The different types of tea
Tea is believed to have originated in the southwest of China over 2000 years ago from the Camellia Sinensis plant. From its discovery to the present day, tea has grown and developed with thousands of different tea varieties, ways of drinking tea and rituals of preparing tea.
Although there are countless different teas across the world, they all start from the same plant – the Camellia Sinensis plant. How the tea leaves differ from one another is what happens once the tea leaves have been picked. There are many small changes that have a big impact on how the tea will look, feel and taste.
Tea is now grown all over the world, with the main tea producing countries for quantity and quality being China, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Taiwan.
Six types of tea
According to Chinese classification, there are six main types of tea:
- Black – fully oxidised, Origins: China, Africa, India, Sri Lanka
- Green – non-intentionally oxidised, Origins: China, Japan
- White – minimally processed, Origin: Fujian, China
- Yellow – ‘smothered’ green, Origins: Anhui and Sichuan, China
- Oolong – semi-oxidised, Origins: Fujian, China and Taiwan
- Pu’erh – fermented and aged, Origin: Yunnan, China
There are also scented, flavoured and spiced teas (such as Chai tea). These usually have a base lower grade black or green tea and may include natural or artificial fruit, flower or spice flavours (or pieces).
You might also be familiar with other teas such as herbal teas or tisanes. These teas although produce a tea-like flavour aren’t actual tea. Rather, they contain no tea leaves and usually use fruits, flowers or spices to create a delicious hot drink naturally caffeine free with a mild flavour.
Often when people think “tea” in Australia, they often think black tea. When you’re welcomed into a home and offered a cuppa, the chances they’re offering English Breakfast is highly likely. But, black tea doesn’t just refer to the popular Breakfast teas. Black tea consists of a huge family of teas, each with different experiences.
How is black tea made?
The process of making a black tea requires the leaves to be plucked and withered to remove any moisture. This makes the tea more malleable for it to be handled and oftentimes rolled. Rolling of black tea brings out the flavour deep in the leaf, held in the enzymes and juices.
What does black tea taste like?
Although there are many black teas, generally black tea offers a strong flavour that’s full bodied and earthy. This makes black tea delicious served with milk or plain.
Types of black tea
Black tea is grown in various regions across the globe, with each unique climate and terrain having a big impact on the flavour and experience of the cup of tea. Types of tea that are classified as ‘black tea’ include:
- China Keemun: traditional tea with sweet, malty and slightly smoky notes, reminiscent of chocolate.
- Assam: one of the most popular black teas in India, grown in the Assam region. Grown near sea level and is known for its strong malty flavour.
- Darjeeling: grown in West Bengal, India, offering a muscatel flavour that’s often described as a spicy musky taste.
- Masala chai: blends black tea leaves (commonly Assam tea leaves due to its strength) with delicious Indian spices (ginger, cloves, and cinnamon).
- Earl Grey: created in China and popularised in the UK, Earl Grey tea is black tea leaves that have been infused with bergamot oil, producing a distinct floral cup.
- Wakoucha: this is a rare Japanese black tea that holds onto the familiar sweet and earthy black tea flavour however, is more delicate and astringent.
Other black teas you might be familiar with are all of the different Breakfast teas. There is Irish Breakfast, Scottish Breakfast, English Breakfast and even our own Perth Breakfast tea (which you can purchase from our Pure Tea store!)
Due to the immense popularity of black tea, there are many different tea varieties, tea mixes and blends. With so many different black teas, we recommend trying them all to find your favourite tea!
Black tea quality
The best teas in the world are generally agreed to come from India’s Darjeeling, China’s Yunnan and Sri Lanka’s Uva provinces. Tea grown in cooler temperatures of high altitudes restricts the growth of the plant and therefore concentrates the flavour.
Each country has its own system for naming and grading black teas. The gradings are based on the quality and condition of the tea leaves themselves. The classifications below describe grading of black teas (particularly from India and Sri Lanka) in order of quality:
- D: Dust (lowest quality)
- F: Fanning
- S: Souchong
- P: Pekoe
- OP: Orange Pekoe
- BOP: Broken Orange Pekoe
- FOP: Flowery Orange Pekoe
- FBOP: Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
- GFOP: Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- TGFOP: Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- FTGFOP: Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (highest quality)
Top-quality pekoe grades consist of only the leaf buds, which are picked using the balls of the fingertips. At the lower end of the scale, fannings or tea dust are small pieces of tea that are left over after higher grades of tea are gathered to be sold.
