Previously, we discussed the history of tea and brewing. Today, we'll explore the five main varieties of tea.
It may all come from one plant, the Camillia senensis bush,* but tea in China comes in five different varieties, each quite different from the next—differences that are noticeable even to the newest tea drinker. From the vacuum flask of crisp, light emerald Dragonwell tea that accompanies every Beijing taxi driver on his daily rounds to the earthy-tasting amber liquor of pu'er tea served during a dim sum meal, it's pretty easy to tell your green teas from your dark teas, but it's also useful to recognize different teas within the same variety.
ferment - The process of oxidizing tea leaves, bruising them so the sap is exposed to oxygen, is referred to (not entirely accurately) as fermenting. I use oxydizing here. Note that the dark tea process of fermentation by microbes, called "post-fermentation," is a completely different process.
infusion - When the tea is brewed in water, it's referred to as an infusion. Many teas can be infused multiple times—a good way to enjoy multiple cups while getting less caffeine.
liquor - Post-infusion, the resultant tea is called the liquor.
Tea Brewing Notes
The times, temperatures and methods given below are general guidelines. Adding more tea leaves and increasing the brew time will make a stronger, more caffeinated cup and leaves brewed for a shorter amount of time can take multiple infusions (be brewed multiple times). Test different methods to see what works best for you. The following instructions are for loose leaf tea rather than bagged tea, which generally comes with its own instructions. Generally, Chinese tea sellers recommend first washing tea leaves by making the first infusion short (4-6 seconds) and throwing out the water before the first infusion you drink.
The first person (or possibly Homo erectus) to sip on tea would have been drinking what is closest to today's green tea (lǜ chá, 绿茶), which remains one of the most consumed varieties in China—it's only more recently become popular in the West. After picking, the leaves are dried then heated to stop the oxidation process. The resulting green leaves are sometimes rolled, and produce a golden liquor with a delicate, crisp flavor.
How to Drink Green Tea
Green tea has less caffeine than black tea and because of its lighter flavor is usually drunk by itself without milk or sweetener. Drink your green tea while it's hot (not too hot, of course) for the best flavor, and, according to some studies, the most health benefits. Use about 1 teaspoon of leaves for an 8 oz cup of water. Brew* your tea in 80° C (175° F) water for 45 seconds to 1 minute and remove the leaves. Many Chinese don't remove the leaves from the glass, which can result in an increasingly bitter flavor.
Varieties of Green Tea
Dragonwell tea (Lóngjǐng chá, 龙井茶): The leaves of this green tea are flat and bright green in color with a fine white down that's easy to miss. A well-brewed cup has a light sweetness with a hint of nuttiness. Poor quality Dragonwell tea will taste bitter and grassy. The name of the tea comes from a village well at the Longjing Tea Plantation in Hangzhou, where the ideal cup is said to be made from the well's unique water. One of China's most renowned teas, it's now grown throughout Zhejiang Province. While it's often brewed in a glass so you can watch the leaves as they brew, a tastier tea comes from infusing in a ceramic mug and then removing the leaves.
Huang Shan Maofeng tea (Huángshān máofēng chá, 黄山毛峰茶): Maofeng leaves are an earthier green than their Dragonwell cousins and less flat with more prominent down. Tea brewed from quality leaves should have a sweet flavor and a floral aftertaste.Huang Shan (the Yellow Mountains) in Anhui.
Known as "red tea" in China for the red-brown color of the tea, black tea (hóngchá, 红茶) comes from leaves that are withered, rolled, oxidized and heated. During the Ming Dynasty, when black tea was developed, this process helped the tea keep for the long journey to Europe. Until botanist Robert Fortune's mid-19th century journey into the tea regions of China, disguised as a Chinese merchant to obtain tea plants for the British East India Company, it was believed in the West that green tea and black tea came from different plants. Black tea has long been the most popular choice in the West, although much of that black tea actually comes from crops in India.
How to Drink Black Tea
While tea-drinking in England has long used black tea with milk and sweetener, this is a less common practice in China where it's usually drunk by itself. In China, loose leaf black tea, which has a more complex, less tannic (bitter) flavor, is more common than the bagged teas often used in the West. Brew* about 1.5 teaspoons of tea leaves for an 8 oz cup of water at 90° C (195° F) for 2-4 minutes. Black teas also make for good iced teas. To make an iced tea, double the amount of tea leaves used, then allow the tea to cool to room temperature before refrigerating.
Varieties of Black Tea
Golden Monkey tea (jīnhóu chá, 金猴茶): This smooth black tea has a rich, nutty flavor with hints of cocoa. The thin, curled leaves are dark with golden tips. Grown in Fujian and Yunnan Provinces, this relatively young type of tea can come in a relatively wide variety. A good cup made from the right leaves should have a complex, full-bodied flavor while lower quality leaves may have a much thinner body.
Keemun Maofeng tea (Qímén máofēng chá, 祁门毛峰茶): This black tea has a floral, fruity flavor and cocoa notes. Anhui Province but is today also grown in Fujian and Yunnan. The maofeng in the name means that a bud and two leaves were plucked.
Oolong tea (wūlóng chá, 乌龙茶) is produced like black tea, but only partially oxidized before being heated. Flavors are strong, but generally not as much as with black teas. More oxidized oolongs generally have a smokier flavor, while those less oxidized have a lighter flavor more similar to green tea.
How to Drink Oolong Tea
Brew* about 1.5 teaspoons of tea leaves for an 8 oz cup of water at 90° C (195° F) for 3 minutes. If brewing in an Yixing clay pot (Yíxīng zǐshā hú, 宜兴紫砂壶), made from a type of porous clay, experiment with short brew times between 20 and 40 seconds for a more subtle flavor. Oolong generally stands up well to multiple infusions.
