This is a very common misconception that I like to point out in my articles, so here, I want to put this Tea Vs Infusion question to rest once and for all! Most of the “Herbal Teas” aren’t teas at all! The main difference between a tea and a non-tea infusion is the leaves used. If you are using tea leaves or powder, you are in fact drinking a tea infusion!! And yes, tea is also an infusion, infusion is just the broader term that integrates all the other infusion beverages that do not contain tea leaves. As a matter of fact, even coffee can be an infusion, derived from coffee beans or coffee bean powder. To make matters worst, if the bevrage does not contain tea leaves, than it is not a tea at all!! So let’s take a look at what tea is before we dive into the world of infusions!
We all know that tea is an aromatic beverage prepared by pouring hot (or boiling, but please don’t pour boiling water, that’s just wrong!) water over cured or fresh ‘tea’ leaves. What many might not know is what are these leaves. These come from an evergreen shrub called Camellia sinensis, native to East Asia. However, this drink spread far and wide and is probably the most common drink across the world (of course, besides water).
As you probably know there are many different types of tea, even though they are all made from two principal varieties of the same species. Some like Darjeeling and Chinese greens have a cooling effect and slightly bitter and astringent flavors, while others have vastly different profiles that include sweet, nutty, floral, or grassy notes. Tea, just like coffee contains caffeine and has a stimulating effect on humans.
So what are the main varieties of tea?
Black Tea is most probably the strongest in flavor (and the most popular), the leaves used are generally more oxidized and the large-leaved Assamese variant of the plant is almost always used (and also mostly used just for black teas). In China, where black tea was developed, the beverage is called red tea, due to the color of the beverage when the oxidized leaves are processed appropriately. An interesting fact is that while green tea usually loses its flavor within a year, black tea retains its flavor for several years. For this reason, it has long been an article of trade, and compressed bricks of black tea were even used as a facto currency for a while!
Dark or Fermented tea is a class of tea that has undergone microbial fermentation for several months or several years! The tea leaves are exposed to humidity and oxygen in this process causing endo-oxidation (derived from the tea leave enzymes) and exo-oxidation (caused by microbial organisms) to happen. Fermentation affects the smell of the tea and typically mellows its taste, reducing astringency and bitterness while improving mouthfeel and aftertaste. The microbes may also produce metabolites with health benefits. (Have you ever tried kombucha? It’s one of these variants – although the taste was nothing like that for me, seems like we were doing something terribly wrong!) The fermentation is mainly carried out by mold (Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus Iuchuensis) so if you want to try this tea be careful where you get it from, mold may produce harmful side effects if not cultivated properly!
This tea is also known as Black Dragon! It’s a traditional semi-oxidized tea produced through a process including withering the plant under strong sun and oxidation before curling and twisting. This particular tea varies massively with unique tea plant cultivars producing exclusive varieties of the Camellia sinensis. Different styles of oolong can vary widely in flavor from sweet and fruity with honey aromas to woody and thick with roasted aromas or even green and fresh with complex aromas, all depending on the horticulture and style of production. This tea is also sometimes referred to as dark green tea or in France blue tea. The manufacturing process is similar to black tea, however much more attention to timing and temperature is necessary to obtain the desired flavor.
There are two distinct yellow teas. One is the Chinese version, this is an increasingly rare and expensive variety of tea made similarly to green tea but with an added step of encasing and steaming the tea. This allows the tea to oxidize at a slow rate for a brief period before the tea is heated fully to denature (alter or kill) the oxidizing enzymes in the leaves (so stopping the oxidation process), producing a far more mellow taste than most green teas have. This will also give the leaves a slight yellow color in the drying process. Yellow tea is often placed in the same category as green tea due to its light oxidation. Basically, this procedure aims is to remove that grassy smell from the green tea. The other is the Korean version, here the process is similar to that in the oolong or black tea but again the oxidation is relatively low although noticeable. So the distinguishing feature of this tea is a yellowish color produced from a light oxidation process.
Unlike black tea and oolong tea, green tea is made with minimal oxidation. Firing happens early in this process, the leaves are steamed, roasted, or baked to kill the leaf enzymes and stop oxidation from occurring. So basically this tea is made from Camellia sinensis leaves and buds that have not undergone the same withering and oxidation process as the other teas. Several varieties of green tea exist, which differ substantially based on the variety of the shrub used, growing conditions, horticultural methods, production processing, and time of harvest. Depending on the variety, green tea varies from a delicate, floral flavor to a more earthy flavor, it may also be described as having a grassy flavor. Green tea is usually more of an acquired taste.
Currently, there doesn’t seem to be one accepted definition of white tea or an international agreement about this. However, most definitions agree that white tea is not rolled or oxidized, resulting in a flavor that is lighter than most green or black teas. White tea can be made from the buds and immature tea leaves picked shortly before the buds have fully opened and allowed to wither and dry in the natural sun, or tea buds and very young leaves which have been fired (steamed, roasted, or baked) before drying. Sweet, brewed white tea is actually a pale yellow drink, its name, unlike most of the other teas, is derived from the fine silvery-white hairs on the unopened buds of the tea plant which gives it a whitish appearance and not the color of the drink itself.
