All tea leaves come from the same basic plant, the Camellia Sinensis plant commonly known as the tea plant. It is native to Asia, but is currently cultivated around the world. It has over 3,000 varieties. The five basic styles of tea are White, Green, Oolong, Black and Pu’erh and the differences between teas arise from processing, growing conditions, and geography. The styles are produced by altering the shape and chemistry of the leaf, rather unromantically called ‘processing’ or ‘manufacture.’
Tea processing is in five basic steps; some teas don’t utilize all of these steps, while other teas repeat them several times.
Plucking: This is when it is picked from the plant and weighted.
Withering: This is a process of allowing the leaves to wilt and soften. This is achieved by spreading the leaves on vast trays or racks, and left to wither in air temperatures of 25-30° C (77-86° F) for a period of 10-16 hours, depending on the wetness of the leaf. As the leaf moisture evaporates the leaves become flaccid.
Rolling: Here the leaves are shaped and the juices wringed out. A machine breaks down the withered leaf , releasing the natural leaf juices. The broken leaf is produced by “orthodox” and “unorthodox” mechanized methods, the orthodox method producing larger leaf particles, or grades, and the unorthodox method producing smaller grades. These smaller grades are more suited to modern market demands for a quick-brewing finished product.
Oxidizing: This is the most crucial part, what defines the categories of tea. In this stage, the broken leaf is spread on trays or put in troughs. Some people call this stage ‘ Fermentation’. Oxidation occurs when the enzymes in the tea leaf interact with oxygen, after the cell walls are broken apart. This can happen quickly, through rolling, cutting or crushing, or more slowly through the natural decomposition of the leaf.
Drying: Often called firing, is the next stage. The fermented leaf is fed slowly through a warm air chamber, which extracts the moisture.
Most of us call it black tea but the Chinese call it red tea due to its characteristic reddish-brown color. It is the most common tea. Many of us grew up dipping tea bags of black tea in our cup or drinking it from an iced tea pitcher. It goes through the five steps just that is it is allowed to undergo a fuller oxidation process than the others. After the oxidation the leaf becomes dark brown or black. This oxidation gives it colour, its flavour and triples its caffeine content (50-65% of coffee). This is dependent on the brewing type and technique.
All the steps are followed in a very linear form; they are generally not repeated on a single batch and it is usually completely made within a day.
They offer the strongest flavors which are in a broad range. It is typically heartier and more assertive than green or oolong teas and, in some cases has the greatest astringency of all.
It can be very bitter if the leaves are steeped in hot water for too long. It is usually drunk with milk and/or sugar , or with a slice of lemon.
Generally, unblended black teas are named after the region in which they are produced. Often, different regions are known for producing teas with characteristic flavors.
Green tea makes up approximately ten percent of the world’s tea. It is plucked, withered and rolled. The production process, is like that of white tea, starts with withering, followed by pan-frying or steaming to prevent oxidation. (The two types differ in that white tea has a higher proportion of buds to leaves.)
It is not oxidized because during the rolling process, oxidation is prevented by applying heat. For green tea, the fresh leaves are either steamed or pan-fired (tossed in a hot, dry wok) to a temperature hot enough to stop the enzymes from browning the leaf. Simultaneously, the leaves are shaped by curling with the fingers, pressing into the sides of the wok, rolling which releases their flavor and swirling – countless shapes have been created, all of them tasting different. In China, this consists of eyebrow-shaped or twisted pieces, tight balls, flat needles, or curled whole leaves.
Green tea is greenish-yellow in color, with flavors ranging from toasty, grassy (pan fired teas) to fresh steamed greens (steamed teas) with mild, vegetable-like astringency. These subtle flavors with many undertones and accents is what makes connoisseurs treasure green tea. When brewed at lower temperatures and for less time, green teas tend to have less caffeine (10-30% of coffee).
Scientific studies have shown that both green and black teas prevent cavities and gum disease, and increase the body’s antioxidant activity. They are also sweet and contain many of the vitamins and antioxidant properties of the fresh green tea leaf, making them highly regarded as a healthy, fragrant and delicious drink.
It is the most popular type of tea, mainly because it is the beverage of choice in Asia. Some loose green teas are scented with flowers or mixed with fruits to create scented or flavored teas.
