Last week we talked about Camellia sinensis and the fact that all tea is made from its leaves. In this post I thought we’d explore the six types of tea that can be created: white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and puerh (POOH-air.)
White tea is the least processed of all of the teas. The leaves are simply gathered (“plucked”) and then dried (“withered”), sometimes in the sun. That’s all. The tea is named for the pale, silvery hairs on the tea plant’s buds. The most sought after is Yin Zhen (Silver Needle) which consists only of plump pine needle-shaped buds covered in down. Another popular white is Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) which includes buds and some new leaves.
Green tea is an unoxidized tea. Oxidation is what causes the leaves to turn brown, much like an apple turns brown after it has been cut. The leaves are plucked and then heated to destroy the enzymes that would lead to oxidation. Chinese green tea producers usually heat the leaves in a wok or with hot air from an oven, while Japanese manufacturers steam the leaves, yielding a more vivid green color. The leaves are then dried and rolled. Well-known Chinese greens are Gunpowder, Lung Ching (Dragonwell), and Bi Lo Chun (Spring Snail Shell.) Japanese greens that are popular include Sencha, Matcha, Gyokuro, and Genmaicha.
Yellow tea, sometimes included with greens, is actually quite rare. The leaves are mounded and the heat of the oxidation dries the leaves. Thus, oxidation stops early, preserving some of the green color.
Oolong, my personal favorite, is a semi-oxidized tea, made most notably in China and Taiwan. Buds along with 2 - 3 leaves are plucked, then immediately wilted with warm air and shaken in bamboo trays to bruise the edges. The shaking breaks cells in the leaves and the fluid that is released oxidizes, browning the leaves. As the leaves oxidize, they are shaken again. The process is repeated to the desired level of oxidation, and the leaves are then rolled and dried.
Oolongs are processed to varying degrees. Some oolongs are only 10 - 30% oxidized like Baochongs and Tung Tings. Other oolongs, like Da Hong Pao (Red Robe) or Ali Shan are up to 70% oxidized. Thus, the world of oolongs is extremely rich and full of opportunity for exploration.
Black tea is the fully oxidized form of tea. These are the teas that many Americans are introduced to first. The names Darjeeling, Ceylon, and Assam are familiar to many. Black teas are produced in many locations throughout the world.
The last of the six tea types, puerh, is actually least well-known to most American tea drinkers. This is the only tea that is actually fermented (a chemical breakdown that involves bacteria and other microorganisms). There is “green” or “raw” puerh (“Sheng”) that is aged for as long as 30 years. The “black” or “cooked” puerh (“Shou”) is permitted to ferment for up to 3 months.
Believe it or not, this is a highly simplified explanation of the tea types. The fuller descriptions could (and have) filled hundreds of pages of text. I think the most important points here are that: a) the tea type is based solely on the way the leaves are processed; b) the most important classification is the level of oxidation the leaves undergo; and c) the appropriate application and timing of heat is critical to the development of tea.
Now that you know a bit more about the types of tea, it is probably time to talk about how to prepare them properly. Stay tuned…