Green tea is the second most popular tea (after black tea), having quite a complex history behind the simple tea leaves. Originating in China in approximately 1500 BC – 1046 BC. Since its discovery, green tea has rapidly spread across the globe delighting tea drinkers everywhere with its delicate flavour.
How is green tea made?
Green tea leaves are picked when they’re fully mature. Once the green tea leaves have been picked, the leaves are taken to be wilted. Some producers wilt the leaves for 24 hours, which dramatically changes the overall flavour and appearance. Afterwards, the tea leaves are steamed or fired in an oven to deactivate oxidative enzymes, which creates the green colour we see in our green tea leaves. Next, the tea leaves are laid out to dry naturally in protective beds.
What does green tea taste like?
Many tea drinkers would describe green tea as “subtle earthiness”. Although there are many different green teas, generally green tea tastes grassy, vegetal, herbaceous and – depending on the tea – aromatic.
Types of green tea
- Gunpowder: grown in China, this is one of the original teas that dates back to the Tang Dynasty 618–907. This green tea has a slightly grassy taste with a very strong and tangy aroma. Referred to as ‘gunpowder’ green tea (or ‘pearl’ tea) due to the leaf’s rolled pellet shape.
- Japanese Sencha: this is the most popular tea in Japan, with the growing regions being Shizuoka, Mie, Kagoshima, and Uji. A cup of Japanese Sencha offers a refreshing vegetal flavour with subtle notes of seaweed.
- Jasmine: grown at high elevations in the Chinese province of Fujian, Jasmine tea is renowned for its distinct aroma of jasmine blossoms. Only a small cup will release a beautiful and intoxicating scent.
- Genmaicha: this is a unique Japanese brown rice green tea that is in fact mixed with roasted popped brown rice. This was a common tea for lower classes as it was more affordable due to being a blend of both tea leaf and brown rice. The comforting taste has made it popular amongst all classes.
- Peppermint: mint tea is made by blending together green tea with dried leaves of peppermint plants, producing a minty and incredibly refreshing brew.
- Matcha: this is ground green tea leaves, made into a powder which is then brewed. You will often see matcha included on a Bubble Tea menu.
Green tea quality
Unlike black tea, green teas have no internationally recognised standard for grading. Terms such as ‘premium’ or ‘imperial’ may be used in attempts to indicate a higher grade of leaf. However, amongst high quality green tea, taste preferences are the best indication of which green tea to buy.
When choosing green tea, always purchase directly from a tea supplier if you want optimal flavour and high quality tea leaves. Purchasing green tea from the supermarket can result in low quality and out-dated tea leaves.
Harvested in the high altitudes of the Fujian province in South-East China, white tea was a delicacy that was often served to royalty during the Tang Dynasty. Due to the tea being more complex to produce, white tea was often too expensive for the middle class. White tea became synonymous with wealth and fine taste. It wasn’t until much later that white tea became more affordable, allowing everyone to enjoy the unique cup of tea.
How is white tea made?
Unlike black or green tea, white tea leaves are plucked when they’re young tea buds rather than when they have fully matured. These buds are then steamed which deactivates oxidative enzymes in the leaves, greatly impacting the colour and flavour of the tea. The white tea leaves are then dried out, which creates a white coat to form on the leaf. This process is minimal, seeking to highlight the youthful flavour in the young buds.
What does white tea taste like?
White tea tastes different compared to any other tea, offering a cup that’s delicate, slightly sweet and a little earthy however, lighter than the earthiness of a cup of green tea. Often enjoyed black (with no milk) white tea is a must-try for all tea lovers.
Types of white tea
- Baihao Yinzhen: also known as White Hair Silver Needle, this is a white tea that’s produced in the renowned Fujian Province. Amongst white teas, this is the most expensive variety, as only the top buds of the camellia sinensis plant are used to produce the tea. So, if you’re having royalty over, this is the white tea to serve to impress your guests.