Oolong, meaning Black Dragon, is usually from China and Taiwan (often called Formosa, its old Portuguese name). It is also known as wu long tea. Most people commonly recognize oolong tea as the Chinese tea served in Chinese restaurants. It is often referred to as “the champagne of teas,” oolongs are considered to be among the finest and most expensive teas in the world. Most oolongs hail from Taiwan; in China they are also referred to as pouchongs. It is a cross between black and green tea. It is usually allowed to undergo partial oxidation.
It is considered one of the most time-consuming teas to create. It utilizes all of the five basic steps, with rolling and oxidizing done repeatedly. These teas are anywhere from 8% oxidized to 80% (that’s measured roughly by looking at the amount of brown or red on the leaf while the tea is being made). The leaves are gently rolled, then allowed to rest and oxidize for a while. Then they’ll be rolled again, then oxidized, over and over. Over the course of many hours (sometimes days), what is created is a beautiful layering or “painting” of aroma and flavour.
It’s flavor is typically not as robust as blacks or as subtle as greens, but has its own extremely fragrant and intriguing tones that are much more complex than Green or White teas.
The liquor is pale yellow, is full-bodied with very smooth, soft astringency and rich in floral, fruity flavorful fragrance like a reminiscent of peaches – and a hint of smoke. Because of their smooth yet rich flavor profiles, Oolongs are ideal for those new to tea drinking. It’s caffeine content is between that of green tea and black tea.
Due to the delicacy of the flavor, connoisseurs generally prefer drinking it without milk, sugar or lemon. It is widely prized for its digestive benefits.
It is the least processed and purest tea. It is also the world’s rarest and most delicate of all teas as it can only be picked for a few weeks in any one year. The name is derived from almost colorless liquor and the fuzzy white “down” that appears on the unopened or recently opened buds – the newest growth on the tea bush.
Authentic white tea is only grown in the Fujian province in China where the exact method of processing is kept secret and until recently relatively difficult seen outside China.
Public knowledge is that white tea is made from a specific tea plant variety, as well as a particular processing method which raises small silvery hairs on the leaves and buds.
The youngest shoots of the tea plant is simply hand plucked and allowed to wither dry naturally but if the weather isn’t cooperating, the leaves may be put into a gentle tumble dryer on very, very low heat to assist. The leaves are not rolled, shaped, etc. Some minimal oxidation does happen naturally, as it can take a full day or two to air-dry the tea leaves. This is why some white teas, like the classic White Peony, show leaves of differing colors (white, green and brown).
This loose leaf tea brews a very pale green or yellow liquor and are the most delicate in color, flavor and aroma. The tea has a subtle, slightly sweet flavor and a mellow creamy or nutty quality. They are appreciated for their subtlety, complexity, and natural sweetness.
When brewed correctly, with a very low temperature and a short steeping time, white teas can produce low amounts of caffeine. Of course, steeping with hotter temperature and longer time will extract more caffeine. It does not have less caffeine than other teas.
White tea has seen a recent increase in popularity and has well-documented antioxidant and detoxifying benefits.
Puer is an aged black tea from China prized for its medicinal properties and earthy flavor. It is perhaps the most mysterious of all tea. It is oxidized twice unlike black tea that is oxidized once.
The process of its production is a closely guarded state secret in China. It first undergoes a process similar to Green tea, but before the leaf is dried, it’s aged either as loose-leaf tea or pressed into dense cakes and decorative shapes. Pu’erh is a fermented tea ( although not the type which produces alcohol). The double oxidation process is followed by a period of maturation, which is often used to develop a thin layer of mold on the leaves. The mold imparts a distinctive soil-like flavor that many people find off-putting. Depending on the type of pu’erh being made (either dark “ripe” pu’erh or green “raw” pu’erh), the aging process lasts anywhere from a few months to several years.
Very old, well-stored pu’erhs are considered “living teas”, just like wine. It is very strong with an incredibly deep and rich flavor, and no bitterness.
They are prized for their earthy, woodsy, almost peaty or musty aroma and rich, smooth taste. This why pu-erh tea is often consumed for medicinal purposes rather than for pleasure – aside from being known for its strong earthy quality, it is recognized as a powerful digestive aid.