Varieties of Oolong Tea
Iron Guanyin tea (Tiě Guānyīn, 铁观音): Rolled into irregular balls, the leaves of Iron Guanyin tea ideally should be predominantly darker with some brighter green leaves mixed in. A good Iron Guanyin tea will have a full floral flavor.
Beware of flavored oolongs: Some blends like genseng oolong and milk flavor oolongs come from low-quality oolongs with added flavors of possible dubious mixes. I've had tea sellers warn me away from drinking them in the past, although this likely came more from a distaste for the "inauthentic" flavor.
If tea buds are picked before opening and dried in the sunlight which allows for only a minimal oxidation process, the resulting liquor is white tea (bái chá, 白茶). Less common in China, white tea has begun taking off in the West where the delicate flavor is complimented with added fruit or flowers. Leaves aren't twisted or bruised before drying and more of the leaves' natural beneficial qualities are kept intact. White teas generally have a very delicate flavor or a sharp sweetness.
How to Drink White Tea
Brew* your tea in 80° C (175° F) water for 1 minute and remove the leaves. Because of the delicate flavor, white tea makes for a good blended tea.
Varieties of White Tea
Silver needle (báiháo yínzhēn, 白毫银针): The highest grade of white tea, silver needle tea is produced from only the buds during a less than one month period in the spring. It can be oxidized for longer for a more full-bodied flavor or oxidized very lightly for a lighter flavor. Both offer a sweet, delicate taste.
Post-fermented teas, known as "black tea" in China for the color of the leaves and dark tea (hēi chá, 黑茶) in the West to distinguish it from the aforementioned black tea, are processed similarly to green teas, but with an important added step: After the oxidation process has been halted by heating the leaves, microbes are used for a fermentation process which gives it a rich, often sweet, flavor. Dark teas originated in southwestern China around Sichuan and Guangdong, where microbes may have accidentally been introduced to teas being transported through the region. While older forms of dark teas were likely highly astringent, modern dark teas (at least the good ones) have a sweet, earthy flavor. Compressed cakes of dark teas are common sights at tea markets, but often these tea cakes are more for decoration than consumption. Loose versions are also available.
How to Drink Dark Teas
Dark teas should be prepared with boiling water and washed 2-3 times before drinking using 4-6 second infusions. When dark teas are brewed in an Yixing clay pot (Yíxīng zǐshā hú, 宜兴紫砂壶), a type of porous clay, the resulting liquor is deep, colored and transparent and the flavors are more pronounced.
Varieties of Dark Tea
Pu'er tea (pǔ'ěr chá, 普洱茶): Sometimes spelled pu'erh and coming from Pu'er County, Yunnan, this tea comes in two forms: raw pu'er and ripe pu'er. Both types are sometimes compressed into cakes or other shapes or sold loose. Some pu'er is also stuffed into fruit skins to add additional flavor.
- Ripe pu'er (shú chá, 熟茶): Allowed to ferment in micro-biologically active piles, a process developed in the 1970s, ripe pu'ers have a soft, round flavor.
- Raw pu'er (shēng chá, 生茶): Leaves picked to make raw pu'er are dried in the sun, allowing light oxidation. Leaves are then twisted and dried a little. Exposure allows for an uncontrolled version of the post-fermentation that ripe pu'er goes through, with some microbiological activity. The flavors tend to be more astringent, but a wide variety of flavors are possible among raw pu'ers. This tea can take a decade or more to develop a smoother flavor.
Blended or Scented Teas
Depending on how, when and where a tea crop is cultivated, picked and prepared, a wide variety of flavors can result. Like a fine wine, experienced tea drinkers employ a wide vocabulary to denote subtle notes, body, aftertaste and other aspects of a tea's flavor and aesthetics. These subtle differences can be overwhelmed (a good thing for poorer quality teas), enhanced or complimented by adding other herbs, spices or plants. Brewing directions will be closest to the base tea (black, green, dark or white).
Jasmine tea (mòlìhuā chá, 茉莉花茶): Most popular in northern parts of China, this scented tea is sweet and very fragrant. The tea is usually made by piling green tea together with freshly opened jasmine flowers overnight, infusing the jasmine fragrance into the tea, a process repeated with new flowers until the desired flavor is attained, then the tea leaves are re-fired. Also made with white, black and oolong teas, leaves are generally curled into balls and may or may not be mixed with jasmine buds. Jasmine flowers, today cultivated in Guangdong and Fujian, may have first come to China from Persia in the third century AD.
Lapsang souchong (zhèngshān xiǎozhǒng, 正山小种): This storied scented black tea is made by smoke-drying tea leaves over a pinewood fire, possibly the oldest black tea making process. When brewed properly, it has a robust, smoky flavor that's still smooth with hints of sweetness. The strength of its flavor gives lapsang souchong its share of devoted fans and determined detractors.
Hong Kong milk tea (Xiānggǎng nǎi chá, 香港奶茶): Black tea is mixed with condensed or evaporated milk and can be served hot or chilled. When chilled, milk tea (nǎi chá, 奶茶) may also come with tapioca balls, referred to as "pearls" (zhēnzhū, 珍珠) in Chinese. This popular beverage can be found in shops and restaurants all around China.
For more on China's tea destinations, check out Brief History of Tea Brewing.
* Drinks made from other herbs, such as the South African rooibos (used to make "red tea") are technically not teas, but herbal infusions. Back to the article