What's the difference between black tea, green tea and herbal tea?
Good question. What is the difference between black tea, green tea and herbal tea? We’ve all heard of the three types, but if you’re new to the world of tea, you may not know what these terms actually mean or what attributes distinguish one kind of tea from another.
Here’s the quick answer: Black tea is made of tea leaves that have been oxidized, green tea is made from unoxidized tea leaves, and herbal tea isn’t actually tea at all since it consists of herbs and not tea leaves.
Here’s the long answer:
What is black tea?
All true tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Black tea is created from Camellia sinensis leaves that have been picked and then go through an oxidization process. Different processes include crushing, rolling or tumbling the leaves to expose them to oxygen – this turns the leaves a darker color than their fresh green counterparts – and then heating the leaves to stop oxidization. Where the tea leaves were grown and how they were processed results in different flavors, colors and textures.
Common types of tea that fall under the black tea umbrella include Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon and Yunnan (all named after the regions they’re cultivated in), as well as blends like English Breakfast and Earl Grey. Other ingredients and flavorings can also be added to black tea to significantly enhance or change its flavor profile, such as Lumo Tea’s One Tough Cookie blend of black tea with pistachio, cumin, almond, coriander and pink peppercorn.
Compared to green tea, black tea is often described as more astringent, earthy or even smoky and nutty. Astringency doesn't really have to do with the flavor of the tea but the mouthfeel – it refers to the slight puckering or dryness you feel in your mouth, cheeks and throat as you sip your tea. With good quality teas, the astringency becomes more pronounced with each sip and allows you to continue perceiving the tea's taste even after finishing.
Though levels differ depending on the tea leaves, how they were processed and how they’re brewed, black tea contains the most caffeine compared to green tea and herbal tea.
What is green tea?
Both black and green tea comes from the dried leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Unlike black tea, green tea is not oxidized and only minimally processed by drying and then heating the leaves to stop the natural oxidization process. These heat treatments are either steaming, in the Japanese tradition, or pan-frying, as in the Chinese tradition. By stopping oxidation, the leaves maintain their green color as well as a softer, fresher flavor than black tea and is often described as being vegetal. Green tea also retains more of tea’s natural antioxidants and flavonoids than black tea, which is one of the reasons green tea is often touted as being a go-to healthy drink. (Just because green tea is good for you doesn’t mean it can’t taste good too...as our Just Desserts green tea blend with hints of almond and coconut proves!)
Another significant difference between black tea and green tea comes down to caffeine levels. Green tea typically contains about 25 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce serving, which is about half the caffeine that you would expect from black tea. If you’re looking for a tea that’s completely caffeine free, then you’ll want to choose herbal teas.
What is herbal tea?
Like we said, herbal tea isn’t truly tea because it doesn’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Instead, herbal tea can refer to any infusion of an edible plant. These can include various herbs, tree bark, flowers, spices, roots and fruit.
Some common herbal teas, or tisanes as they’re often called In Europe, are mint (an herb), ginger (a root) and chamomile (a flower). Other herbal teas can be made from a blend of different ingredients, such as Lumo Tea’s Sleep Well blend that boasts chamomile, saffron, licorice, fennel seeds, lemongrass, tulsi (holy basil), and ginger and spearmint to calm the mind.
Though herbal tea isn’t technically tea, it still has a history that goes back millennia with records of herbal brews from ancient China and ancient Egypt. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses a variety of herbal teas for healing purposes, as do ancient Indian health practices, like Ayurveda. If you love herbal tea, you’re in good company!
Also, unlike black tea and green tea, herbal teas do not naturally contain any caffeine – another reason they’re often drunk for a relaxing or nighttime drink.
What about rooibos tea? Or white tea? Or oolong?
Okay, okay so black tea, green tea and herbal tea may be the three largest tea categories but there are other kinds as well.
Known to be one of the most delicate tea varieties, white tea is harvested when the leaves are still buds and is one of the least processed teas. Pu’erh, on the other hand, is aged and fermented, resulting in a stronger yet smooth flavor.
Oolong also comes from the Camellia sinensis plant but is in a category of its own. It is sometimes known as semi-oxidized tea as it’s less oxidized than black tea but more oxidized than green tea. Oolong also stands out for how the tea leaves are shaped and processed. Traditionally, oolong tea is rolled or twisted into tight balls or thin strands, which greatly affects the tea’s final appearance and flavor.
Rooibos (said like roy-boss) is unique because the plant is indigenous to a specific region in South Africa. When leaves of the plant are dried, they can create a reddish-brown infusion (you may have heard rooibos also called “African red tea” or “red bush tea”). Since rooibos is its own plant and not related to Camellia sinensis, it’s not technically tea and, instead, an herbal infusion or tisane. It’s also naturally caffeine-free. (Haven’t tried rooibos yet? Take a look at our Crushing It rooibos blend with crushed almonds that further brings out rooibos' natural nuttiness.
Want to learn even more about tea? Check out why we love loose leaf tea instead of tea bags here.