Do you know your types of tea? The plant from which tea is harvested is called Camellia sinensis. Despite the fact that there are several different flavors and types of teas, they all originate from the same plant. It’s interesting to note that even teas grown and cultivated in the manner can taste quite different from year to year. Much of this has to do with factors such as the climate, rainfall amount and length of the growing season.
What ultimately gives each kind its own unique properties is the manner in which it’s processed. The amount of fermentation or oxidizing the leaves are exposed to determines its category.
The most common types of tea are:
These are listed in order from least amount of oxidation, or exposure to air, to the highest amount. Characteristics like aroma and flavor are developed in each variety based on the amount of oxidizing it goes through. Some growers will refer to this oxidation process as fermentation, despite the fact that there is no actual fermenting involved. This term is held over from the days in which it was believed that teas fermented much likes wine or other alcohol. Let’s take a closer look at these categories of teas and the manner in which they are produced.
White tea receives very little processing. The white colored tea buds are picked from the plant and allowed to wither or dry. In rare instances of bad weather, a gentle tumble dryer may be used to assist the withering process. The leaves used in white tea don’t receive further treatment such as rolling or shaping. The oxidation that occurs in this process is simply due to natural air drying for a day or two. White teas become yellow or pale green when brewed. They have a light, delicate flavor and aroma.
Fermentation is prevented in the cultivating of green tea through exposing the leaves to a rapid high heat. This is usually done in two different ways. The first is with a dry heat in which they’re placed over a fire in a wok-like pan. The other method involves steaming the leaves over water.
The steam approach is preferred in Japanese varieties. In both the dry and wet processes, the next step is to roll the leaves into various shapes. The custom and tradition being employed will determine the kind of rolling that occurs. Needle-like shapes are often seen in Japanese varietals, while Chinese green leaves are formed into plaits.
Green teas have a fresh, crisp aroma and are loaded with vitamins. It’s important that the water used in brewing not be too hot or else the nutrients from the vitamins can be destroyed. The brewed product is either yellow or green in color.
Oolong, which you may also see as Wu Long, is a semi-oxidized variety. The Chinese translation of this word is “black dragon”, and oolong has been produced in China and Taiwan for centuries. Oolong comes from the more mature leaves that tend to be long in dimension. After picking, the leaves are withered prior to rolling, oxidizing and firing. Depending upon the maker’s tradition and preference, oxidation can occur between a broad spectrum of 10% to 80%. As you can imagine, this wide array of fermentation allows for a vast difference in resulting flavors and scents. Oolong can be steeped more than once, which also changes the end notes in flavor. Brewed colors range from golden yellow to bright green.
Black tea is the probably the one you think of most frequently when this hot beverage comes to mind. The leaves in this form are completely oxidized. The leaves used to make this variety are picked while quite young. They’re withered soon after, then rolled and oxidized fully prior to being fired. Black choices are grown throughout the world. It’s customary for this type to be blended in order to achieve a wide selection of products with signature flavors, bodies and aromas.
Because harvests do vary from one year to the next, it takes a skilled blender to be able to choose just the right ones to recreate a signature blend. Blacks are often processed in two distinct ways, with broken leaves and whole leaves. Broken leaf varieties tend to be brighter and bolder in flavor due to the fact that the leaves are purposes torn into pieces during the manufacturing process. Whole leaf ones with an intact leaf yields a much smoother flavor.
Pu-erh tea is a unique form of art. Its processing involves being left to age prior to drying. This aging can occur by allowing the loose leaves to age or by pressing them into cakes that are delicately shaped. Types of pu’erh are either ripe, which is a dark form, or raw, a green varietal. Pu’ehr tea is actually fermented, but it doesn’t produce alcohol through this fermentation. However, much like wine, the longer it is left to age, the more prized and valued it becomes.
These are the most common types of tea. We’ve only scratched the surface. There are numerous flavors and varieties within each category, along with enhanced and specialty teas. However, you now have a basic understanding of the primary kinds of tea from which you can choose and how each is cultivated. This knowledge is the foundation for a long future of appreciation for this complex beverage. I hope you enjoyed discovering the different types of tea.