All Different Types of Tea, All from the Same Plant
It’s amazing what one plant is capable of! Many people wonder about the variations of tea and ask “is the difference between tea just different plants used?” While it’s not such a silly question to ask, the answer is no; all types of tea come from the same species of plant!
Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis
Camellia Sinensis, an evergreen shrub species, is a plant whose leaves and buds are used to make the varying types of tea. The genus, Camellia, translates in Latin to “tea flower” and the latter of its name, Sinensis, translates to “from China.” Native to east and southeast Asia, the plant thrives in tropical to subtropical climate conditions and typically at high elevation. However, Camellia sinensis is such a capable plant that it’s grown all over the world.
Because Camellia sinensis can endure a range of climate conditions and soil, it’s hardiness zone falls between 7-9. To better understand the importance of a hardiness zone, let’s break it down a little bit. Hardiness zones are used by geographers to track minimum temperatures in a given country or continent. According to Wikipedia, factors analyzed to determine minimum annual temperatures, thus hardiness zones, are a country or continents “elevation, latitude and proximity to the coast.” To learn what hardiness zone you live in, check out these zoning maps for USA, Canada, and Europe!
Identifying the Leaves
Camellia sinensis is quite beautiful; leaves 1-6 inches long and .79- nearly 2 inches broad, the plant can grow to the heights of trees. However, for manufacturing purposes, the plants are kept at knee height so hand (or machine) plucking is done with ease. Observing the color of the leaves on a single plant can help one indicate the age of each leaf. Light green leaves signify a young leaf. Further, noticeable tiny white hairs can be found in places that the young leaf is exposed to little sunlight. A darker green signifies an older leaf, containing different compounds and a different flavor. The flavor a tea producer is aiming for can weigh heavily on the type of leaf plucked, but both young and old leaves are used in tea production.
Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica
You may have heard about Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica before and wondered it’s relation to Camellia Sinensis var. sinensis. Don’t let it confuse you; there are two varieties of this evergreen that grow, hence the “var.” for varieties. Sinensis translates to “from China”, whereas Assamica is native to India (Assam Valley is located in India.) Think of the two Camellia Sinensis varieties as one being a green apple and the other a red apple. While they are categorized similarly, they are important to differentiate. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis has been steeped and enjoyed as a tea for thousands of years, whereas Camellia sinensis var. assamica had only gained popularity and serious acknowledgment since the late 1800’s. For more information about the history of Assam tea, check out our article Assam Tea: History, Production, and Health Benefits.
Types of Tea Made from Camellia Sinensis
A common follow up question when one learns that all tea comes from the same plant is “then how can one plant make all the different types of tea?” It all boils down to manufacturing methods. Manufacturing can manipulate caffeine levels, antioxidant levels, and obviously the taste of the tea. While there are six types of tea, there are hundreds of different teas that fall under one of the six categories. For example, not all green tea tastes vegetal and not all oolong teas are in tiny pellets like Iron Goddess. Each variety of tea has it’s own color, flavor, and aroma that can be altered from year to year when changes in climate occur. What gives each tea its own characteristic comes down to the way the leaves are processed.
Next, we’ll go into each type of tea so we can lay manufacturing differences and profiles out on the table.
Generally speaking, white tea is made using young leaves with little or no drying and oxidation.
Drying varies, but it’s important to note that white tea undergoes 1) little drying without additional processing, 2) plucking the leaves of plants whose buds have not reached full blooming and shortly after plucking, are left to dry in sunlight, or 3) immediately fired/steamed before they’re able to dry. Each drying method can alter the teas taste and appearance so much, thus the different types of white tea. No matter the drying method, white tea never undergoes oxidation, which is why it’s considered the lightest and least manipulated of all tea types of tea. As a result, the flavor is very light, heavy in antioxidants, and low in caffeine.
Oxidation is the process of spreading plucked tea leaves across a surface so that excess water and oxygen are reduced or removed. A reaction referred to as enzymatic oxidation takes place at this time, which is responsible for the browning of the tea often seen in fruits and vegetables. White teas are almost never left to oxidize which produces a most natural, pure tea taste and liquor.
