Ever feel confused by the many different types of tea out there? It can be overwhelming when a colleague mentions her matcha ritual when your tea universe comprises only your morning black tea and afternoon green tea.
Most of us have tasted a cup of black tea – the most-known tea worldwide. Enjoyed with or without sugar and milk, it is the most consumed tea. But there are more teas out there; these are the other primary types of tea – green tea, white tea, oolong tea, yellow tea, dark tea, and herbal infusions.
How do you tell one tea from another? How does one choose one tea over another? What is the difference between them anyway? If you want to know more about these different types of tea and have your questions answered, read on.
Understanding ‘True’ Tea
When a tea is ‘true’ tea, it means that it is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, yellow tea, and dark tea are all made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Hence true tea can be divided into these six types of tea.
Despite their shared origin, these teas are different due to one core technical factor – their level of oxidation. The process of oxidation starts as soon as the tea is harvested. The longer the exposure to oxygen, the higher the level of oxidation that will happen. Hence tea leaves that are exposed longer to oxygen become darker and their flavour profile becomes more robust. Different methods are used during processing to create and control the oxidation of the leaves. White tea undergoes no oxidation and black tea the maximum.
Also, factors like the cultivar of the plant used and the terroir (climate, soil, geography, and culture of the tea-growing area) play critical roles in establishing the uniqueness of each tea. Each tea is unique – in appearance and flavour – developed by different harvesting and processing methods. Some teas are oxidized more than others, some are steamed, some pan-fired. Some teas are harvested earlier in the year, during Spring, whilst others are harvested later during the Summer and Autumn seasons.
From Tea Bush to Cup
To understand the process of oxidation and how it affects the nature of the Tea, we should also understand the processing of tea once the leaves are harvested.
The leaves immediately start to wither after being plucked. Once harvested, the leaves are spread out on steel or bamboo troughs to wither so that they soften. Factors like heat and humidity are controlled during this withering process. This process can take upto a day, and this is when the amino acids and simple sugars of the leaves arise and complex compounds break down, giving forth to a fragrant aroma.
The withered leaves are then rolled. The rolling process entails bruising the leaves – wherein the cells of the withered leaves are broken – and exposing the cell sap to the air, hence speeding up the oxidation process. Air is passed over the leaves to escalate oxidation of the rolled leaves.
Heat is introduced through various methods to stop the oxidation process and to dry the tea.
Different types of tea undergo the above processes in varying degrees, especially the process of oxidation.
Signature Characteristics of Each Type of True Tea
Colour & Flavour Profile:
Black tea has a stronger colour – it brews up a beautiful coppery maple hue – and is malty in flavour and more robust than other types of tea.
Black Tea Harvest & Processing:
Black tea is fully oxidized tea. The leaves are harvested, withered, rolled, and oxidized. The tea leaves are fully oxidized, which turns them a brownish-black colour.
Black Tea Producing Countries:
Black tea is mostly produced in China and India. Newer tea-growing countries, like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, and Vietnam, also produce and export quality black teas today,
Popular Varieties of Black Tea include Darjeeling tea, Assam tea, Earl Grey tea, and English Breakfast tea.
Colour & Flavour Profile:
Green tea has a very light colour – it brews up a pale green colour – and is mild and vegetal in flavour with a light body.
Green Tea Harvest & Processing:
Green tea is the most popular tea globally. It is unoxidized tea. Once harvested, the tea is not left to wilt or oxidise. To halt oxidation, the leaves are immediately either steamed (Japanese green teas) or pan-fired (Chinese green teas). The tea leaves are then rolled or pressed and dried. With halted oxidation, the leaves retain some of their original green colour and freshly-picked flavour.
Green Tea Producing Countries:
Green tea is mostly produced in China and Japan. Other countries that produce green tea are Vietnam, Indonesia, and India.
Popular Varieties of Green Tea include Matcha, Sencha, Gyokuro, Gunpowder Green tea, Dragonwell (Longjing) green tea.
Colour & Flavour Profile:
White tea is a very delicate and fresh tea. It has a pale colour, a very light body, and a very mild floral flavour.
White Tea Harvest & Processing:
White tea is minimally processed. As with silver needle & silver tip teas, the tea is harvested from the new buds of the tea plant even before the new leaves have unfurled. The fresh young leaves are dried naturally instead of being exposed to artificial heat, As the leaves are simply left to wither and dry on their own, this gives white tea a very delicate and naturally sweet flavour.
White Tea Producing Countries:
China primarily produces White Tea, mostly in the Fujian province. Other countries that create specialty white teas are Taiwan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and North-east India.
Popular Varieties of White Tea include Silver Needle and White Peony.
Colour & Flavour Profile:
Oolong is a partially oxidised tea, with the level of oxidation varying between 8% to 80% depending on the tea master. Hence its colour and flavour profile may lean towards either a light-body fresh green tea or a robust-body malty black tea.
Oolong Tea Harvest & Processing:
Oolong teas are harvested, wilted, and then partially oxidized.
Oolong Tea Producing Countries:
The best Oolong teas are created in China and Taiwan. Taiwan is especially known for its specialty oolongs. Darjeeling Oolong is well-respected too.
Colour & Flavour Profile:
Yellow tea’s level of oxidation varies between that of white tea and green tea. Hence its colour and flavour profile is extremely light-bodied and sweet.