- Shoumei: this white tea is commonly harvested in the home of white tea in Fujian Province as well as the Guangxi Province (China). Plucked a little later than other white teas, the cup is darker in colour and richer in flavour.
- Bai Mudan: also known as White Peony tea, Bai Mudan is often preferred by white tea drinkers for its fuller flavour and greater potency compared to even the high quality Baihao Yinzhen. Whilst many enjoy the subtleties of Baihao Yinzhen, others prefer the fullness of Bai Mudan.
White tea quality
White tea is similar to green tea in that there’s no specific grading system. Although Baihao Yinzhe has been deemed ‘superior’ than other white tea leaves, many prefer the fuller flavour of Bai Mudan. At the end of the day, it always comes down to personal taste.
For those unfamiliar with yellow tea, allow us to introduce you to this soft and earthy delicacy. Native to China, yellow tea was created from experimentation when processing green tea. However, due to yellow tea being lengthy and difficult to process, it’s less common than the similar green tea and therefore can be difficult to find outside of China.
How is yellow tea made?
Yellow tea is processed similar to green tea, however yellow tea is dried for a longer period of time and then encased and steamed. It’s in this longer drying process that turns the leaves yellow, before they’re then encased and steamed.
The drying, encasing and steaming process can be repeated several times over a few days depending on the region. The longer drying process produces a lighter and more gentle cup of tea that can be compared to green tea leaves.
What does yellow tea taste like?
Light and easy to drink, many tea drinkers enjoy a cup of yellow tea due to its mellow earthy notes. Comparable to green tea yet, more subtle and smoother. Many people who don’t enjoy green tea fall in love with yellow tea’s subtle beauty.
Types of yellow tea
- Jin Shan Yin Zhen: harvested in the Hunan province of China, this yellow tea is largely cultivated on Junshan island. The flavour can be compared to Bai Hao white teas due to its earthy sweetness. In fact, Jin Shan Yin Zhen yellow tea is often sold in China as a white tea instead of yellow.
- Huo Shan Huang Ya: this yellow tea is produced in the Huoshan County of Anhui Province in China. The appearance of the tea leaves look almost identical to the green tea leaves of Huang Shan Mao Feng. The flavour of this yellow tea has been described as sweet and nutty.
- Meng Ding Huang Ya: this is a rare yellow tea from the cloudy peak of Mt. Meng in Sichuan province, China. Producing a unique flavour of bold hazelnut with hints of vanilla bean and herbs.
Yellow tea quality
Yellow tea is the rarest category of tea in the world due to its lengthy and more complex process. Tea farmers have to be well educated on the delicate process in order to produce high quality tea otherwise the flavour can be inadequate. It’s because of this, it’s very hard to find any yellow tea outside of China.
Oolong tea, also known as “dark dragon tea”, is a traditional semi-oxidized Chinese tea that involves exposing the tea leaves to harsh sunlight before the leaves are curled. This step in the process produces a bold rich cup that shares similarities with both black and green tea. This type of tea is very popular in China and Taiwan.
How is oolong tea made?
For oolong tea, the oxidation is the most important step in the process. Oolong tea is oxidised between 80-85% depending on the type of oolong tea. Comparing this to green tea (0% oxidation) and black tea (100% oxidation), this reflects how oolong tea sits in the middle of these two popular teas. Heat is then applied to the leaves to halt the oxidation. Lastly, the leaves are lightly rolled and left to cool and dry.
What does oolong tea taste like?
Oolong tea tastes similar to both green and black tea yet, isn’t as delicate as green tea nor is it as bold and strong as black tea. Different oolong teas taste wildly different. Whilst some oolong teas can taste delicate and floral others can taste sweet and fruity. Depending on where the oolong tea has grown, will greatly impact the flavour of the cup.
Types of oolong tea
- Guangdong: also known as “phoenix tea” originates in the Guangdong Province in southern China. Full-bodied, rich and fragrant, guangdong often delights drinkers with the aroma of Chinese natives and fruits. Think: orange blossom, orchid, grapefruit, almond and ginger flower. It’s no wonder why this is the most popular oolong tea in China.