White Tea Profile
Though named white tea, it’s liquor color is faint yellow with little clouding in the cup. As previously mentioned, young leaves show tiny white hairs and white tea is the least manipulated category of tea, which is why it’s referred to as white tea. Notice the appearance of a white tea you are sipping on, how it looks as if it were just plucked and the color of the leaf has been contained by the manufacturer. The taste of white tea is very light and easy to sip; the least manipulated by manufacturing, the flavor is delicate, perhaps naturally sweet, with no bitterness or astringency. What you should not notice with white tea is a smokey profile, as it has not been through the process of firing/steaming.
Green tea undergoes drying and oxidation, however, the levels of drying and oxidation vary greatly depending on the flavor that is being sought out by the manufacturer.
There are two common methods used to dry tea leaves. Sun-drying, which is considered an artisanal method or the modern method, oven-drying. Sun drying lets nature do the work; by laying the leaves out under the sun or spreading them out in a cool, shaded room, moisture escapes the leaves and allows them to wilt. Letting the tea wilt breaks down the proteins contained within the leaf and frees amino acids. This process increases the tea leafs output of caffeine, and through cause and effect, changes the taste of the tea. Oven-drying is used to speed this process when dealing with a high quantity of tea leaves. It allows a manufacturer to work through a large crop quickly without compromising the leaves. Green tea is allowed to dry, but much chlorophyll remains within green tea so drying is not to be overdone.
Another indicator of the profound green color that most green teas possess is that very little oxidation has taken place. White and green teas are the least oxidized teas of all the tea types. What’s important to distinguish is the difference between Chinese green teas and Japanese green teas.
Chinese Green Tea
China is responsible for making around 80% of the world’s green tea. What makes Chinese green tea different from Japanese green tea is the methods used to dry the tea leaf. Chinese teas are pan-fired to stop the oxidation process. What this means is that the leaves are introduced to a heat source and by firing the leaves over a fire or in an oven, the heat traps the chlorophyll and oxygen that remains. Chinese tea profiles include a more earthy taste, due to being fired and introduced to smoke. Chinese tea also tends to be darker, less vibrant green than Japanese tea.
However, it’s important to note that there is no exact rule of thumb when processing teas. Some Chinese teas are extremely green and it’s easy to mistake them for Japanese teas. There are Chinese teas on the market that have been steamed and can taste more grassy than earthy. The methods used by every manufacturer vary, but traditionally and profoundly common to Chinese teas is the pan-firing method for drying and discontinuing oxidation.
Japanese Green Tea
Japan makes up for 7% of the world’s green tea market and for good reason! Japan is the birthplace of matcha; loose leaf finely ground into powder form. Beautifully vibrant in color, matcha popularity is growing extremely fast although it has been around for a long time! Matcha aside, Japan is the second greatest exporter of green tea. What makes Japanese green tea unique and different from Chinese green tea is their method of steaming rather than pan-firing. By steaming the leaves, water vapor is the heat source used to trap chlorophyll and oxygen within the leaf. If you’ve tried Japanese Green teas, like Sencha for example, then you’ve definitely noticed it’s more grassy, vegetal taste! Japan aims for this and steams the leaves immediately after plucking in order to achieve this signature taste.
Commonly overlooked, but significant to include is the category of yellow tea.
Rare and expensive, yellow tea is produced similar to green tea but includes an additional processing step called men huan, or “sealing yellow”. Before being introduced to charcoal drying, the tea leaves are draped in a damp cloth or placed under a mat, allowing slow oxidation to occur. Sometimes taking up to three days, this is very specific to creating the yellow leaf profile. The sweltering draws the aroma back into the buds, transforming the chlorophyll, amino acids, and polyphenols within the leaf and gives yellow tea it’s distinct mellow taste. Once sweltered, the tea is heated in a closed container. This depletes the leaves of oxygen and changes them from green to yellow in color.
This category of tea is complex and across-the-board. In between green teas and black teas, oxidation for oolong teas range anywhere from 8%-80% depending on the manufacturer.
Because the oxidation of oolong teas vary so much, there’s not a distinctive color, taste, or appearance that identifies them easily. The taste can be very light and vegetal like green tea or earthy and woody similar to that of black tea. A green oolong is going to be less oxidized than a black oolong, resulting in a profile similar to green teas. Something worth noting that sets oolong tea apart from other types of tea is the shape of the tea.
Production steps previously mentioned such as withering and drying are used to create oolong teas. However, additional steps to achieve the shape of oolong teas are what put them in a category of their own. Oolong tea leaves are typically pellet shaped, twisted, rolled, curled, or formed into thin strands.
