Tea 101 for Beginners

This page has been updated with more information since this video, but the video is still a great start!

The Tea Plant

All true teas are from the same evergreen plant in the Camellia family. Teas not from this plant may be called tea, but are not properly a tea. The authentic teas are black, green, oolong, white, yellow, and pu-erh. The variety of the tea plant and the way the leaves are processed determine which tea is created. There are two main varieties of the tea plant. The most common is the Camellia Sinensis . It grows well in the high mountains of central China and Japan and has a smaller leaf. The second variety is the Camellia Assamica which grows well in tropical climates in Northeast India, as well as Szechuan and Yunnan provinces of China, and has a broad, dark green, shiny leaf.


Just as our minds picture the grape vineyards on hillsides, our minds recall photos of tea fields on mountain hillsides. The quality of a tea is found in the soil, altitude (oh those mountains!), climate, when and how the leaf is removed, and how it is processed. Just like wine, there is a true art in making the perfect tea. Tea plants can be grown at home in zones 7-9 or warmer (find your zone here or in a container in the home in zones cooler than 8. Where I live in Cape Girardeau the zone is Zone 6b : -5 to 0 (F); therefore I would need to grow a plant indoors. It takes 3 years before leaves can be harvested.

Authentic True Teas

Black tea is the most common tea. Withered leaves are rolled and allowed to oxidize; that is, be exposed to air just as an apple changes color after it is peeled. The oxidation darkens the leaves and develops the flavor and color. At just the right time, the tea is dried which stops the oxidation and locks in the characteristics of the tea. Black tea has about half the caffeine of coffee.

Green tea is popular in China and Japan and growing in is catching on in America. Leaves are heated or steamed right after harvest, stopping the oxidation process and preserving the green color, natural antioxidants and amino acids (theanine), and grassy notes. Thereafter the leaves are rolled or twisted and then fired. Green tea has about one quarter of the caffeine of coffee (or one half the caffeine of black tea).


Oolong is just fun to say! This tea originates in Taiwan and southeast China. Withered leaves are briefly oxidized in direct sunlight. The oxidation is stopped when the leaves give off a distinctive fragrance similar to apples, peaches, or orchids, in a range of 10% to 80%. Thereafter the leaves are rolled and then fired. Oolong tea has a caffeine amount midway between black and green tea.

White tea is minimally processed and neither oxidized or rolled, but rather carefully dried. A special white tea is made from buds harvested the day before they open.

Dark Teas/Pu-erh
Strangely when I see the word “pu-erh” my mind hears “pure-ah.” Maybe I am thinking that it is healthy and pure, but the correct pronunciation is “poo-er” (which does not project pure goodness to me). Pu-erh is named after a town in the Yunnan Province of China. The leaves initially are processed like green tea. Thereafter, the leaves are formed into piles or bricks and heated with moisture to bring about natural bacterial fermentation. The partial firing stops enzyme activity leaving the tea moist enough to continue to age, just like fine wine. Some pu-ehrs are drinkable after 50 years!



Yellow teas are not oxidized, but are lightly fermented


Non-official Other Teas | Tisanes


Tisanes are any plant-derived drink other than the Camella bush, such as herbs, spices, flowers, and other plant leaves. Tisanes are often thought of as medicinal brews, but I prefer to use the word for any non-official tea.

Herbal Tea
Herbal teas are called “tea,” but are not a true tea because they are made with leaves and buds of other plants. The term “herbal” is used loosely. A literal use would be only herbs (leaf and flower of certain green plants), but may include spices and sometimes fruits. A literal use would be lemon balm, but not a squeeze of lemon juice, and both are often called herbal. Herbal teas are often thought to all be caffeine free, but this is only true if they only contain herbs and are not mixed with true tea leaves or maté leaves, again leaving us with a loosely used “herbal” word. It is important to read the labels. Playing with different combinations of herbal flavors keeps drinking tea interesting.


Herbal teas cross over into other types of tea. The same ingredients for herbal teas are also combined with the official true teas listed above. The color of tea is often determined by the base tea leaves (i.e. black, oolong,) or one of the herbs combined with it. For instance, a black tea with lemon balm would be the color of black tea. Of course, a black tea does not become herbal just because it has lemon in it. It would still be considered a black tea. I would recommend that a newcomer to tea who is overwhelmed start with the true teas to learn what you like and thereafter try combinations that add other flavors.


Examples of herbal teas are mint, chamomile (dried daily-like chamomile flowers), lemon balm, orange (blossoms), cardamom (spice from seeds), cinnamon, ginger, tumeric, vanilla, anise, cloves, dandelion, echinacea, elderberry, fennel, garlic, ginseng, jasmine, lavender, lemongrass, rose hips, sage, spearmint, strawberry leaves, bergamot, goji berries, pomegranate, and on and on. The combination possibilities are seemingly endless.


It is also worthy to take note of the ingredients listed on teas. Some teas contain “flavoring.” For best health benefits, read the ingredients.


Matcha Tea

Matcha is a powder ground from Japanese green tea leaves. Matcha is used for the Japanese tea ceremony. Although matcha can be served in any mug, traditionally a matcha bowl and whisk is utilized. Special small spoons measure the bright green powder into the matcha bowl of water slightly less than boiling. The whisk is used to create froth. One cup of matcha equals 10 cups of regular green tea, increasing the natural benefits of green tea antioxidants as well.

Matcha powder is used for baking, so look online for recipes.


Rooibos is pronounced ROY-boss (Dutch for “red bush”). You guessed it; this tea is red. The leaf is of the Aspalathus linearis plant native of South Africa. The herb contains polyphenols and flavonoids. It is low in the bitter tannins. This tea is processed similar to black tea with the withered leaves being rolled and allowed to oxidize. Rooibos has no caffeine.


Green Rooibos
Similarly to the difference between regular black tea made with the Camellia leaves and green tea made with the same Camellia leaves, Green Rooibos is made from the same Rooibos leaves native to South Africa, but is not fully oxidized, preserving the natural enzymes.


As a flower gardener, when I hear Hibiscus, I first think of the large ornamental pink flower. However, this tea is made from Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers native to West Africa. Hibiscus tea is dark red in color, like the flower, and has no caffeine.


Maté is a cup of coffee in tea form, having a similar caffeine level to coffee, but the health benefits of tea, having 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, high antioxidants. This tea is considered an herbal tea even though it has all three xanthine stimulants also found in coffee and chocolate, that being caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine. I like to think of this tea as the “catch 22” tea with the health benefits conflicting with the detriments of caffeine to health. Maté is made with the ground-up leaves of Holly tree in the rainforest of South America (Ilex paraguariensis) and processed like green tea. This tea has a low tannin giving it the ability to be strong without being bitter, truly a strong coffee alternative. This tea is also known to increase calorie burn, diuresis, and appetite suppression making it a weight loss tea. Try this tea as a Maté latte (that’s so fun to say) with a little steamed milk. In adverse news, smoking this tea can cause carcinogens, so avoid smoked versions.


Dessert Teas
Just as port is a dessert wine to be drank with desserts, there are teas that are considered dessert teas. Drink them with dessert or as an alternative to dessert after a meal. The most obvious dessert tea are chocolate teas. Marketers are creative with the combinations and names such as peppermint chocolate candy tea, red velvet cake, chocolate covered strawberries, and more. Dessert teas can be calorie free until, of course, that moment when you add a spoonful of sugar. Other flavors that might lend a tea to be labeled as a dessert tea are honey, caramel, vanilla and almond (which is used in baking a lot), and anything that makes you think of baking such as blueberry muffins, lemon bars, carrot cake, peach cobbler, and sweet banana bread.



This tisane comes from the Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) plant which was traditionally used by Native Americans and has caffeine. It was prominent across Southeast United States and the British found it as an alternative to tea.

Caffeine and Tea

Caffeine is determetermined by the leaf, but can also be influenced by the way it is harvested or processed. Tea made from leaf buds (tips) is called “tippy tea” and has more caffeine and is more expensive. Tea made from mature leaves has less caffeine.
All tea can be decaffeinated, but not completely as it retains about 3% of the original caffeine amount. The tea is decaffeinated either by a chemical extraction with ethyl acetateor or high-pressure extraction with carbon dioxide.

I found varying amounts of caffeine levels on the internet, often in ranges, but to generalize: for an 8 oz cup:

Coffee - 91 milligrams

Maté - 85 milligrams

Black Pu'erh - 65 milligrams

Black Tea - 47 milligrams (often said to be 1/2 of coffee)

Oolong Tea - 40 milligrams

Green Tea - 25 milligrams (often said to be 1/2 of black)

White Tea - 13 milligrams

Decaf Tea - 10 milligrams

Rooibos Tea - zero

Herbal Tea - zero

So for the basic memory trick, remember that black tea has about half the caffeine of coffee, and green tea has about half the caffeine of black, and then other teas go down or up from there. 

