A Guide to Tea Varieties
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All types of tea come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Originating in southern China thousands of years ago, there are two main varieties of the plant: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which mainly grows in China and other East Asian countries and has a milder, mellower taste, and camellia sinensis var. assamica, which mainly grows in India and has a heartier and more robust flavour profile.
There are several varieties of tea which have unique characteristics based on the types of leaves picked and the level of oxidation they go through. Some are allowed to oxidise while others aren’t, some are roughly chopped and some are air-dried in their natural shape. Whether the leaves are harvested in the spring or autumn also affect the appearance and flavour of teas. These are the main varieties of teas, each of them boasting their own flavour profile and processing methods.
Black tea is the most common type of tea. It has a dark, coppery colour with a stronger, fuller flavour compared with other teas. It’s often used in hearty breakfast blends such as English Breakfast as it stands up to added milk and sweetener. It’s also ideal for people who don’t drink coffee, as it still contains a good amount of caffeine – about half of that found in a cup of coffee.
To make black tea, tea leaves are harvested, wilted and slightly crushed before being fully oxidised. This process creates malty and tannic compounds and fruity flavours. Black tea is mainly produced in China, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam and Kenya. The Indian regions of Assam and Darjeeling produce some of the world’s most well-known black tea.
If black tea is fully oxidised, green tea is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It has a pale greenish-yellow colour with a lighter body and milder taste. It also contains half as much caffeine as black tea, about a quarter of a cup of coffee.
Green tea is harvested and then steamed or pan-fired almost immediately to destroy the enzymes that cause oxidation. This process means that a high amount of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals are preserved, making green tea one of the healthiest teas. Green tea is mainly produced in China and Japan.
Matcha is a type of green tea made from young tea leaves ground into a bright green powder. Matcha has more health benefits as you’re consuming the whole leaves rather than just the infused water. To make matcha, green tea bushes are grown in the shade which increases the amount of chlorophyll in the leaves, increasing their nutrients and giving them their bright green colour.
Oolong tea is somewhere in the middle of the oxidation spectrum. This tea can range from around 10-80% oxidation, with the leaves allowed to sit for two to four hours before being heated up to stop oxidation. A longer oxidation period results in a darker oolong which tastes more like black tea, whereas a shorter oxidation period makes it more similar to green tea. Oolong tea has a very delicate flavour and can be re-infused multiple times, with subtle differences in taste in each cup of tea. Oolong can be one of the most expensive teas, as the process of making it is complex – the leaves must be withered, kneaded, fired, rolled, dried and roasted.
Oolong teas are mostly produced in Taiwan and China. Taiwan is known for its speciality oolongs, including the coveted Milk Oolong, the bao zhong which is reminiscent of jasmine, and the richer, nuttier dong ding. In China, roasting oolong is an important skill – the teas from the Wuyi cliffs have whisky-like flavours of caramel and leather.
White tea is the least processed of all teas. Tea leaves are simply air dried which gives them a slight oxidation, resulting in a rich flavour body and subtle floral hints. In some white tea varieties, only the unopened buds and young leaves which are covered in a silvery fuzz are used. White tea has a light body and mild taste with a crisp and clean finish. It has an even lower amount of caffeine than green tea, and contains high levels of antioxidants.
White tea is mainly produced in China, in particular the Fujian province which has a rich history of producing teas for over 1,000 years. Other white teas are also produced in Nepal, Taiwan and Sri Lanka.
Pu-er tea is an aged, semi-fermented tea which originated in the city of Pu-erh in the Yunnan province of China and is still mainly produced there to this day. Pu-er tea is similar to black tea, with a brownish-black colour and a full body with a rich, earthy taste. It also contains the same amount of caffeine as black tea.
Pu-er tea is processed in a similar way to green tea. Tea leaves are harvested, then steamed or pan-fired to stop the oxidation process, before being shaped and dried. Once the leaves have been dried, they go through a fermentation process of pressing the leaves together and storing them for maturity. Sheng pu-er is made using a traditional method which is a slower, more gradual process, whereas shou pu-er is made using a faster, more modern fermentation process. Both types of pu-er take several years to age, allowing the rich, earthy flavours to develop.
Although we call them teas, herbal teas aren’t actually made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Sometimes called herbal infusions, they’re made with a blend of herbs and spices. Some of the most popular herbal teas include chamomile, lavender, peppermint and ginger. Fruit teas are made with natural, unprocessed fruits such as lemon, apple, orange, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry and peach. Herbal and fruit teas generally don’t contain any caffeine, and are high in antioxidants and vitamin C. These teas are often consumed for their medicinal properties such as aiding digestion, treating sore throats or inducing sleep and relaxation.