Yellow Tea Harvest & Processing:
Yellow teas are harvested and processed similarly to white and green tea, though an additional step is added. It goes through the “sealed yellowing” process where the leaves are wrapped in wet cloth or paper to induce a mild oxidation process through steaming. This creates the sweet mellow flavour and removes the grassy notes of green tea. Given the extra process required to create it, this tea is made in very small quantities, hence rare and expensive.
Oxidation: 1 – 4%
Yellow Tea Producing Countries:
Yellow teas are primarily produced in China.
Dark Teas or Post-Fermented Teas (Hei-cha)
This is the only type of tea that is not distinctive because of its level of oxidation, but because of its ageing and accompanied fermentation after the desired oxidation level has been reached. This tea has undergone microbial fermentation, from several months to many years. The most famous fermented tea is Pu-erh produced in Yunnan province of China.
Colour & Flavour Profile:
Dark teas are brown-black with a full rich earthy body.
Dark Tea Harvest & Processing:
Dark teas are fermented and aged post processing of the leaves. The tea is stored in humid environments to promote the growth of certain fungi.
Dark Tea Producing Countries:
Dark teas are primarily produced in China. It is also made in Japan and Korea.
To sum it up, in terms of the level of oxidation, here is the classification of true teas from the least oxidised to the most:
White Tea – Negligible
Yellow Tea – 1 – 4%
Green Tea – 5-10%
Oolong Tea – 8-80%
Black Tea – 100%
Dark Tea – Any level of oxidation
Let’s also break down a few other types of tea that appear often in today’s tea parlance.
Matcha is a powdered Japanese green tea. It has a unique umami flavour with a hint of bitterness. It is consumed when whisked with hot water or milk and is also a popular addition to lattes, smoothies, and baked goods. Matcha is not steeped and removed from the liquid like other teas. Both leaf and liquid are consumed.
Matcha is produced from green tea plants that are shade-grown for at least three to four weeks before harvest. The shading process increases the chlorophyll, theanine, and caffeine in the plants, hence deepening the colour of the leaves.
The green leaves are immediately steamed after harvest to halt the oxidation process and the stems and veins of the leaves are removed. Once dried the leaves are stone-ground into a fine powder. Matcha is prepared and served during the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Though born in China, this powdered tea is today an integral part of Japan’s history and culture.
Gyokuro is a Japanese green tea. It is harvested and processed exactly like the tea leaves for Matcha, except that it is not powdered. After drying the leaves are given a shape and not ground.
The most common type of dark tea is known as Pu-erh tea. It is one of the oldest types of tea, with a history dating back more than 2,000 years. This ancient tea originates in China’s Yunnan province, and only teas produced in Yunnan province can officially be called pu-erh. This is because the local cultivars and the region’s biome are what make the tea unique to the region.
Pu-erh is processed in a manner similar to green tea. The leaves are harvested, and then steamed or pan-fired to halt oxidation. Post-drying the leaves then undergo a fermentation process. The ageing process can take upto a few years. With time, the grassy flavours of the green tea evolve into a rich-bodied earthiness.
Herbal tea or an infusion is made using other edible non-tea plants – leaves, flowers, bark, spices – and hence is not ‘true’ tea as it does not originate from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal teas, also called infusions or tisanes, are composed of a single ingredient (for example Chamomile tea, Hibiscus tea, Stinging Nettle tea, etc.) or a blend of different herbs and spices.
Herbal teas often have medicinal properties and can be used to treat everything from sore throats to upset stomachs. Herbals teas do not share elaborate processing techniques of the true teas.
Rooibos tea, or African Red Tea, is a herbal tisane that is made from a native South African plant. It is a full-bodied naturally-sweet tea.
Mate is a drink made from a plant native to South America. It is traditionally prepared by steeping the leaves in hot water in a hollow gourd. The tea is consumed through a straw locally called a bombilla. In South American countries it is enjoyed as a community drink that is shared amongst a group of friends, with the same gourd being refilled as it is passed from one person to another.
Any type of tea can be flavoured with the addition of a variety of spices, herbs, fruits, and flowers or flavour extracts such as essential oils. The tea base and the additional ingredients work together to create a unique flavour combination. Our popular flavoured teas include Masala Chai, Rose Chamomile White Tea, Rose Black Tea, Orange Peel Black Tea, Turmeric Green Tea, Ginger Green Tea, Jasmine Green Tea and Tulsi Lemongrass Green Tea.
The difference between herbal tea and flavoured tea is that the latter is created from a tea base – made from tea leaves.
The Universe of Tea is vast and we learn a new thing every day. Though we understand broadly that there are true teas and other teas that do not include tea leaves, and that within these types of tea several varieties of tea exist, these are not the only categories of tea. Creating a tea is dependent on many factors – right from its geographical terroir, the tea varietal, cultivar, growing conditions, time of harvest, and the myriad processing methods. Even when one uses the same varietal of tea and uses similar growing and processing conditions, teas grown in different locations will develop different characteristics and will not taste the same. Each tea is unique to its crafter. And no two teas of the same type from two different estates will taste the same.
We at Darjeeling Connection carry different types of tea, true teas and herbal blended teas, all created from tea grown, harvested, and processed in the geographically-indicated region of Darjeeling. We would love to help guide you through your tea journey. We hope this guide to types of tea has helped you better understand the world of tea.
Now onto that cuppa…