There are six main types of tea on the market — green, yellow, white, oolong, red, and black — and they all come from one plant: Camellia sinensis. If it doesn’t come from Camellia sinensis, it’s not technically tea. That might sound controversial, since drinks made from infused leaves — such as chamomile or chrysanthemum — are still called tea… but they’re not. Now you know.
Before we begin it is important to understand what makes tea, tea. How come you can brew Camellia sinensis and get a flavor, but if you brew a maple leaf you can’t? The answer is enzymes. In the Camellia sinensis plant there are six enzymes. As soon as the leaf is picked, oxidation triggers a metabolic process that breaks down these enzymes. In tea language, this is “fermentation.” The different types of teas, and the different flavors, are closely linked with manipulating these enzymes and controlling how and when they break down.
Green tea is made by exposing the Camellia sinensis leaf to high heat right away. Imagine a man sitting in front of a giant wok pushing around tea leaves with his bare hands for around 45 minutes. The wok is burning at 200 degrees Celsius and the only thing between his bare hand and this wok is a small pile of leaves. The high heat of the wok stops the enzymes in the tea leaf from breaking down, thus keeping the green tea leaf in the closest state as when it was picked off the plant. This results in a light and refreshing liquid with lots of complexity.
Famous examples of green tea are Hou Kui, Long Jing, and Bi Luo Chun. (Refresh your memory by clicking on my previous column, 10 Chinese Teas You Have to Know.)
Yellow tea is probably the least known of the teas, examples being the Junshan Yinzhen (Silver Needle Yellow tea) and Huang Ya. For yellow tea, the leaf starts off exposed to high heat right away, but it is then taken off the heat and left in small piles to promote a little enzyme breakdown. As the amount of enzymes broken down in this step is very small, it is referred to as micro-fermentation. The resulting flavor is very close to, and often confused with, green tea, and is differentiated by a slightly bolder and less complex flavor.
White tea is the most natural tea, and the only one that is never exposed to high heat. Instead, the tea is laid out to dry under the sun for around 55 hours. It is important to watch the amount of sun the leaves get: too much and they will burn; not enough and they won’t dry out. Watching my white-tea-farming friend make his tea was one of the most peaceful moments in my life. We sat in the afternoon sun, in front of his house, looking out over the drying tea leaves and the valley of mountains below. Every now and then the most senior tea maker would say something and everyone would get up to move the tea leaves a few feet over, so as to catch more rays. Then they would sit down again, chatting and smoking cigarettes, but always on the lookout. This is white tea making: relaxed but focused.
Oolong (or wulong, i.e. black dragon) is one of the misunderstood teas. It is often described as “half-fermented,” but the truth is there’s no set length of fermentation that’s required. What makes an oolong a oolong is the shaking and resting. Let me explain. After being picked, the tea is jostled in a machine or on a large tray before being laid out to rest. This process is repeated numerous times. Farmers must constantly smell and feel the tea to see if it’s ready. Oolong requires constant supervision, which means oolong farmers get very little sleep during tea season. The result is a beverage with unmatched unmatched floral aromas.
Famous oolongs are Wuyi Yan Cha (rock oolong), Tie Guan Yin, and Feng Huang Dan Cong.
Red tea — known in the West as “black tea” for reasons that aren’t fully understood — is made by rolling tea leaves before letting them sit in piles until they fully ferment. All the enzymes break down and then they are baked to remove excess moisture. The environment is controlled so that the moisture and heat of these piles are kept at an optimal level. The result is a tea that is smooth and sweet, with notes of berries and honey. Famous red teas include Qimen red tea, Dian Hong, and Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong.
These teas are post-fermented. What that means is: after the tea leaf has been exposed to high heat, into what can be drinkable tea, they are put into large piles. This facilitates the growth of specific bacteria that produces the deep dark flavor of these teas. The piling is similar to red teas, but in this case the piles are much larger, and while red tea stays in a pile for hours, black tea stays in these piles for days and months. The piles are much larger not only because production is usually larger; since we’re dealing with a finished tea, there is a much smaller chance that something will go wrong, so they don’t need to be watched as closely. Since bacteria is still found in the finished tea, black teas are known not only for their ability to age but also for their probiotic benefits. Famous black teas include Shou pu’er, Lubao, and Liu An.
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