By Carie Birkmeier EBS STAFF

Tea is the world’s second most commonly consumed beverage, behind only water. Tea is grown in over 40 countries around the globe, but most predominantly in India, China, Sri Lanka and several other Asian countries.

Many people are surprised to learn that all tea varieties come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Different varieties of tea are produced by physically altering the shape and chemistry of the leaf through withering, rolling, shaping, oxidizing and drying. Where the plant is grown, the time of year, and the soil, can all affect the profile of the final product.

Oxidization is the most crucial part of tea processing and will define, for the most part, what type of tea is created. Oxidization refers to the process of enzymes, in this case present in tea leaves, interacting with air. The effects of oxidation can be seen when a cut apple or the yellow skin of a banana turns brown after exposure to air. If desired, this browning process can be avoided by applying heat.

The teas listed below are listed in order of unprocessed to processed.

Different types of tea vary in color based on the amount of oxidation they undergo during processing. From left to right: white, oolong, green and black. CC PHOTO

White tea is essentially unprocessed. The leaves are plucked, dried, and that’s it. Leaves are not rolled, shaped or altered prior to the drying process, and little to no oxidization occurs. The brewed tea is pale green to light yellow in color, and has a mild and delicate flavor and aroma.

Green tea is also unoxidized, but avoids the chemical reaction by applying heat. Leaves are plucked, rolled, and then heated by steam or pan-fired in order to stop enzymes from browning the leaves. The liquid produced is green or yellow in color, and the flavor depends on whether the leaves were steamed, which imparts grassy notes, or pan-fired, which lends a toasty quality.

Oolong tea is the broadest of varieties, ranging between unoxidized to almost completely oxidized, the difference between green and black teas. In some cases, heat is applied to slow the oxidation process, allowing delicate layers of flavor to emerge, sometimes likened to the layers in a painting. Because of the complex process and range of results, the color and flavor of oolong tea vary quite a bit.

Completely oxidized tea is known as black tea. It is the least time consuming to produce, and is often completed in a single day. The color of black tea ranges from red to dark brown, and has the most robust flavor of tea varieties.

Herbs, fruits and spices are often added to any of the above varieties to create herbal teas, such as chamomile or earl gray. Caffeine content in tea is dependent on the amount of oxidation. For example, green tea contains on average 30-35 milligrams of caffeine per 8 ounces, while black varieties can contain as much as 60 milligrams per cup.

Tea contains no fat, gluten, calories, preservatives or sugar. It does contain antioxidants which have been proven to improve overall health, and prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease. So, the next time you decide to steep a cup of any variety, to enjoy warm or chilled, you can rest assured that you’re making a healthy choice.