What you didn’t know about tea

Ever since I can remember, my favourite drink, by far, has always been tea. And with me, many, many others. But what not many people know, is that tea is not just tea. Tea is an art, a craft, usually hand picked and can vary greatly in quality. Not all teas are processed the same way. It can hel pgreatly to get more energy and a better focus, but how much caffeine is there actually in tea? And how hot should the water be when you make tea? You see my point: there is much more to tea than just leaves and hot water.

The first thing you need to know about tea is that here is a big difference between tea and herbal tea. Herbal teas – such as mint tea or chamomille tea – aren’t actually tea at all, since they usually do not contain any leaves from the tea plant. They are actually warm herbal beverages.

What is tea?

Tea comes from leaves from the tea plant. But again, what not many people realize, is that all tea comes frome only one plant: the Camellia sinensis (varierty with smaller leaves, from China) or the Camellia assamica (varierty with broader leaves, this is the tropical version, from India). The different types of tea (black, green, white, oolong [wu-long] and the lesser common pu-erh abd yellow tea) come not from different plants, but from a different way of processing the leaves.

Tea (noun) – A hot drink made by infusing the dried crushed leaves of the tea plant in boiling water

The Oxford English Dictionairy

Since tea is the number 2 drank beverage worlwide, after water, this calls for some mass production. There are a lot of smaller plantations in the world, but also a lot of really big ones. China, Sri Lanka, Kenya and India are the four biggest producers of tea in the world.

Picking the tea

Tea plantationHand picking tea leaves is a labour intense job. But it also ensures the best quality. Tea can also be picked mechanically, but the machines usually
damage too many leaves, which is bad for the quality of the tea.

Tea is usually picked twice per year. First in early spring, when the plant is still young (this is called the ‘early flush’). During the early flush, they only pick the two top leaves and a bud from the top of the plant. This way, they keep the plant young. And then, in summer (this is called the second flush), there is another round of picking the leaves.

The oxidation process of tea leaves

Oxidation is a process that is very important for the process of the tea leaves. It’s something that’s all around us. Think about the apple you cut up for lunch. If you don’t eat it fast enough, it turns brown. And if you wear your silver jewelry for a long time without polishing it, it turns greyish and matt. It’s the reaction of oxygen molecules with any material, from metal to fruit and is even present inside our bodies. What the oxygen molecules actually do, is ‘burning’ the substance they come in contact with.

Tea_in_different_grade_of_fermentationAs I said, this ‘burning’ process can actually be very important for teas, depending on which kind of tea you like. It immediately kicks in after a leaf is
picked from the plant. Therefor it is important to start the
processing of the leaves immediately. Usually, at the plantations, they have built the factory right there. So the only thing they need to do is bring the leaves to the tea factory right after picking them, so they can be processed.


All teas – that really are actually teas and not herbal infusions – contain caffeine. Less then coffee, but nevertheless they contain caffeine. Each type contains different amounts. Black tea contains the highest amount of caffeine and white tea almost nothing (max. 1% of the amount in a cup of coffee).

The amount of caffeine per cup of tea differs a lot, depending on many things, such as the way the tea was processed before it got to she shop, the temperature of the water you use and how long you steep the tea before drinking it. On average there is said that tea can contain up to about 60 mg of caffeine per cup.


Teas have been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, with good reason. They believed it to have medicinal qualities, but nobody really knew how this worked, until very recent. Since about a decade, researchers have been exploring the deep depths and wonders of the world of tea to figure out what it is exactly that it does to our bodies.

They found that, besides caffeine, tea contains healthy substances such as vitamins, minerals, lipids and amino acids. But a more important substance of tea is antioxidants. And antioxidants are important to keep free radicals in check, making sure they don’t go around destroying our body cells and creating heart disease, high cholesterol or high blood pressure or even cancer. The best antioxidants are found in green tea, mostly because of the way this tea is processed.

How to make a cup of tea

The process of making the different types of teas varies a lot, and with that the preparation time and temperature of the water. Because, unlike what many people think, not all teas should be steeped in boiling water. Only black tea is to be steeped at around 100 degrees Celsius. For oolong tea that’s around 90 degrees and for green and white tea that should be around 80 degrees.

Black tea Green tea White tea Oolong tea Coffee
Temperature 100 Celsius 90 Celsius 80 Celsius 80 Celsius
Steeping time 4-5 minutes 30 seconds – 2 minutes 4-5 minutes 3-4 minutes
Amount of caffeine 30-40 mg 10-20 mg almost none 10-20 mg 80-120 mg

Bags or loose leaves?

In supermarkets you can find a great variety of teas these days. These are mostly bagged teas. They are quick, easy and often cheaper than loose leaf tea. When you buy tea in bags, you typically get a combination of smaller bits of the leaves and very tiny bits or ‘dust’. Whereas with loose leaves, you get bigger pieces of leaf.

In my opinion, there is a lot more to say about loose leaf tea. Because tea also has a lot of nutrients to benefit from. But if you put a tea bag (which are often not very big) in a cup of warm water, usually the tea doesn’t have a lot of space to move around in. And when the leaves are trapped, they Loose leaf teamight get wet, but there is no space to actually move the nutrients and flavour around in the water. So all you’re basically drinking is hot water with some color and a nice smell.
Buying tea bags isn’t so bad though, since it is a lot more convenient and cheaper. Even though you don’t get your money’s worth as much as you would with loose leaf tea, you would still benefit from it to some degree. It is often a lot handier in situations where you’re in the office, on the road or in a rush.

Fun facts

  • Most countries thank their word for tea (English), té (Spanish), tee (german) and thé (French) to the Dutch word ‘thee’ (pronounced as tay). While the Portuguese were the first to introduce tea to the west, the Dutch soon took over and from the early 1600’s played the far biggest role in the tea trade through the Dutch East India Company (‘VOC’ or ‘Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie’).
  • The word ‘thee’ actually comes from Min Chinese, ‘te’, but also ‘ta’. In Wu Chinese this in ‘dzo’ and ‘chá’ in Mandarin.
  • The tea plant can produce leaves up to 800 years!
  • It also can grow up to 20 meters, but is usually kept short al plantations.

Do you love tea as much as I do? What’s the most interesting fact you know about tea? Share it with us in the comments!

What you didnt know about tea


3 thoughts on “What you didn’t know about tea

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