All tea types come from the evergreen plant Camellia Sinensis. This incredible plant has hundreds of varietals that are carefully processed to produce a vast array of teas for our drinking pleasure. Different types of Camellia suit varying climates and processing techniques. Small changes in soil and sunlight levels affect the flavour of the tea in the same way that wine is affected by terroir. Tea is usually categorised by type - the main production methods which result in White, Green, Yellow, Oolong, Black and Puerh teas. These teas are processed using certain methods, but the end result is ultimately determined by the skill, technique and art of the tea growers and masters who create them.
White teas come from fine young buds and leaves that are withered in natural sunlight. They are carefully dried at low temperature to avoid oxidization of the leaves and help seal in the fresh and delicate characteristics of the tea. The name derives from the delicate silver-white hairs on the immature buds of the plant which are hand-picked during a short period of time in early spring. White tea is the least processed of any tea type. It is considered to contain the highest level of anti-oxidants and provide a wide range of health benefits. It also contains the lowest levels of caffeine of all the tea varieties. The two notable varieties of white tea are Silver Needle and White Peony.
The most prized green teas are picked in early spring and left to wither on bamboo trays. The leaf is then heated in a wok or machine. This firing process kills the enzymes inside the leaves (known as the 'kill green' process) and helps to preserve the natural flavours present in the tea. After the initial firing, the leaf is rolled to expose the moisture held deep inside the leaves before being fired again. As the leaves are not oxidized they retain their natural green colour. Green teas are grown in many regions of China, notable areas include Hunan, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Fujian Province.
A special tea processed in a similar manner to green tea, but it undergoes a slower drying phase, where the damp leaves are allowed to undergo a small amount of oxidization.. The tea has a very yellow-green appearance and a different aroma from both white tea and green tea. Produced mainly in Hunan, Anhui and Sichuan provinces.
Oolong (also called wulong or wu long) is a semi-oxidized type of tea that falls in the range between green (non-oxidized) and black (fully oxidized) tea. They are produced from a number of long leaf varieties of Camellia Sinensis that encompass an abundant range of aroma and taste from light and fragrant to dark and smoky. Older leaves are picked, then withered and tossed in a bamboo drum to encourage them to bruise and oxidize. Once the required level is reached the tea is fired in large pans to prevent any further oxidization. Some oolongs, such as Tie Guan Yin and Li Shan are then hand rolled while others, such as Dan Cong and Oriental Beauty, are twisted. The tea is then given a final baking to reduce the moisture content. The duration and level of these firings will determine the taste of the tea. Oxidization levels can range from approximately 10% to 80%.
The principal growing regions for oolong are Fujian, Wuyi, Anxi, Guangdong and other areas of southern China. In Taiwan notable growing regions include Alishan and Lishan.
Black tea, often known as Hong Cha (red tea) is fully oxidized. After picking the leaves are withered before being rolled to aid oxidization.This slow and careful process turns the leaf from green in colour to varying shades of deep red or black. A final firing will halt the oxidization process and reduce the moisture content in the leaf. Black teas can be stored for a number of years, with finer teas developing nuances of flavour over time.
Black teas are widely produced but main areas include Yunnan, Anhui and Fujian.
Puerh (also known as Pu-erh, Puer, Bolay) is a fermented tea produced from large leaf varietals of Camellia Sinensis grown in Yunnan Province. There are two forms of puerh tea - raw (sheng) and ripe (cooked or shou). Raw puerh is the traditional form - the freshly picked leaves are sun dried, fired to prevent oxidization and left to age. This leaf, known as Mao Cha can be left loose, or compressed into differing sized cakes, bricks, mushrooms or bowl shapes known as tuocha. The tea master will also blend leaves from different growing regions and vintages to specific recipes before pressing. Through ageing, good quality teas can develop like fine wine vintages over time. Young puerh is also enjoyed for its aromatic and complex qualities.
Ripe puerh is a recent invention from the 1970's that imitates the conditions to mimic the result of the aging process by prolonged bacterial and fungal fermentation in a warm humid environment . The mao cha undergoes a technique known as 'wet piling' which involves piling, dampening, and turning the tea leaves to ensure even fermentation in a process that is similar to composting. This process can last approximately 60 days. It takes great skill, craft and knowledge to achieve the right fermentation and not let the leaves start decomposing. The Mao Cha is then sorted into different grades. Some is sold loose while other tea is blended to formulas.
Yunnan Province is the home of puerh. The tea is widely grown and produced across the region. The Six Famous Tea Mountains in Xishuangbanna is probably the best known. Other notable areas include Menghai, Nannuo and Jingmai that produce individual and unique tasting teas.
Puerh is a fascinating and huge subject. There are many information sites worth exploring on the internet that go into great detail about the production methods, vintages and growing areas.