TYPES OF TEA: A USER-FRIENDLY GUIDE
The beauty of tea is its nuance and contradictions. Tea is complicated, its secrets are not immediately revealing, and there are very few direct or simple answers. The information below is intended for education rather than persuasion, so we apologize if it gets a bit geeky. We hope this brings some clarity to understand and further enjoy the different types of tea you may encounter.
What is tea?
All varieties of tea are made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. This includes black tea, green tea, wulong (oolong) tea, white tea, puer (pu-erh) tea, and dark tea. The Camellia sinensis plant is native to Southeast Asia, but it’s now being cultivated in tea-friendly climates world-wide. Beverages we call “herbal tea” - peppermint, rooibos, chamomile, etc. – are not from the Camellia sinensis plant. Therefore, they are not tea in the technical sense (though we accept the phrase and don’t correct people for using it).
Why are there so many different kinds of tea?
Since all tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, the differences between the types of tea are primarily due to how they are processed after the leaves are picked. In theory, any tea plant growing anywhere can have its leaves made into any kind of tea, but this is not done in practice because geography and growing conditions are critical factors to the outcome along with local expertise.
Does tea contain caffeine?
Yes, because all tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, it all contains (roughly) the same amount of caffeine. The biggest determining factors of how much caffeine will be in your cup is how much leaf you use, how hot you steep it, and how long you steep it.
What is green tea?
Simply put, tea leaves have a green appearance. To keep that green appearance, the leaves for green tea are “fired” as the first step after they are picked off the plant. “Firing” will prevent oxidation from happening. Oxidation is a natural chemical process that turns fresh tea leaves into black tea (the same process that causes an apple to turn brown after cutting it open). A tea is “fired” by subjecting the tea leaves to a brief period of high heat to neutralize the enzymes that enable oxidation. Other types of teas go through the firing process, but green tea is the only one that goes through it as the first step.
Green tea is primarily a product of China and Japan. Chinese green teas are “pan-fired” (meaning dry heat) to prevent oxidation while Japanese green teas are “steam-fired.” These two techniques produce wildly different results and are central to each country’s signature styles. Other countries produce green teas (not all of which are bad), but they usually lack the skills that come with China and Japan’s long traditions of green tea manufacturing.
The common cup characteristics of green tea tend to be a light body with mild astringency and a vegetal/grassy flavor, but these will vary with each particular style. Green tea is often noted as having less caffeine than black tea, but this is not exactly accurate. Green tea has a tendency to become bitter and astringent, so it is usually suggested to be steeped for shorter times and at lower temperatures than black tea (which is not bad advice). This lighter steeping method will produce less caffeine in your cup. If green tea is steeped the same way as black tea, you will get as much (or more) caffeine in your cup.
What is matcha tea?
Matcha teas are a distinct style of Japanese green tea that is different in every aspect to all other teas. Matcha tea is shade grown tea (e.g., Gyokuro, Kabusecha), with the leaf matter removed from the fibrous veins and stems. This leaf material (called Tencha) is then milled between two stones until it is a fine powder called Matcha. The Matcha is then whisked into hot water where the liquor and leaf are both consumed. It is not steeped and removed from the water like traditional teas. Matcha is the tea served during the famous Japanese tea ceremony, but culinary grades are now used for all kinds of more casual purposes such as smoothies or baking.
What is black tea?
Black tea is tea leaves that have been quickly and heavily oxidized. This gives the leaf a dark appearance and significantly changes the aroma and flavor. Oxidation is the natural chemical reaction carried out by enzymes within the leaf that begin once they are exposed to air (like an apple does after being cut open). Though all teas (other than green tea) go through some degree of oxidation, black tea is the only one that is defined by its high level of oxidation.
Black tea originated in China, but its popularity in the west has made most of it destined for export. Countries that were once British colonies – mainly India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya – make almost exclusively black tea and in a style geared towards western tastes and purposes. Because of this the flavor profile tends to emphasize a strong, brisk, full-bodied cup (often with milk and sugar in mind) with varying degrees of fruitiness or maltiness. However, regional styles create such large distinctions that there is no universal black tea flavor. It’s also the most commonly used tea for blending with other ingredients into classic styles such as earl grey or masala chai.
Black teas are frequently mentioned as having the most caffeine, but that is because of the common instruction to steep with water brought to a full boil and for an extended time of up to five or six minutes. Any tea made like this will deliver a lot of caffeine in the cup.
What is chai tea?
Masala chai (or more casually shortened to “chai” in America) is the traditional drink of India and defined as a blend of black tea, milk, sugar, and spices. There is no exact recipe for how to make this, but all include those four ingredients. The word “Masala” means “blend of spices” and the ones most commonly used are ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and clove (though there are many others that might be included). In its most traditional form, the black tea, sugar, and spices are boiled in water. Then milk is added, boiled again, strained and served.
What is wulong (oolong) tea?
Wulong (oolong) tea defies a fixed definition. It is typically described as “partially oxidized tea”, which is not wrong, but it’s not a complete picture. The oxidation level does not distinguish it as “wulong” tea. It’s their similarly shared process of elaborate transformation (withering, shaking, pan-firing, rolling, drying, baking) that put these otherwise disparate group of teas under the same name.
