When talking about tea types or tea families, it is always important to remember that there are huge differences within each genre. Put another way, with over 3,000 varieties worldwide it wouldn’t be fair to simply say, for example, this one is a green tea, and that one is a black one without going into more detail…as the green tea might be a pan-roasted Long Jing that has a beautiful sweet-floral bouquet, or it might be a Japanese Gyokuro that shines with its clean, vegetal aromas; or the black one could be a light dessert tea, like the Chinese Golden Bud, or it is a strong and full-bodied Indian Assam – you get the idea..
Various processing methods and specific tea plant varieties were developed over hundreds of years, resulting in this great pool of aromas we now can choose from. Each specific type of tea has been adapted to a unique growing region, and farmers mastered their craft to bring out a leaves greatest potential.
So why is there a need to classify such an amazingly versatile drink where every stage in the process is a critical flavor-determining variable. Probably, we need to group certain types to provide a clear foundation for education and evaluation. And as all types of tea originate from one plant, Camellia sinensis, the best way to classify a tea is by its basic processing method.
Therefore, without going into much detail, we could group tea into six basic families: green, white, yellow, oolong, black, and puerh.
These are the main characteristics for each type:
Processing stages: Plucking – Withering – Steaming/Pan firing – (Rolling/ Shaping) – Drying
It’s this family of tea that has the longest history, dating back to more than 4,000 years ago. Green tea’s natural leaf oxidation is prevented by heating (steaming, pan-firing or baking), thus preserving the “green” characteristics of the leaves. Their bouquet can be light and floral, like that of a Chinese Anji Bai Cha; or it might carry aromas of green vegetables and sea grasses, like a Japanese Sencha. I dare say, if you don’t like green tea, you haven’t had a real one yet!
Processing stages: Plucking – Withering – Drying
White Teas undergo the least handling of all tea-types. The leaves are merely picked and dried with no further processing. Typically, their aroma is refreshingly delicate with notes of flowers, honey or sweet fruits. The style of a white tea depends largely on the withering period, the cultivar of the tea plant, and whether it consists merely of buds (like Silver Needle), or a combination of buds and leaves (like White Peony or Shou Mei).
Processing stages: Plucking – Withering – Rolling/Bruising – Partial Oxidation – Baking/Pan Firing – Rolling – Drying – (Roasting)
Aromas of Oolong teas vary greatly depending on their specific processing or rather state of oxidation and/or level of roasting. Their flavors are immensely complex; and can be sweet, floral and vegetal (like that of a lightly oxidized Anxi Tie Guan Yin), or it has a smooth bouquet of vanilla and honey (like a medium roasted Taiwanese Dong Ding), or it has aromas stewed fruit, nutmeg, birchwood or marzipan,…
Processing stages: Plucking – Withering – Moist Heating/ Wrapping – (Rolling) – Drying
Yellow teas are a rare category with the best produced traditionally in Hunan, China. It’s a special tea processed similarly to green tea but with a slower drying phase where the damp tea leaves are allowed to sit and become yellow. This unique non-enzymatic oxidation process is how the leaves obtain their characteristic floral taste. Yellow tea is considered by many to be very beneficial for the spleen and stomach.
Processing stages: Plucking – Withering – Rolling – Full Oxidation – (Rolling) – Drying
Black Teas undergo a more rigorous oxidation, which is a flavor determining part within their production process. This unique chemical reaction transforms the color of the leaves from green to bright copper, which after the heating/ drying stages turns into a dark brown to black color (hence, the name). This transformation creates unique tastes and aromas; ranging from earthy or spicy to sweet, fruity, nutty or malty.
Processing stages: Plucking – Withering – (Artificial Fermentation) – Steaming – Compression – Natural Fermentation/Aging
Puerh-style teas are naturally processed from ancient, wild tea trees in Yunnan Province, China. The leaves undergo a fermentation process, resulting in very complex bouquets comparable to that of aged wines. Unlike most teas which are usually sold loose, Puerh is commonly sold both in loose and compressed forms. Puerh tea is often touted for its cholesterol-lowering properties, and for promoting digestion.