The desired shape of the tea is reached in a process known as rolling. Lightly rolling the tea leaves in a basket or machine break up the cell walls and initiate bruising and browning. Oxidation simultaneously takes place because the breaking up of the cell wall releases enzymes within the leaf and exposes them to oxygen. However, a manufacturer may be producing an oolong tea that’s shape does not need to be pellet-like, but rather twisted or curled. Achieving twisted or curled tea leaves takes less rolling, therefore less oxidation of the tea leaf occurs. The different shapes of oolong tea directly correlate to their varying levels of oxidation.
In order to prevent further oxidation, the leaves must be dried in order to “finish” the tea. There are several drying methods used such as sunning, air drying, panning, or baking the leaves. No matter the method used, drying the leaves create new flavor compounds and can alter the taste of the oolong tea being created. To create and maintain the shape of an oolong tea, manufacturers bake the leaves, “cooking” them into form.
The unfolding of the tea leaves in hot water is an expression referred to as “agony of the leaves”. Oolong teas are the greatest to use for this fun observing experience; because they are rolled, twisted, curled, or pellet-like, watching them unfurl is a real treat!
Black teas are allowed to fully oxidize which makes them distinguishable and dark in color.
A process not yet mentioned is known in the industry as “disruption” or “leaf maceration”. During disruption, black tea leaves are torn and bruised to speed up oxidation by crushing, rolling, and kneading the tea. The juices and enzymes within are released and activate further oxidation, contributing to a change in taste.
Black Tea Production Methods
Two production methods are used to process black teas; the Orthodox method and the CTC method.
Orthodox black teas endure further rolling either by hand or on a mechanical rolling table. The deck of the table moves in circular movements and presses on the leaves spread on the table-top. The result is a mix of broken and whole leaves that are sorted, further oxidized, and dried. Orthodox tea leaves are stripped and come in bigger pieces than CTC black tea leaves.
CTC (crush, tear, curl) black teas are typically made for tea bags due to their highly minced profile. The contra-rotating machine has round rollers whose surfaces are covered in tiny, sharp teeth. The black tea runs through these rollers and the teeth cut, tear, and curl the tea into tiny pieces.
Dark Teas, such as Pu-erh, undergo a second oxidation after the tea leaves have been dried and rolled.
Dark tea starts off as a raw product called “máochá” which translates to “crude tea” (like crude oil). In this form, it can be sold as is or pressed into shape and sold as “shēngchá.”
Both forms are microbially fermented, allowing mold, yeast, and bacteria to grow on the tea. The process called “wòduī” is an accelerated fermentation, turning the tea into “shúchá.” A controversial process among traditionalists, wòduī has been adopted by several tea gardens and factories. The controversy surrounds this rushed process versus letting the tea age and ferment at a natural pace. In order to press the tea into shape and prevent the tea from crumbling, the dry tea is steamed in cans to make it softer and sticky. Once pressed, the tea is placed on shelves and left to air dry for several weeks and sometimes several months.
When ready to be packed and sold, dark tea is compressed into all different shapes and sizes; round, flat, disc or pucked-shaped, rectangular, etc. Shúchá, or dark tea, is formed into any given shape for convenient transportation or based on the manufacturers region and tradition.
Summary of All Types of Tea
To summarize the six categories of teas discussed, here is a quick guide you can reference in the future:
White Tea: little wilting and drying, no oxidation, low caffeine
Green Tea: little wilting and drying, pan-fired (Chinese) or steamed (Japanese) to stop oxidation, low to medium caffeine
Yellow Tea: little wilting and drying, little oxidation, smothered in cloth and allowed to yellow, low to medium caffeine
Oolong Tea: wilted, bruised, partially-to-considerably oxidized depending on desired oolong (green or black), rolled into shape, medium to high caffeine
Black Tea: wilted, fully oxidized, cut and sometimes crushed using Orthodox or CTC methods, high caffeine
Dark Tea: wilted, fully oxidized, compressed into shape, left to ferment/compost, high caffeine
We hope this information helps you feel better informed and further intrigued by tea. We suggest referring to this material while you taste all the different types of tea! If and when you do, partaking in a Gongfu ceremony is the ideal approach. Steeping, tasting, and comparing teas in a cupping session will serve your knowledge of tea very well.