Types of Tea
While all tea comes from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis, there exist hundreds of kinds of teas, with their own individual appearance, taste, and aroma. Like wine or coffee, every harvest of tea will vary year to year due to changes in climate, rainfall, and other seasonal conditions. Thus, tea from the same plantation or garden may taste very different from one year to the next. Moreover, a particular tea gains much of its individual character from how the leaves are cultivated and processed.
To make sense of all the varieties possible, teas can be placed in several categories. The most common categories used today are green, white, oolong, black, and fermented. These categories refer to how much a tea is oxidized or, in tea terminology, fermented. Before modern science, Europeans thought teas were the result of the fermentation process similar to that of wine or cheese. In actuality, it is oxygen that is responsible for altering the tea leaves. By selectively exposing the tea leaves to the air, tea farmers and artisans can bring out certain flavors and aromas from the leaves.
Generally speaking, the less a tea is oxidized, the more gentle and lighter it will be in taste and aroma. Heavily oxidized teas will yield a dark deep reddish brown or earthy infusion, while a white will yield a pale yellow-green liquor. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. A gyokuro, the highest grade of Japanese loose leaf green tea, will have a much more intense flavor than a smooth, toffee-like full leaf black tea from Sri Lanka.
While common, it should be noted that many popular infusions like chamomile or linden flower are not real teas because they do not come from the Camellia sinensis. But because of their popularity, information on herbal infusions is included below.
White tea undergoes the least processing of all teas. Traditionally cultivated in China, white tea was picked only a few days out of the year, when a white down, known as bai hao, appeared on the tender shoots. The tea shoots are allowed to wither then dry to prevent oxidization. This process is a delicate one, requiring strict attention from the tea makers. Nowadays, other tea growing regions as Darjeeling and Sri Lanka have begun to cultivate white tea, in an effort to capitalize off white tea’s growing popularity.
White tea tends to have the most delicate flavors and aromas. The nuances are gentle, even elusive, evoking fresh flavors like bamboo or asparagus or earthier elements like almonds. Aromas tend towards subtle floral bouquets.
SILVER NEEDLE (BAI HAO YIN ZHEN) – this tea contains only white, downy buds and the purest, most delicate
Because they are unoxidized, green teas keep their vital color. To prevent oxidization, the leaves are heat processed to eliminate the enzyme responsible for oxidization. In China, this is generally done by roasting or pan-firing the leaves, while the Japanese generally accomplish this by steaming the leaves at a high temperature. Each process tends to bring out a more particular flavor from the tea leaves. The Chinese style of processing tends to bring out a mouthwatering range of flavors from citrus-like to smoky with a lighter body. The color of the liquor is usually not a true “green”, but a pale yellow or straw color. The steaming process yields a deep vegetal or herbaceous quality-a characteristic prized in Japanese teas. Japanese green teas range in color of liqour from the pale green of a light sencha, to the deep grassy green of a gyokuro. Green teas that have been steamed contain more moisture and are therefore more delicate. Such teas should be stored at cooler temperatures and consumed sooner after picking than pan-fired teas. At ITO EN, we recommend keeping Japanese green tea in a low-temperature environment, as in a refrigerator, in a sealed container that keeps out moisture and light.
DRAGON’S WELL (LUNG CHING) – grown in Zhejiang Province, and processed by a flat pressing of the leaves particular to this variety. Delicate flavor with a sweet aroma.
PI LO CHUN – Or “Green Snail Spring”, this tea is grown near the summit of Tung Ting Mountain in Jiangsu Province. A refined and mild tea.
SENCHA – a pure green steamed tea, with refreshing astringency and grassy or vegetal flavors.
HOUJICHA – roasted green tea leaves and stems, with a nutty or toasty aroma and taste.
GYOKURO – tea bushes are shaded for around 3 weeks, just before picking. The leaves from these plants produce more chlorophyll and amino acids like theanine, resulting in the tea having a deep green color and rich, almost savory flavor (known as umami in Japan.) A pure green steamed tea, with refreshing astringency and grassy or vegetal flavors.
MATCHA – from shade-grown bushes, similar to Gyokuro, Tencha leaves are picked, they are then processed and dried, and then ground in stone mills to a fine powder called Matcha. This powder is traditionally whisked into hot water to become the thick, frothy and bright green beverage that is the center of Japanese tea ceremony.
Oolong, also spelled Wu Long, teas are semi-oxidized. The term in Chinese actually means “Black Dragon”. Oolong teas have long been cultivated in both mainland China and Taiwan. In general, larger, mature leaves are picked, withered, rolled, oxidized, and then fired. The leaves can be allowed to oxidize between 10% to 80%. Often, different tea estates have their preferred ways of making oolong tea. It is because of the intricacy of this process that oolong teas can have the widest array of flavors and aromas. Furthermore, oolongs can be steeped several time, with each successive infusion having its own distinctive taste and fragrance.
