What is tea?
Well, that's a fair enough question. I'm sure we've all thought it at some point, whilst sitting in a cafe or gazing out at a medina in Morocco.
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, and is enjoyed across all corners of the globe. Whilst the customs and traditions differ greatly between each country, the heart of the ceremony is always the same - a great love and appreciation for tea. Used for personal, community, health, spiritual, or physical benefits, there’s a reason why cultures all across the world can relate to this one beverage.
Types of Tea
So to begin with, for those of you who don’t know, there are only six types of ‘true’ teas. A true tea is a tea made from the camellia sinensis plant, and we get every single variation of tea from this one plant - from oolong to white to black to pu’erh. All other so-called teas are usually a sort of herbal blend called a tisane.
As a rule of thumb, an unflavoured green tea is a pure tea, but a mint tea is a tisane.
The six types of tea are:
- White tea
- Yellow tea
- Oolong tea
These teas can all have very different qualities, despite their origins coming from the same plant - and this is mainly determined by the level of oxidation they undergo.
What Determines the Type of Tea?
Oxidation is a biochemical, enzymatic reaction during which oxygen is absorbed and subsequently causes changes to the host physical matter. Oxidised teas are processed in a way which bruises the leaf, breaking cell walls and enabling enzymes in the leaves to cause natural oxidation reactions.
If this reaction is allowed to carry out to completion, it may become a black tea, and if this process is stopped by heating, it may become a partially-oxidised oolong. Unoxidised teas, like green tea, are heated earlier in the production process, denaturing the enzymes in the leaf that cause oxidation before the leaves are able to oxidise.
Pretty science-y, no?
The tea farmers are exceptionally talented, and know exactly how to create the perfect enzymatic reaction within the leaf to make it taste as good as it does. Typically, there are five stages of tea processing:
- Withering, where the tea leaves are subject to a rush of air, both cold and hot
- Rolling, where the leaves are churned by a roller machine or by hand
- Oxidation, to obtain a particular taste
- Drying and sorting
- And finally, grading into different qualities.
Not all tea goes through this process, however. For white and green teas, the leaves are not oxidised at all. Instead, they are simply left to dry in the sun, and then pan-fired or steamed and shaped into pellets or small twigs.
What is Green Tea?
Popular varieties of green tea include gunpowder, matcha, genmaicha, and sencha green teas. Each type of tea comes with its own unique history and this is just one of the many great things about the beverage!
One of our ultimate favourite types of green tea is genmaicha. It is said that in the 1900s in Kyoto, a tea farmer decided to mix roasted brown rice with his green tea blends so that even the poorest of people could afford tea - thus giving it the name 'peoples’ tea.' What came out of it was a popular nutritious blend which was almost as filling as some foods and was often used for religious fasting by monks or by soldiers with scant rations. It is also known as 'popcorn tea,' and with the sweet, roasted flavour, it’s not hard to figure out why!
And then we have other green teas, such as the Chinese gunpowder green tea, which is characterised by its pellet form that is similar in appearance to bullets. Sencha is a fresh Japanese tea which is prepared by infusing the whole leaf in hot water, and matcha is another Japanese tea where the leaves are drunk in powder form.
Long story short - there's a green tea for every occasion!
Typically, Chinese green teas are pan-fired in order to produce nutty, roasted flavours, whereas Japanese green teas are steamed in order to preserve the vegetal and herbaceous flavours. Go and see if you can taste the difference!
What is Oolong Tea?
Oolongs are produced only in China and Taiwan, and are often named after the place in which they were cultivated. For example, in Taiwan, it is particularly common to name oolong varieties after the mountains in which they are grown - hence why so many of their names end in shan, meaning mountain!
Flavour profiles of oolong teas can vary dramatically depending on the land from which they are grown, and the impact of soil composition, sunlight, rainfall and geographic conditions. Typically, the higher the altitude that the tea was grown at, the more delicate the flavour!
The name ‘oolong’ comes from the word wulong, which means ‘black dragon tea’ because of the dark, twisted leaves of some varieties. In China, there’s a famous oolong competition, where farmers and producers compete to see whose tea is superior. We hear that it is pretty intense - and with tea that delicious, it's not hard to understand why!
What is Black Tea?
For black teas, the oxidation process is completed and the leaf can be up to 100% oxidised. These are typically grown from the tea variety Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica, and are the most caffeinated out of all teas - with the exception of matcha and some pu'erhs.
Black teas are the most consumed, and you've no doubt tried it in the form of Ceylon tea, Darjeeling, Assam, Keemun, and Kenyan. Whilst typically considered to be a very bold, malty, and strong tea, black tea can also be sweet and delicate, in the case of Darjeeling and Nilgiri.
Fun fact: this type of tea is known as 'red tea' in China, due to the reddish tint of the liquid!
What is White Tea?
Every single "authentic" type of white tea is produced in the Fujian province of China, and oftentimes only the baby leaves are harvested. In white tea, you get two main varieties - Silver Needle and White Peony. Silver Needle is made using just the buds of the tea leaf plant and offers a sweet honeysuckle taste. White Peony is made using both the buds and leaves from the tea plant resulting in a more robust flavour that is both sweet and mildly sharp.
What is Pu’erh Tea?
Pu'erh tea is left to oxidise for years. Raw pu'erh (called sheng) can be aged for 50 years, whilst ripened pu'erh (called Shou) undergoes an accelerated fermentation process which typically lasts between 45 and 60 days. Pu'erh is especially interesting as only the leaves that come from the province of Yunnan, China, can be called Pu'erh - similar to how Champagne can only go by that name when grown in the Champagne region of France.
Pu’erh is typically quite rich, full-bodied, and with notes of dark molasses, earth, and dark cocoa. The pu'erh leaves are pressed into plates or disks, which can then be brewed for up to 15 times. This type of tea is commonly consumed during the Chinese tea ceremony called Gong Fu Cha, and is one of the most historic.
One thing that you should be aware of before trying pu’erh is that it needs to be 'washed' with hot water around three times to remove the dust and dirt before consuming. Back in our novice days, we learnt the hard way!
What is Yellow Tea?
Yellow tea is the rarest of them all, and not too many people can actually say that they’ve tried it. It is produced in very small quantities in China and made via a lengthy process that requires the skills of an incredibly experienced tea master. High-quality yellow tea is made from buds plucked in the early spring, while low-quality yellow tea is made from buds and leaves from later in the year.
Processing yellow tea is similar to green tea. However, it also goes through a 'yellowing' stage where the leaves are wrapped in cloth or paper, or heaping them into a bamboo basket with a cloth covering them, leaving them for a few hours or days to ferment slightly. The tea will go through a second panning and wrapping, and perhaps even a third, before it is dried and continues with the typical tea processing journey. This process can also be called huang, meaning ‘sealing yellow’.