Unlike most other beverages one simply can’t ask for tea and know what to expect, making tea both a bit more common but also captivating for those looking to expand their palate. There are six main types of tea, however within those types are thousands of varieties. It is truly amazing that camellia sinensis, combined with terroir, a dash of human intervention and some creativity yields a liquor with so many different flavors.
Oxidation starts in tea leaves as soon as they are plucked from the plant, just like how an apple starts to turn brown as soon as it is cut. The oxidation helps to create the flavor in the tea. Tea leaves are allowed to wither in the sun to both dehydrate the leaves and allow oxidation to continue. The point in the manufacturing process at which oxidation is stopped, via application of heat, largely dictates the classification of the finished product.
White tea is made primarily from the bud of the tea plant (downy buds) but may include the first two leaves on the branch. The name comes from the white hairs that are present on the outside of the buds. Typically this type of tea is allowed to whither outside in the sun to dry before being heated to stop oxidation. White tea is not rolled or panned and is lightly handled. Often, white tea is made from the first buds of the growing season, called the first flush.
Green tea is a type of tea where oxidation is stopped very early in the manufacturing process. The oxidation is stopped either through steaming, as is common practice in Japan, or through heating over a fire or in a stove. By stopping the oxidation early, the leaves remain green. Typically this is less than 10% oxidation.
Yellow teas are a lightly oxidized version of tea where, after withering, the leaves are lightly steamed allowing for enzymatic oxidation, the chemical process where flavonoids breakdown resulting in the browning of the leaves and the development of the flavor. This is a rather labor intensive process that requires special training, which limits the production capacity for this type of tea. Also, this tea comes in and out of favor with the Chinese public, the primary country producing yellow tea, so getting this in the US is often challenging if Chinese consumers are not demanding it.
Providing some of the greatest variety in style, taste, and appearance, oolong teas are partially oxidized, anywhere from 10-80%, before being heated to stop oxidation. Oolong, also known as wulong or black dragon teas, feature twisted tea leaves that are said to resemble the shape of a dragon. They have their origin in the Fujian province of China though are now produced in other countries, notably Taiwan. These teas are hand twisted or rolled after oxidation and were traditionally the Emperor’s tea. These teas are the Bordeaux of the tea world, amazingly complex in taste, highly prized, and can be quite expensive when compared to other teas. However, for the true tea enthusiasts there is nothing like them.
Known as red tea by the Chinese for the color of the brewed liquor, black tea is the most common type of tea consumed in the United States as it is typically the base for iced tea. Black tea is a more fully oxidized version of the tea leaves, ranging anywhere from 50-100% oxidized. Some of the teas best known in the west are black tea based blends including English Breakfast and Earl Grey.
Pu-erh (Dark Teas)
The only type of teas that are actually fermented are pu-erh. This is green tea that has fermented after completing the manufacturing process. This is truly a unique tea that reflects the history of where it was founded. Pu-erh was historically made in the Yunnan province of China and traded with Tibet and Mongolia for horses. To make the trip, the tea was compressed into narrow circular disks which traveled as long as six months before being traded. Due to the organisms that grew in the trees in the Yunnan province the tea would naturally ferment. Aged pu-erh is rare, highly sought after, and often comes at a high price. To satisfy demand and sell a more profitable product two Chinese tea manufacturers got together in the 1960’s and created an accelerated fermenting process, which is not looked upon favorably by traditionalists, but allows for wider circulation of this tea.
Exploration Beyond the Six Main Types of Tea
Each of these large types of tea have many more subcategories that are worthy of their own investigation and offer more options than I can list. Learning about all of them makes exploring tea a fun life long journey.