Different Types of Tea: A Comprehensive Guide
Do you like tea? Of course you do. Even if it’s not, like, your thing, I refuse to believe you haven’t at some point, perhaps in a period of illness or congestion, taken a deep whiff of a fragrant cup of tea someone has made and brought over to you on the couch, and not appreciated its soothing succor.
Tea is a magnificent drink. Though it has only a third or so the caffeine of coffee, it offers a more gentle path to a morning jolt, allowing you to drink more and more often-especially good as most tea leaves can be steeped several times before depleting their flavor. Different types of tea are also rich in a substance called l-theanine, an amino acid that studies have linked with feelings of calm and well being. The science is far from conclusive, but with a minimum of hand-waving, I’ll tell you what I tell the people who attend my tea talks and classes: good tea makes you feel amazing.
There are many different types of tea, but they all come from the same plant. The different flavors come from the way the plant is processed. You can group most teas into a few categories based on how they are processed. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of tea.
Just like slicing open an apple, plucking a tea leaf starts the clock on a complex set of oxidative and enzymatic reactions that ends with brown plant tissue and distinctly different flavors and aromas from when the leaf was first picked. The goal of making green tea is to halt these reactions as quickly as possible, preserving the leaf’s vegetal flavor. Green teas can taste like sweet peas, fresh cut grass, gently toasted hazelnut, and even brackish seaweed floating in broth. Quality greens are intensely aromatic and sweet on the tongue.
There is a lot of buzz around green tea’s health benefits, which are said to be thanks to the greater share of antioxidants preserved in the leaf by halting oxidation quickly. However, I’m not entirely convinced yet. Plus, the claim that green tea has less caffeine than other types is bogus. Caffeine is present in all teas from Camellia sinensis; the exact amount is determined by a host of factors that hardly touch on processing. So drink green tea because you enjoy the taste.
I love the deep umami sweetness of Japanese sencha and gyokuro, as well as the light Chinese bi luo chun and tai ping hou kui. The large leaves of the latter are pressed flat like a bookmark, making it a truly alluring tea.
If you let fresh tea leaves oxidize all the way, then proceed with drying them, you’ll get the opposite of green tea: black tea. That oxidation, along with careful rolling and kneading of the leaves, develops malty and tannic compounds along with fruity and chocolate flavors.
Many tea drinkers find that they enjoy black tea more when drinking it on an empty stomach, as the stronger flavors and fuller body can stand up to milk, sugar, honey, and spices. Additionally, the processing of black tea leads to a beverage that is robust and flavorful, making it the perfect candidate for jam or honey.
British people in the 19th century preferred black tea from China because it was less likely to mold on long ocean voyages, and when planters in British colonies in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya struggled to figure out how to process all the tea they’d stolen from China and conscripted natives to plant on their home soil, black tea was the style they converted to mass production.
Different types of oolong tea can vary significantly in flavor and aroma, depending on the specific processing methods used. This makes oolong tea something of a culinary art form- it takes time and practice to perfect the steps involved in making this type of tea.
The complexity and poorly understood nature of this category in the West means there is no one word to describe it in English. The Mandarin “wu long” is translated to “dark dragon,” a reference to the serpentine shape of certain oolong tea styles made in Fujian Province.
Taiwan’s high mountain oolongs are strikingly green, but the tiny nudges of oxidation that have taken place have transformed their crisp and grassy flavors into creamy, buttery ones with a strong floral lilt. The delicate bao zhong from the north of the island is intensely redolent of jasmine, while older styles like dong ding and tieguanyin are more oxidized and consequently nutty, trading the high aromatics of their less oxidized peers for richer body and a long lasting finish.
In China, roasting oolong is a highly skilled process that results in smoky, whisky-like flavors of caramel, leather, and a touch of mineral brine.
Where oolongs are all about intensive processing, white teas are about simplicity and letting nature take its course. Plucked tea leaves are air dried with minimal processing, either in the sun or with powerful air vents. As they dry, the leaves undergo a slight oxidation, developing a rich, creamy body and subtle floral flavors. With the exception of coarser leaf grades like gong mei and shou mei, white teas are pretty delicate.
The delicate flavor of unopened buds makes silver needle tea unique and incomparable to any other tea. With a marshmallowy sweetness and the aroma of fresh linens, this tea is perfect for those who appreciate the finer things in life. Bai mu dan, also called white peony, has a more overtly floral flavor that will tantalize your taste buds.