Types Of Tea
The first thing you need to understand about the types of tea is this: All teas come from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. Yes, all teas. Black tea, Oolong tea, Pu-erh, Green tea and White tea all come from the same plant.
The different types of tea are produced by taking the leaves of this plant and processing them in different ways.
There are five basic steps to tea processing, and it is important to note that not all teas use all five steps and some teas even involve repeating some of the steps:
Probably the most important of the five steps is the oxidisation of the tea, or in some cases, the non-oxidisation. This is the process that changes the character of the tea and establishes what type of tea it is.
When freshly plucked tea leaves are rolled and broken, enzymes are released which interact with oxygen to cause oxidisation, in the same way that an apple will oxidise and turn brown when it is bruised or cut into two.
Let’s look at the different types in a little more detail:
Steps: Plucking – Withering
White tea is the least processed and commonly the most expensive.
Usually, only the delicate bud, just before it opens, and the first two or three young leaves are plucked and allowed to wither and dry. That’s about it.
Occasionally the leaves will be dried on a very low heat in a giant tumble dryer if the weather doesn’t allow the process to happen naturally.
It’s called white tea because the leaves have downy, silvery white hairs, but you will notice there are also green and brown leaves too. This is due to a minimal amount of natural oxidisation that takes place as drying the leaves can take a day or two.
Generally, the ideal temperature for infusing white tea is around 80°C. Too hot and the tea becomes bitter and spoils the mild, subtle flavour.
The liquor of a white tea is typically a very pale green or yellow colour and has a very delicate flavour and aroma.
Examples of White tea: Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) and Silver Needle
Steps: Plucking – Withering – Rolling – Drying
Green tea is a non-oxidised tea. It is mostly a product of China or Japan and each of these countries processes the tea in a very different way.
Once plucked, the Chinese pan-fry and roll/shape/curl the tea leaves in a giant wok which is hot enough to prevent the oxidisation process. This produces a more nutty flavour. The tea should be infused with water at around 80°C.
The Japanese, on the other hand, like to steam their tea which produces a more vegetal flavour, very different from the China green teas. Japanese green tea should be infused with water slightly cooler too, at around 75°C.
Green teas produce green or yellow liquor with a range of flavours. Chinese pan-fried green teas can have flavours ranging from grassy to toasty, whereas Japanese steamed green teas tend to be more vegetable-like.
Oolong (Wu-Long) Tea
Steps: Plucking – Withering – Rolling – Oxidising – Drying
Oolong tea is semi oxidised and is most commonly from China or Taiwan and is the most time-consuming tea to create.
The more mature leaves are gently rolled to break the outer membrane of the leaf, releasing the oils to the air, and left for a short while to oxidise. This rolling and oxidising process is repeated over and over again before the leaves are dried to stop the oxidisation. This produces a beautifully complex flavour.
Oolong teas can be typically oxidised somewhere between 8% to 80%. The less oxidised teas have similar characteristics and flavours to green teas. Conversely, the more oxidised oolongs are more like the black teas in character.
The ideal infusion temperature is around 90°C and oolong tea is great for multiple infusions.
Steps: Plucking – Withering – Rolling – Oxidising – Drying
Black tea is the most common tea and is left to fully oxidise. Like Oolong tea, the more mature leaves tend to be plucked for black tea and the leaves are rolled or broken to allow full oxidisation to occur, which gives a much stronger taste.
Although most black teas are grown in China, India and Sri Lanka, they can still be found in other places like Nepal and Kenya and the supermarket.
Black teas are often named after the region in which they were grown and the liquor can be anywhere between dark brown and deep red. By the way, black tea is actually known as Red tea in China because of the colour of its infusion.
Black teas should be infused with boiling water for best results and can easily be drunk with milk and sugar.
And now for something completely different…
Pu-erh is a special tea which is technically processed in a similar way to green tea but left to ferment instead of being dried.
The leaves can be loose leaf, packed into decorative shapes or dense cakes, or stuffed into hollow bamboos, even into hollowed-out fruits. They are then left to ferment over time ranging from a few months to several years.
Very old, well-stored Pu-erh teas are considered “living teas”, just like wine. They are appreciated for their very earthy, musty aroma and rich, smooth taste.
The tea can normally be infused with boiling water.
Example of Pu-erh: Yunnan Pu-erh
If it doesn’t come from the plant Camellia Sinensis, then it isn’t tea, it’s a tisane, also known as herbal teas or infusions. These infusions can be made by adding hot water to virtually any other plant, flower or fruit and most are caffeine free.
That covers the main types of tea (and tisanes), but in the interest of thoroughness, there are a few other ‘categories’ you may have heard about:
When two or more teas are mixed together, this is normally referred to as a blended tea.
An example of this is English Breakfast tea, which is a mix of Assam and Ceylon teas, and believe it or not, is very popular with the English in the morning, particularly at breakfast time.
When it comes to odours, tea is like a sponge and that’s why we always keep our teas in sealed containers, don’t we? I hope so. Tea is scented quite easily by placing it in close proximity to strong scented flowers or smoke. After a period of time, the tea soaks up the scent and flavour in a very natural way.
You should now have an understanding of what is tea and what isn’t tea. But let’s not be pedants here, it’s still OK to say nettle tea or chamomile tea even if they’re not from the tea plant. Anyone who argues otherwise is probably in need of a colonic irrigation procedure.
It is also important to understand that because all teas come from the same plant, it doesn’t matter which tea you drink in terms of health benefits and/or weight loss. Just find the teas that you like and know that you are drinking yourself to better health (and no, Guinness isn’t a tea, even if it looks black).
There will be a future article on the health benefits of tea.
I’m sure you have lots of questions and that’s OK, because as luck would have it, someone invented email, just so that you can contact me at [email protected], or leave a comment below, if you prefer.
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