia sinensis, and they do not contain any caffeine. Common examples are lemon verbena, chamomile, lavender, and mint.

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