So now that we found out what tea is, let’s explain better what is an infusion. The simplest of infusions is the one we so commonly do when we prepare a cup of tea from a teabag. The term infusion refers to when we place a flavoring ingredient (such as a teabag) into a liquid (like a cup of hot water) and let the flavors infuse themselves in the liquid. The word infusion may also refer to the drink itself, so a cup of tea may also be called an infusion. To limit the confusion a little, an infusion made from tea leaves can be referred to as a true tea, while other infusions are sometimes called tisanes.
How to prepare an infusion
Now let’s take a closer look at the various methods that an infusion can be prepared. The infusion process is mainly divided into three simple steps, submerging the flavor component in your liquid, letting the steeping process occur, and last but not least filtering the beverage from the teabag or herbal components or any flavoring agent that was initially submerged. But how complex can this be? You’d actually be surprised! Let’s take a look at what our little bat flew into this time!
The first contact
How the components come into contact with the liquid as well as the temperature of the liquid itself will in fact affect the taste. If we take a look at the Chinese traditions (where teas were originated) we see that each tea has a specific procedure to create, some of them even ceremonies. Some aromatic substances (like the ones found in black tea) need a higher temperature to bring out, while other infusions (like green tea) would work better with a lower temperature allowing amino acids to give tastefulness and at the same time holding back excessive tastes like the ones produced by phenolic compounds. As we said before, the other variant is how the ingredients come into contact with our liquids. Leaves, flowers, and seeds are usually poured over, while roots, barks, and berries are more often dropped into the hot water, at times even cooked (although the method will then be called decoction) to allow essential oils and the more stubborn flavors to release. Pouring is done in particular ways by real professional brewers as well, like following circles to ensure an even submersion of the flavoring agents.
Of course the longer the steep the stronger the taste. The more time the flavoring agents have to relax in the liquid, the more taste they will leave behind, so this is a matter of how strong you would like the infusion. However, the liquid used also makes a difference. Yes, infusions aren’t only warm or hot drinks made of boiled water! Milk is a great variant to create a creamier more filling drink. The infusion process can also be used to create flavored liquor. Here we replace the hot water with vodka, whiskey, rum, brandy, or any other alcohol you may want to try although those are the most commonly used. Wine punches are another favorite. Here the alcohol will replace the heat to get the flavors to realize from the flavoring agents. Other non-drinkable alcohol might be used to produce medicinal tincture in this way too. Another similar liquid used is vinegar (you ever tasted mint sauce? That’s a mint infusion in the vinegar, at times helped by a little sugar.) Oils can also be infused in this way, most commonly with herbs or chilies. Here the seeping time can be months rather than minutes and tastings will be most probably needed to achieve the desired result. Simple syrups and honey can also be infused in similar methods. The container used is one more variant in this part of the process. Some clays and woods can leave lovely notes to the infusion while aluminum can actually release harmful chemicals in your infusion, so avoid this material for this step. And last but not least, and goes without saying, the ratio of flavoring agents to liquids infused will affect the strength of the infusion, rather obvious, however, it’s one more major variant here.
Several agents can be used while preparing infusions. The most common are leaves, flowers, fruits, berries, buds, seeds, barks, roots, and rhizomes. Basically, plant extracts are the most common, although at times molds are added to this concoction (as we have noted in dark teas). Of course, these can be mixed and matched both to produce the desired flavor or to produce a medicinal property in the infusion. The most common beneficial effects sought are soothing, energizing, detox, and an immunity boost. Medicinal tinctures are more powerful antibacterial, antifungals, or restoration among other variants available out there.
You may be surprised (I was) but even on straining our bat managed to find articles! The probably most commonly known strainer is the normal wire mesh filter, however, this sometimes might be too wide for the finer herbs. Here you might need to use filters (these are strainers that use materials similar to a coffee filter instead of the wire mesh), a cheesecloth, or reusable strainer bags (these are similar to the ‘teabags’ from stores but you can fill them with your favorite mix, wash and reuse). Other methods are pouring the tea gently from the teapot and letting the mix settle in the bottom. Some teapots come with a shut-off infuser that will keep your flavor agents in the center of the pot, shut off from the rest of the liquid. Other handy gadgets are mesh balls or strainers, which also come in a variety of ways, like on a chain or with handles. However, these might still have wholes too wide for your ingredients leaving some unwanted flakes in your infusion. Probably the mesh or cheesecloth will make the cleaner beverage when using fine ingredients.
So basically, to sum it up, an infusion is the umbrella term, and tea is actually just one of the many variations capped under this much border category (even though tea itself is a very vast category as well). Hope this helped make things clear for you and maybe gave you some deeper insight or rose more interest in this extremely vast and interesting topic! As always we wish you: