What is tea?
All true teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant. White tea, green tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, black tea, and pu-erh tea all come from this plant. This means that beverages made out of things like chamomile, mint, and lemongrass are not really teas, they are called tisanes — which is another word for an herbal or plant infusion.
You are probably wondering, if all of these teas come from the same plant, why are they so different? The differences between the types of tea rely on three main things — terroir, cultivar, and processing methods.
Terroir refers to how the geography, geology, and climate of a place influence the appearance and taste of a tea. A good analogy for terroir can be seen in the wine world, as many wines are named after the region in which the grapes are cultivated, and they exhibit characteristics that are specific to that growing region. The same cultivar of C. sinensis can be grown in two different regions of China and produce entirely different tastes of tea.
Not all cultivars of C. sinensis are suitable for making a specific style of tea. A tea farmer will likely choose a specific varietal known for a desired characteristic to make a certain style of tea. For example, silver needle white tea, a tea made strictly from the buds of the tea plant, is often created from the Da Bai Hao cultivar of the plant, which is known for producing large buds covered with white hairs.
While terroir and cultivar greatly influence the taste and appearance of a tea type, it is the processing method that truly defines a type of tea. While there are exceptions to the following definitions, I find it is important to understand how each type of tea is processed in its simplest form. For each style of tea, different leaves are used, and once the leaves are plucked, processing begins.
— Tony Gebely, Menuism