The Four Basic Types of Tea
There are many ways to clasify teas. Generally teas are categorized as white, green, oolong and black based on their color, method of processing and the color and flavor of the resulting tea when infused.
For detailed classification of Chinese teas please read this article.
There is only tea plant, Camellia Senensis. Believe it or not, the same plant produces all the variations of black, green, white and oolong teas. The only differences are in the processing methods. These differences account for over two thousand types of teas available today.
Here is a summary of the processing used to create the various types of teas:
1. White Teas: These are the least processed teas and great care is taken as to plucking only the youngest and finest leaves for making white tea. Production of these teas occurs in only two steps: steaming and drying. The absence of the other steps in the tea making process leave these teas essentially unaltered from the moment of picking.
White tea has also been recently shown to possess a huge amount of anti-oxidants (up to 50 times that found in green tea according to the Linus Pauling Institute). These help in fighting damage to body cells and in staying healthy. (Most body cell damage is caused by oxidation, which anti-oxidants help guard against and repair.)
2. Green Teas: The beneficial, active substances in fresh tea leaves are preserved so they may be released into the cup during infusion.
After the green leaves are picked, they are spread out in the air to dry and wither. This makes them soft and pliable so they can be pan-fried, to prevent oxidation through fermentation. The leaves are then rolled in twists, curls or balls for packaging. Finally, the leaves are dried by firing. This bakes in the natural fragrances and flavors while retaining all the nutrients, mineral and natural anti-oxidants.
3. Oolong Teas: Oolong teas are partially fermented Chinese Teas, giving rise to a characteristic color and flavor somewhere between green and black teas. To make an oolong tea, after plucking the tea leaves are spread out in direct sunlight where they wither to reduce their moisture content and soften the leaves. The leaves are then shaken in bamboo baskets to bruise the leaf edges, after which they are laid out in the shade to dry. This process is repeated many times, to allow the leaves to ferment and turn red. The oxidation process affects only the bruised edges while the centers remain green.
The actual amount of fermentation during this “semi-fermentation” process varies by region and type of oolong and is a closely guarded secret for quite a few producers. The variation in fermentation can be between 20% for a “green” oolong to 60% for a classic Formosa. The process is stopped by pan-firing the leaves at high temperatures which locks in the characteristics of the tea. This process also produces tea with a longer shelf life than green and white teas.
4. Black Teas: Black teas, unlike green and oolong teas, get completely fermented which ensures full oxidation. In the process, the leaves turn black and gain their characteristic flavor. The leaves are initially withered for a longer period of time to lose most of their moisture. The leaves are then rolled, during which process they are broken to release their aroma. Next, the leaves are spread in layers to oxidize.
During oxidation, the leaf color darkens and the tea becomes more mature in flavor. Characteristic flavors are also released during this step. When these have fully developed, the leaves are fired in large ovens to stabilize their flavors. This allows the tea to last a long while and retain its freshness until exposed to boiling water. At the final stage, the final black teas are sorted and separated by size and whether they are whole leaf, broken leaves or fannings (smallest sized particles – suitable for tea bags). They are then rated for quality.
Recent research shows that black teas are helpful in reducing cholesterol of between 7 and 11 percent. This rigorous study was conducted by scientists at the US. Department of Agriculture (see our tea health guide section).
5. Blended Teas (and Chais): Different teas may be blended together to yield a new taste, or pieces of fruit, spices and other natural flavors (such as essential oils from fruit and spices) may be blended with teas to create flavored tea blends.
Chais are flavorful Assam teas which contain spices or pieces of fruit. They are traditionally consumed at double-strength with a good amount of milk and sugar. However, people have reported enjoying them as is, straight or with a drop of honey, made at regular strength.
Flavored tea blends usually use Nilgiri teas. These are smooth-tasting and do not cloud when iced, thus making them conducive to making iced teas which are clear. They generally contain piece of fruit or spices, or essential oils to give them strong, robust flavors.
6. Organic Teas: Organic teas are teas which are naturally grown without pesticides, herbicides or harm to the environment. They are Certified Organic, and also Fair Trade certified. Organic Certification is performed by an independent third-party organic certifying agency. This means every aspect of the cultivation, handling and packaging of our teas is carefully inspected to insure the authenticity of our promise of organic integrity.
More than a catch-all phrase, Fair Trade certification translates into guaranteed fair wages while providing an additional premium paid directly to tea estate workers-steps that provide access to better housing, healthcare and education for tea growing communities.
7. Herbal Teas: Herbal teas are made without the use of tea plant leaves (camellia senensis). They are rather based on various plants such as chamomile, mint, rooibus and honeybush along with natural flavorings extracted from fruit or freshly ground spices.
Popular herbal teas are Chamomile, Mint, Lemongrass and Rooibos. Rooibos in particular is a red tea which is caffeine-free, from South Africa. It is used widely in making flavored blends of herbal and other flavorings.