How to Steep Tea

There is a difference between a tea kettle and a teapot.

A kettle is used to heat the water

and a teapot is used to steep the tea in the water. Most teapots are not made of materials that can be placed on a heat source. Rules are meant to be broken though, such as after the water is heated, tea can be added to the kettle for steeping. Tea can also be steeped in the cup.

For the fine connoisseurs of tea, use filtered or spring water rather than tap water that has flavors from other stuff or water that has been sitting too long because of the flavors absorbed from the air.

The temperature of the water varies per type of tea. In general, a rolling boil is used for most teas except green or white teas which use a slightly cooler water.

A general guide to the amount of tea to use is one teaspoon of loose-leaf tea or one tea bag per 6 ounces, the size of a traditional teacup. A standard mug is about 10 ounces. Place the loose-leaf tea in a tea ball or any other type of tea infuser.

Steeping time is important because if it is steeped too long, tea will become bitter tasting. For a stronger cup, rather than steeping longer, use more tea. Steeping time depends on the type of tea and personal tastes, so have fun playing. Be sure to remove the tea ball or infuser at the right time. For tea leaves added directly to a teapot, use a strainer to separate the leaves from the water.

Try saving the leaves and using them again for cost savings. Tea leaves lose caffeine levels after the first steep, but a weaker second cup may be just right as the day goes on. Oolong leaves can be steeped multiple times.

There are many charts available and it is handy to keep one nearby.

Black | boiling water | 3-5 minutes
Oolong | boiling water | 5-7 minutes or 3-5 for a bag
Herbal or Red | boiling | 5-7 minutes
Green | short of boiling | 2-4 minutes or 1-3 for a bag
White | short of boiling | 2-3 minutes or 30-60 sec for bag

Tea that is steeped in hot water too long releases tannins that give the tea a bitter flavor. Individual taste buds vary on how much tannin taste is desired. If you do not like the bitter taste, be sure to watch your steeping time carefully. Remove the teabag immediately. This is why there are teacup saucers! Take out that tea ball! Some teapots have mechanisms to separate the tea leaves from the tea. Yes, conversation and tea time go together, but do not be distracted and forget to remove those leaves. This leads us to yet another tea implement that you may have heard of, the tea timer! Drinking tea can be considered a hobby as there is always a gift suggestion for the tea drinker.

What about iced tea? Simple make regular tea and pour it over ice cube. Remember that melted ice becomes water, so use twice as much tea when brewing. Also, try using filtered water to make ice cubes. I like to sweeten iced tea with simple syrup. It gives it that southern sweet tea taste. To make simple syrup, boil equal amounts of water and sugar until a clear syrup-like liquid. It does not take long. Try adding flavors to the simple syrup, such as adding fresh lemons or mint, removing the lemons or leaves after boiling. Pour the simple syrup into the pitcher of ice tea and stir.

Health benefits of Tea

Tea has no calories! That is, until you add sweetener and cream. Some teas are naturally sweet, such as those that contain sweet hydrangea leaves, sweet blackberry leaves, licorice root, apples and stevia leaves. Teas are known to have antioxidants which are good for health, but each type of tea has its own individual health benefits. Of course, some teas have no caffeine which is a healthy choice over other drinks.

Tea contains tannins, just like wine. Tannins are also considered astringent (dry tasting). Tannins in tea are antioxidants (prevent or delay some types of cell damage). Black teas have more tannin than green or white teas. Low tannin teas tend to be more expensive. As mentioned above, steeping too long may make a tea too bitter tasting. There is a fine line between health and good taste when it comes to tannins.

It should be mentioned that some companies add flavoring to tea. Look at the ingredient list of the tea for only natural ingredients.

Tea crafters tout other health benefits of tea which may contain some truth based on studies, but most are unproven. The fun is in the possibility of truth. Why not try it? It might just work for you. Cinnamon is considered to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The chamomile and passionflower are considered to calm and relax to aid in sleep. The strawberry leaf is considered helpful for nursing mothers. Turmeric is considered to be helpful for inflammation of the joints and muscles. Ginger is considered to relieve nausea, loss of appetite, and pain. The nettle leaf, dandelion root and chickweed are considered to reduce water retention helpful for women’s periods and bloating. Blueberries are considered a super fruit with added antioxidants. Lavender and rose petals are considered to be soothing and relaxing. Echinacea is considered to build immunity. St. John's wort is considered to fight depression. The list of ingredients with healing properties seems endless.