What is tea?

Written by: Jessica Boyd



Time to read min

What is tea? This seems like such a simple question, and you may think you already know the answer! But we want to dive a little deeper into what is tea to give you some interesting tea background, solid basics about tea, and a little history while we're at it. Ready to dive into this wild world of tea?

tea plants growing and green

"Tea is the elixir of life."

the Zen monk Eisai, who brought Zen Buddhism and tea to Japan

dried black tea leaves

What is tea? A plant, a leaf, a drink

When asking "what is tea?" you must start with the basics. First and foremost, tea is a plant called Camellia sinensis. Camellia sinensis is a small, subtropical, evergreen tree that is native to Asia. There are two main varieties of tea plants - Camellia sinensis sinensis, which is native to China, and Camellia sinensis assamica, which is native to India.

When we talk about "what is tea?" we are also talking about tea leaves...like what Tea Sip sells. To get tea, the leaf version, we must pluck the leaves from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, and process those leaves to get the dried leaf form of tea that is sold to tea lovers. "True" tea all comes from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. So that means white, green, yellow, oolong, black, dark teas all originate from the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Crazy right!? One of the main ways we create the different tea types is through the processing steps and methods, and not every tea goes through every step. The 6 basic processing stages are plucking, withering, rolling and shaping, oxidation, firing, and sorting. Tea production is a complex and interesting process... but that's a topic for another blog! Creating the different types of tea leaves that come from the Camellia sinensis plant also has to do with the variety (Camellia sinensis sinensis or Camellia sinensis assamica), or cultivar, and where in the world the plant is grown. In addition, the dried processed tea leaf and can either be just straight Camellia sinensis leaves, or "naked" as we call it at Tea Sip, or those leaves can be flavored, scented or blended with other botanicals. This is also called tea.

And finally, when we ask "what is tea?" we are talking about tea the drink. That delightful beverage that we LOVE! To get tea the drink, you guessed it, we steep the tea leaves in water. Whether it's hot or cold or iced - this is all tea!

pouring tea drink from teapot into a cup

But wait, what about herbals?

Now, there is just a little bit of a confusing technicality in all this tea plant, leaf, and drink business when we are talking about "what is tea". As we said, the tea plant is Camellia sinensis, the tea leaves are processed from Camellia sinensis, and the tea drink is steeped from the processed Camellia sinensis leaves. So...where does that leave everything else that doesn't come from Camellia sinensis?

Technically, these other beverages that don't come from Camellia sinensis are not tea, they are called tisanes. They are also referred to as herbal infusions. So this includes things like hibiscus, rooibos, honeybush, yerba mate, yaupon, lemon myrtle, chamomile, mint, etc. However, these days, when people use the word "tea", they typically mean anything that is steeped in water to make a beverage (besides coffee!). So don't worry! If you want to call it all tea - go for it! But now you know...what is tea! :)

Why do we even care about what is tea?

Well, tea is kind of a big deal... Did you know that after water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world? Did you know it's also one of the oldest beverages in the world? According to legend, about 4,000 years ago tea was "born" in China when their Emperor, Shen Nong, sat under a tree and fell asleep with his water boiling. When he awoke, he found leaves had fallen in the water. He tasted, and it both detoxified and stimulated him. What we know today as tea, the leaf and the drink, is believed to have come about around the 14th century. Tea has gone through a lot of changes and been heavily involved in shaping history...steeped in Buddhism, Boston Tea Party, Opium Wars, and more! You can read more about it here.

Want to get feeling even more jazzed about what is tea and tea history? Check out this trailer for "The Meaning of Tea".