TAI GUAN YIN – named for the Iron Goddess of Mercy, this beautiful oolong yields a light amber liquor, with creamy texture and floral overtones.
DONG DING – This tea is noted for its bright green appearance and fresh vegetal notes.
Black tea is the most well-known variety of tea in the West. Known as “red tea” in China, black tea leaves are fully oxidized. In the case of most black teas, younger leaves are picked before being withered, rolled, fully oxidized, and fired. While created originally in China, black teas are now cultivated worldwide. Some of the most famous black teas come from the Indian regions of Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri as well as Sri Lanka. The use of machines is becoming more common, but the best black teas are those entirely done by hand. Machine-processed teas tend to be of lower quality and are generally used in tea bags.
The long-standing trend in black tea, taken from the British, has been to create “blends”. For centuries, tea companies take various kinds of tea to create a particular flavor or character-for example, a strong breakfast tea or a delicate afternoon tea. And just like a perfume house, several older tea companies are known for their signature blends. But as the quality and character of tea harvests can vary greatly year to year, tea companies rely on the skills of tea blenders to take different teas from the year’s harvest to create the same taste again and again.
However, another trend in black teas has recently taken off. The new vogue, imported from continental Europe, is estate teas, meaning teas that come from a single tea garden or estate from a particular year. Like a good wine, estate teas can capture the particular character of region and the year’s weather. Because of their unique character, estate Darjeelings have gained global popularity in particular and can often be auctioned for thousands of dollars per pound. Of course, because estate teas are at the mercy of the elements, quality can vary dramatically year to year.
With both blends and estate teas, it is frequent to see black teas divided into broken leaf and full leaf categories. A broken-leaf tea consists of leaves that have purposely broken into small pieces during processing. The smaller size allows the water to extract more of the tea leaves’ components in a short period of time. For this reason, broken leaf teas tend to be more brisk and higher in caffeine, making them an excellent morning teas to be paired with milk and sugar. Full leaf teas, on the other hand, tend to be more refined and gentler on the palate. While there are exceptions, like many of Assam’s full leaf teas, these teas are traditionally taken later in the day without anything added.
KEEMUN – a sophisticated tea known for its refined orchid-like aroma and subtle notes of dark chocolate.
LAPSANG SOUCHONG– the tea leaves for Lapsang Souchong are actually smoked over a pine wood fire to infuse the tea with a deep, dark, smokey character. This tea is often used in Russian breakfast and afternoon blends.
YUNNAN – teas from Yunnan tend toward being milder or sweeter in flavor, with chocolate or honey tones.
DARJEELING – Often referred to as “the champagne of teas,” teas from Darjeeling in India tend to be lighter, with a refreshing astringency.
Despite the common misnomer, there is a variety of tea that is actually fermented. Named for a town in China’s Yunnan province, Pu’er teas consist of larger leaves that can be aged for several years. Often, the most highly prized Pu’er teas will actually have a light dusting of mold. Pu’Er leaves are usually compressed into various shapes before being aged. During the aging process, Pu’er teas are exposed to microflora and bacteria that ferment the tea, in a way similar to wine or yogurt. The process takes longer though, and the tea’s flavor profile can change drastically and increase in depth over many years. Like fine wines, many connoisseurs become collectors of very old and well-aged Pu’ers. Some of the most highly regarded and expensive teas of this type are well over 30 years old.
Pu’er teas yield a dark, hearty brew that is low in caffeine. The taste is usually earthy and mellow, lacking much of the astringency of other types of tea. Chinese tradition says that Pu’er aids the body with digestion, while new studies indicate that Pu’er may help in reducing cholesterol.
There are many famous “vintages” from different regions in China, but true Pu’ers from one of Yunnan province’s mountainous tea farms are considered the most prized.
Tisanes (HERBAL AND FLORAL INFUSIONS)
Technically, a tea comes only from the Camellia sinensis plant. However, the term tea commonly refers to a whole range of plant and floral infusions that offer an enticing tastes and aromas. At ITO EN, we prefer the term “tisane” in order to properly distinguish tea from other infusions. The advantage of tisanes is that they are generally caffeine-free and gentle on the body, making them an excellent choice for children in particular. Often, tisanes have their own particular benefits, as is the case South African Rooibos, which is naturally high in vitamin C and antioxidants..
As with any other food product or beverage, it is important to be aware of the effects a particular tisane may have. For instance, ginseng or South American mate have stimulant properties like caffeine, while chamomile can cause a reaction for those who have an allergy to ragweed.