- Tieguanyin: which means “Iron Goddess of Mercy” is a famous oolong tea in China. With a long history dating back to the 19th century in Anxi in the Fujian province, this tea is processed very carefully, making it one of the most complicated teas to produce. With intricate plucking, sun withering, cooling, tossing, withering (again), fixation, rolling and drying – if the steps aren’t followed to the T (pun intended) the tea’s flavour will be impaired. The flavour, delicate and airy, is often compared to an orchid in both taste and aroma.
- Wuyi: whilst Tieguanyin is known as light, Wuyi oolong tea is known as a dark oolong tea. Due to a high oxidation level and its mineral components, a cup of wuyi oolong is smoky and bold. Harvested in the Wuyi Mountains, this tea is considered one of the most expensive teas in the world.
Oolong tea quality
High quality oolong tea is commonly sourced from China, Taiwan or Vietnam. Although there’s no specific grading as black tea has, generally you can spot high quality oolong tea by its thick and curled tea leaves as well as its beautiful rich aroma when brewed.
Pronounced “Pu-AR” , this tea is produced mainly in the Yunnan Province in China. Pu’er was originally sold as a more affordable tea for poor communities in China. Over time, Pu’erh became a rich and delicious brew that is enjoyed thoroughly amongst all households – despite their income! This is the last of the 6 Chinese pure teas and is classified as a dark tea due to the dark red colour of the brew it produces.
How is pu’erh tea made?
Pu’erh tea is unique in that it undergoes fermentation. Unlike other types of tea such as green and black which both undergo large-scale oxidation, Pu’erh tea leaves go through a microbial fermentation process after they have been dried and rolled. It’s in fermentation that causes the leaves to darken and change in flavour. Pu’erh tea is often made into ‘cakes’ allowing them to be travelled and stored easier.
What does pu’erh taste like?
Pu’erh tea often tastes earthy, woody and mushroomy. Its unique flavour often divides tea drinkers with many people loving the brew, and others hating it. However, before you make up your decision we recommend tasting a few different varieties of pu’erh tea as they can be greatly different in taste. As pu’erh tea ages, just like a fine wine, the tea transforms through various stages changing in flavour. The longer it ages, the higher quality it’s deemed.
Types of pu’erh tea
There are two major types of pu’erh tea:
- Raw pu-erh: this is a more traditional tea that undergoes a longer production process known as shēng (meaning “raw” in Chinese). Raw pu’erh is often left to age for 10 to 30 years to develop its flavour. Young raw pu’erh tea shares many similar taste notes to green tea. However, over time, it becomes more complex and richer.
- Ripe pu-erh: this is a more modernised tea that experiences an accelerated production process known as shóu (meaning “ripe” in Chinese). This process was developed in order to cater to the growing market. Although aged raw pu’erh is considered the finest form of pu’erh tea, not everyone has the time to wait around for a few decades! Ripe pu’erh undergoes an artificial fermentation process that incubates the tea in a moisture-rich environment, mimicking the ageing process. Ripe pu-erh is mellow and earthy, developing delicious stone fruit flavours over time.
Pu-erh tea quality
Although raw pu-erh tea is considered the finest amongst the two pu-erh tea types, it comes down to your personal tastes. Whilst many seek the complex brew of an aged raw pu’erh others, prefer the convenience of a cup of ripe pu’erh.
There are a number of beverages that are colloquially known as teas but are in fact not ‘true’ teas as they are not derived from the Camellia Sinensis plant. These include:
- Herbal Tisanes or Infusions – such as Lemongrass and Chamomile
- Rooibos – derived from a native South African legume
Although these ‘teas’ are delicious, they don’t contain Camellia Sinensis so therefore, aren’t really tea but tisanes.
We think it’s time for tea
We hope you learnt a thing or two about the different types of tea in the world. Although it’s always interesting reading about tea, the best way to learn about this delicious beverage is to drink! We recommend you select a tea from each category and explore the wonderfully different flavours each leaf produces.
With that said, we think it’s time for a cuppa.