Monday, 8 March 2010

What exactly is and isn't tea?

This has happened a few times in the last several days, so I must talk about it. We’ve somehow come upon the subject of tea, and someone mentions peppermint tea or fruit tea or herbal even. Those aren’t tea. They’re not. Some people respond better to my position than others. Let me just say what I’ve said before. This blog isn’t for tea fanatics who already agree with what I’m about to say. The people I’m writing this blog for are the people who’re curious about tea.

Maybe you don’t care about the question “What constitutes tea?” For you, peppermint tea is tea and that’s all you need. I have no problem with that. None. Personally, I really love what you’d probably call Rooibus tea. Made from a red bush. Grown in South Africa, I think. Especially when I have a cold, I drink it with lots of honey. Doesn’t make it tea.

Tea is any beverage that comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. Basta. Anything else is what I’d call an infusion. I’m not a jerk about this. When I order a Rooibus in a tea shop, I don’t stubbornly say ‘infusion’ rather than ‘tea’. But because I’ve been confronted with this several times lately, I wanted to talk about it.

So, I asked the people I was with yesterday, who insisted peppermint tea was tea, what six varieties of tea there are. This is when red bush tea and herbal tea and a variety of others were mentioned. ‘Not tea,’ I said. So I gave them a bit of a push and said. ‘One category is black.’

‘Oh, now we get it,’ you could see them saying to themselves. So they knew white and black and green tea, but got caught up on the Oolong (or sometimes WuLang). I didn’t even mention yellow or Pu-erh. One of them even knew the word oxidation when we were discussing the difference between the varieties.

Here’s the run down (the order of categories of tea according to the amount of processing): white, yellow, green, Oolong, and black. In that order. Pu-erh is in it’s own category. It’s fermented. In another post, if you’re interested, I’ll talk about the differences.

Hope this wasn’t boring. More ridiculous stories soon.


  1. Okay, now I've read it. I rushed right home to read after class, as you suggested. ;-)


  2. Thanks Sylvia. What'd you think of the Assam?

    That Sencha you had yesterday really did smell wonderful. Want to share?

  3. This is was interesting. I don´t drink tea, but I occasionally enjoy a good infusion. In Peru they have Mate de Coca. It doesn´t taste like much but it has a good Wirkung.

  4. Der kleine lernt schnell, Heuschrecken.

  5. In America, the tea made with camelia is tea and the other teas are herbal teas. The herbal teas say the herb first and then tea, like dandelion tea. Also here, milk means cow milk. If you are referring to antoher milk then you say almond milk or soy milk or rice milk.

  6. Thanks for the comment Chuck. I've had this discussion with quite a few people. What is and what can be called tea.

    There are many people (Americans even) who would only refer to tea as that which comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. Of course, many things called 'tea' come from other plants. I prefer to classify it with a much more limited definition.

    Thanks for reading, and even more for commenting.

  7. What kind of tea would definitey be called tea but would not be camelia leaf, by defintion? Imitation tea.

  8. I think it's a delicate balance to be accurate without being pedantic. My compromise, which you can see on the styles and varieties listed on, is to clearly list varieties of Camellia Sinsensis under "Tea", and then to list "Herbal Tea" and make clear that these do not contain the tea plant. To not use the term "herbal tea" is to join a tiny minority. "Herbal tea" gets 1.5 million google hits (3 million without quotes), but "herbal infusion" only gets 56,000 or 179,000 without quotes.

    To say terms like "Mint tea" or "chamomile tea" are inaccurate is just outright wrong...look up the dictionary definition of tea and it settles it once and for all. The word "tea" has multiple a plant, the word "tea" alone means the Camellia sinensis plant, but it also means "any of various infusions prepared from the leaves, flowers, etc., of other plants, and used as beverages or medicines.". It's a correct definition and to deny that does make you look like more than a bit of a snob.

    I think it's possible to have the best of both worlds. Just use the word "tea" alone to refer only to Camellia sinensis, but don't criticize others when they use phrases like "mint tea", "chamomile tea", or "herbal tea". These other phrases are correct and accurate. They are also in widespread use, including in peer-reviewed scientific journals, newspaper articles, mainstream tea companies, virtually every kind of reputable writing out there.

  9. You've inspired me to write my own blog post about this; thanks!

  10. Making a "tea" is a process, rather than a plant, the way I see it. Farmers make dung tea to spread in the fields in springtime before planting. Herbal hot drinks are "teas" made by soaking the leaves in hot water. To quibble over what in being soaked in the hot or even cold water to make a "tea" seems pointless to me.

  11. Jeffrey, I think that's exactly the point Alex made in his above-mentioned blogpost. We've found some modicum of agreement here.