Black. Green. Chai. Herbal. The list goes on. Some of us have been throwing these terms for types of tea around for so long that we forget there was a time when we didn't know what they meant, either. As with fishing, cigars, and wine, the world of tea has its own lingo.
The first thing you need to know is that every type of tea comes from the same plant. The name of that plant is camellia sinensis, and as best we can figure out, its story started in China. China is still the place where some of the world's best tea leaves are grown, but the tea plant has spread all around the world, so you can also find Japanese, Korean, Indian, and even Sri Lankan tea on your local store shelves, each with their own unique taste and history.
If all tea comes from the same plant, why are there different types, and why do they taste different? Well, like wine, tea is heavily influenced by the area in which it is grown, so a high mountain Chinese tea is going to taste different than something out of an estate in Indian lowlands. Every country also has its own traditional methods of processing tea after farmers pick it off the tree.
The only difference between black, green, etc., tea is the amount of processing the tea goes through after it's picked. More processing means a stronger and heavier flavor. In order from most processed to least, the main ways we describe tea are: black, oolong, green, and white.
Generally speaking, no matter where a tea comes from, if you know these main types of tea, you will know what to expect from it. Black tea is strong, heavy, and rich, and examples include Earl Gray and English Breakfast. Oolong tea is lighter than black but stronger than the next tea in my list, the green, and it's a good compromise when you can't decide whether you want the caffeine and strength of a black tea or the more vegetal taste and higher antioxidant of a green. Green tea is commonly believed to be the healthiest, especially when prepared in the Japanese ceremonial fashion. White tea is like a lighter green tea, pure and fresh, and often floral.
But what about chai tea and herbal tea? What about rose, chamomile, and ginger? Technically, even though we call these drinks teas, they aren't, unless they actually contain leaves from the tea plant. That's right, it's our friend again: the camellia sinensis. Most herbal “tea” we consume should actually be called herbal infusions.
Chai describes a flavor more than it does an ingredient. It's that cinnamon, black pepper, cardomom type taste and scent, but it doesn't necessarily include tea. You can have chai teas, or you can have chai infusions. Or, as you're probably familiar with, chai coffee.
The four main categories of proper tea are black, oolong, green, and white. These types are very broad, and you'll discover a lot of variety within them, but they're the basic building blocks every newcomer to tea is going to need. They're fantastically useful when it comes to describing your tastes and discovering new blends you will enjoy. Knowing you like oolongs that come from Taiwan, for example, can make picking out your next cup of tea as easy as selecting your next book to read if you know you like science fiction or mystery.