The tea types available to a new tea drinker can get a little bit confusing. This guide explains the six major tea types as well as a guide to herbal and flavored tea. So many choices!
What do you really need to know about the different tea types to enjoy a good cup of tea?
The four basic facts you need to know about tea:
- All tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis.
- There are six main styles of tea from the Camellia sinensis plant: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and pu-erh. The difference is in the way they are processed or manufactured.
- Herbal teas are called tisanes and are not considered tea in the context of this definition.
- Flavored teas can be from the Camellia sinensis plant, an herb or fruit. Many are a mixture of all three.
What is Tea?
Tea comes from the evergreen shrub called Camellia sinensis. There are two varietals: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam or Indian tea).
All tea comes from this plant. The differentiation between green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and pu-erh is strictly based on the process of manufacturing.
It’s simply amazing to me how so many different types of tea liquor can all come from the same plant. This is what makes tea so fascinating. The region in which the tea is grown and subsequently processed gives its own distinctive flavor.
Thousands of tea estates around the world produce tea. Each estate masterfully crafts a unique tea all originating from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is the process for picking and drying that determines the type of tea; green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and pu-erh.
What is Herbal Tea?
Herbs are plants that are used for their aromatic or medicinal properties for use in foods and medicines. Throughout history, humans have used herbal infusions for their medicinal benefits.
To create an herbal tea, plant parts such as the leaves, bark, stems, roots, berries, flowers or seeds are infused in boiling water for a period of time.
The resulting herbal tea is called a tisane (pronounced ti-zahn). There are hundreds of herbs used to make tisanes such as hibiscus, chamomile, mint, tulsi, rooibos, and yerba mate. They are often prepared as a wellness remedy.
What is Flavored Tea?
Dry tea leaves can act like a sponge and absorb the flavors and scents with whatever they come in contact. This can be good or bad.
The reason for storing your tea in sealed airtight containers is so that it will not pick up unwanted surrounding flavors.
Tea can be flavored in a variety of ways. Traditionally, the Chinese have added flavor to teas through scenting.
Types of Tea Flavors
Flower Scented Tea
The most famously scented teas are Jasmine teas. Many other flowers are used to scent tea leaves such as rose, marigold, lily, magnolia, chrysanthemum, and orchid.
Scented teas are made by adding fresh or dried flowers to dried tea that is already processed. This can be done with black, green or oolong teas.
The finished scent is very light and pleasant. If you come across a tea that is very heavily scented, like you're drinking from a perfume bottle, it is most likely artificially scented.
In large commercial settings, scenting is done by spraying the dried tea leaves with a liquid flavor or scent. This can be done with a natural or artificial flavor.
Traditional scenting is done by simply combining the dried tea leaves with the desired ingredients together and sealing them in a container for a period of time.
Fruit Scented Tea
Just about any fruit can be used to scent a tea, such as apples, plums, peaches, apricots and berries of all sorts. Fresh or dried fruit can be used.
- Dried fruit or the dried fruit peel is called a fruit-infused tea.
- Adding fruit juice to a brewed tea creates a flavored tea.
Earl Grey is the most famous fruit-scented tea. It is made from a blend of black tea leaves that are scented with the oil from the rind of sour bergamot oranges.
Smoke Scented Tea
Lapsang Souchong is a traditional Chinese black tea from the Fujian province. The tea is smoke-dried over a pinewood fire giving it its distinctive smoky flavor.
Genmaicha is a Japanese green sencha tea that is blended with puffed rice kernels to give it a smokey taste. This gives it a light nutty flavor.
In the Indian culture, spices are often added to flavor tea, the most popular being masala chai.
Herb and Tea Combinations
Moroccan mint is the most famous herb-tea combination. Dried mint leaves are blended with dried tea leaves for brewing. A sprig of fresh mint is added for serving.
The most commonly used tea for Moroccan Mint is a gunpowder green tea. It is one of the easiest green teas to brew and very forgiving in its nature.
Blending and infusing teas with flavors is a culinary art form. As you can see, the possibilities and combinations become endless. And it can be quite fun.
Related: 10 Best Online Tea Shops
How is Tea Made?
Tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant are plucked from new leaf growth and only the first two leaves and bud are selected for processing. New leaf is the sweetest.
Tea experts categorize tea by how it's processed in terms of oxidation, the color of the finished leaves and the color of the resulting liquor.
To understand the different types of tea, it’s best to first understand how tea is made.
As soon as the leaves are plucked, they begin to oxidize. Oxidation changes the enzymes influencing the flavor of the tea. Heating the tea leaves stops the oxidation process.
Green and yellow teas are heated (or fixed) as soon as they get to the processing plant to prevent oxidation. This is done by steaming, pan-firing or oven drying.
Oolong and black teas are partially or fully oxidized. The leaves are first withered, allowing them to dry removing some of the moisture. Firing and tumbling are applied to the oolongs in varying degrees to prevent further oxidation.
The following chart is a beautiful visual of the six types of tea and how they are processed.
This Tea Processing Chart is by Tony Gebely and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
What are the six tea types?
1. Green Tea
Green tea is not oxidized. It is roasted, rolled and dried with steam, oven heat or pan-fried preventing oxidation. Also known as fixing. This produces a refreshing tea with a sweet-smelling aroma. Green tea has a lighter flavor than black tea. It is most popular in eastern countries, but becoming more so in the west.
2. Yellow Tea
Yellow tea is not oxidized. After fixing, yellow tea leaves are heaped or piled and then wrapped in a damp cloth to rest for a period. The heat and humidity give the leaves a yellow hew. It’s a very rare tea produced only in China and very little is exported.
3. White Tea
White tea is barely oxidized and has a sweet subtle flavor. White tea is mostly processed from the bud only but can incorporate the first or second leaf as well.
4. Oolong Tea (Wulong)
Oolongs are partially oxidized, within a range of 12 to 80 percent. Oolongs are some of the most prized teas due to their intricate processing, which provides a complex flavor that evolves with each sip. The flavor all depends on the skills of the tea maker.
5. Black Tea
Black tea is fully oxidized producing a hearty deep rich flavor of the amber-colored tea. It is the most popular style of tea in most western countries and used in many blends such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Chai.
6. Pu-erh Tea (Fermented)
Pu-erh tea is an aromatic black tea originating in China. The leaves undergo double fermentation and are compressed into bricks or cakes. This made it easy to transport and exchange tea in ancient China. Still produced today, this is perhaps the most exotic of Chinese tea.
If you have a local specialty tea shop close to you, consider yourself lucky. It's nice to try the tea in person. Many people have to buy tea online, which can be a little daunting considering there are over 700 online tea shops.
As a guide, I put together a review of some of my favorite online specialty tea shops.