Classification of Teas
Did you know that despite a wide variety in the final product, tea comes from the same plant? That’s right! With the exception of tisanes (also known as “herbal teas”), all tea comes from the Camelia sinensis plant. The variety seen in different teas is a direct result of the different processing methods of tea, as well as regional variations and traditions.
It can often seem daunting to keep track of all the different types of tea — no matter how to best prepare or store them! This is often what makes drinking tea so fascinating, as each brew is like a new and exciting adventure.
Although there is no world-wide, official classification of teas, a common way of doing it is by the degree of oxidation which the leaves undergo during processing.
Here, we take a look at the 4 main types of tea (not including the tisanes):
1. White Teas
White tea leaves are young, often picked in the earliest harvest of the year. Because of this and in addition to the method in which they are processed, the leaves undergo very little or no oxidation. It’s for this reason that white tea is often touted as the healthiest and most beneficial teas.
The colour of white tea leaves are a soft, pale, almost golden colour. The leaves often have very fine fibres or bristles on them which commonly give white tea its nickname of “pine needle” tea. The tea liquid brews up clear, bright, and warm. White teas have a very delicate, sweet, almost honey or nectar-like taste to them. Due to their light flavour profile, in addition to their naturally low caffeine levels, white teas are easy to enjoy morning or evening.
2. Green Teas
Green tea is the most popular tea consumed in Asia, and has quickly gained widespread popularity in Western markets within the past couple of decades, mostly thanks to plenty of exposure to its health benefits. After the leaves are harvested, they undergo various steaming or heating processes depending on the region of production.
Because of this regional variation in production, green tea has an incredibly diverse range of flavours and appearances. Some teas, like Japanese sencha varieties will have a distinct grassy or spinach-like flavour, whereas the Chinese processing method produces a much more aromatic, rich and solid taste. The colour of the liquid varies somewhat too, from pale, clear yellow to bright, deep green.
3. Oolong Teas
Oolong tea is not as popular or known in Western countries, with its most popular fan bases being in the regions where it’s produced, Taiwan and Southern China. Nevertheless, it is gaining popularity among tea connoisseurs and enthusiasts and can be found fairly easily in reputable tea shops. Oolong tea can be thought of as the “middle-man tea”, as it’s midway between and shares qualities with both green and black teas.
The production of oolong tea is a fairly physical process. The leaves are tossed around in large containers to bruise and soften up the leaves. This adds to the oxidation that the leaves undergo. Finally, the leaves are often rolled up into tiny balls or “pearls” prior to being stored. Production methods vary between producers, and this results in vary diverse and complex flavour ranges.
An oolong tea which underwent a heavier oxidation process often has a darker, richer brewed liquid which has very aromatic, complex, roasted flavours. This contrasts the oolongs undergoing relatively lighter oxidation processes, where the tea brews bright, clear yellow and the flavours are delicate, floral and light in profile.
4. Black Teas
Black tea is classified as the most heavily oxidized of all the teas. Likewise, the leaves will appear darker and may be more brittle compared to less-oxidized varieties. Black tea is the most well-known and readily-available tea in most Western Countries. Most people from this part of the world grew up with household brand names, and in countries like the UK tea drinking has become a part of culture from it’s imported beginnings.
Black tea is prepared hot, and as a result many Westerners like to add milk. It should be noted, however, that adding milk takes away from the black tea’s unique flavour profiles! There are several varieties of black tea, each with their own distinct flavours and appearances. In general, a good black tea will have a deep, vibrant dark red or brown/black liquid paired with a rich, layered, complex flavouring. Black teas can often be re-steeped many times, which brings out softer, fruit or wood-like flavours.
Of course, not all teas fit cleanly into one of these categories, and some such as tisanes are a completely different world! Nevertheless, keeping in mind a tea’s relative oxidation level should help you get a feel for what to expect from it next time you’re deciding to try something new!
What are your favourite types of tea, and what sets them apart from the rest for you?