There are four separate regions that produce commonly recognized wulong tea. Each has its own distinct style that it owes mostly to local techniques and traditions. The four regions (and their most popular styles) are Wuyi Rock Tea, Anxi Tieguanyin, Guangdong Dan Cong, and Taiwan (various styles). This is not a complete list. There are many more lesser-known styles not listed here. These teas bear little or no resemblance to each other, because each region will emphasize different aspects of the process. Many teas labeled “oolong tea” from outside these regions usually refer to partially-oxidized tea and do not share other aspects of the wulong process. These teas should be judged on their own individual merits. The proper pinyin spelling is “wulong” tea, but it is more common in English to see it spelled “oolong tea” and they mean the same thing.
All Chinese and Taiwan wulong tea varieties are traditionally made using the gongfu style - large amounts of leaf in smaller steeping vessels (usually a gaiwan) for many short steeps. Though gongfu is largely unfamiliar in the west, we highly recommend it for wulong teas (and other Chinese tea types). It’s not to be taken too serious or ceremonial. It’s a lot of fun and anyone can do it.
What is white tea?
White tea is minimally processed, so it’s better defined by what it is not. It is not “fired” like green tea, but it is not intentionally oxidized like black tea. There is no rolling or shaping of the leaf, so the finished product will be big, bulky, dried leaves. The only deliberate action taken upon the tea leaves is a slow and methodical drying to reduce moisture and achieve a desired aroma and flavor. This simplicity limits it to only three different styles: Bai Hao Yin Zhen (“Silver Needles”), Bai Mu Dan (“White Peony”), and Shou Mei.
White tea often is described as “delicate”, but our experience does not bear this out. White tea is actually quite forgiving and can be steeped in almost any manner you see fit. It does not easily become bitter or astringent so there’s no need to be overly gentle. The flavors tend to range from bright/fruity/herbaceous for the less oxidized versions to spicy/nutty/woodsy for something more oxidized.
White tea (like green tea) is also commonly advertised as having less caffeine than other types of tea. This is not accurate. Like any other tea, the amount of caffeine in your cup is primarily dependent on how hot you steep it and how long you steep it. Many tea sellers suggest very low temperatures and short steeping times for white tea, which would greatly reduce the caffeine in your cup.
What is Puer (Pu-erh) tea?
Puer (Pu-erh) tea is the only style defined by geography. It all comes from a southern region of Yunnan province, because the local cultivars and growing conditions cannot be separated from its identity.
Puer tea can come in a loose or compressed version of two basic styles:
- Sheng (“Raw”) Puer: This is a simple, non-oxidized tea whose finished product will change over time because it is air-dried as the final step. This will enable it to continue a very slow process of bacterial and enzymatic fermentation that is outside the bounds of deliberate tea manufacturing processes. To highlight this, sheng puer is often marketed by the year it is made. Young puer tea tends to have a profile of wild fruit and grain (emphasis on “wild”). Older sheng puer profiles depend completely on the conditions of which it is aged, but in many cases it becomes more wild, earthy, and rustic (emphasis again on “wild”) in otherwise unachievable ways.
- Shu (“Ripe) Puer: This tea starts out as sheng puer, but then goes through a deliberate “post fermentation” process to mimic and accelerate the kind of changes that happen in sheng puer from a period of many years to six weeks. The outcome is earthy and smooth, but with a leathery, compost, barnyard character (and we mean this with sincere flattery) that some find to be an acquired taste.
Puer tea is difficult to summarize and we suggest you read our blog on Puer for a more detailed description. The proper pinyin spelling is “Puer”, but in the west you will often see it spelled as “Pu-erh” or “Puerh.” These different spellings are all referring to the same thing and don’t signify anything beyond identification.
What is dark tea?
Though dark tea can refer to any tea type that undergoes a “post fermentation” process (like puer tea), we are associating it here with the pile-fermented tea from Hunan province. Hunan dark tea has a long history going back to the trading routes of the ancient tea horse road/silk road. Similar to shu puer, this added step of pile fermentation uses finished tea leaves that are heaped up into piles, wetted, and covered. The applied heat and moisture are carefully monitored and used to facilitate beneficial bacterial growth in the process. After fermentation, Hunan dark teas are finished off by pine fire drying and then typically compressed into bricks, logs, coins, and other shapes. These teas (like puer teas) will age well and change in profile over the course of years.
Hunan dark teas tend to have a mildly sweet, pine/hay-like flavor without any heavy smokiness (like smoked lapsang souchong) that you may expect from the description above. Like puer, it is often made gongfu style to yield many steepings, but it’s versatile enough to cooperate with your favorite tea steeping method.
What is herbal tea?
“Herbal tea” is a catch-all phrase applied to products that are steeped in a manner similar to tea, but are not from the Camellia sinensis plant. This can include any number of plants such as chamomile, peppermint, rooibos, lavender, hibiscus, ginger, etc. – some of which are enjoyed by themselves or blended together with other products. Since these products are not related to the tea plant, the vast majority of them do not contain caffeine (yerba mate and guayusa are exceptions and both contain caffeine). They also do not share the same elaborate processing techniques that give tea its unique transformation. Herbal products are often referred to as “tisanes”, which is a French word meaning “beverage made from herbal infusion.”