A basic understanding of tea.
This guide will provide you with a basic understanding of what tea is and how it’s processed. Tea is grown all across the world and processed in an endless number of ways. To truly cover all the nuances of tea would be a herculean task. However, this guide will give you a good foundation for delving deeper.
Keep in mind that there are always exceptions and caveats, so the information presented below is simply an overview for those starting out, it is not comprehensive in any way. With that being said, let’s begin!
Tea Is A Plant
Most tea is grown from the Camellia Sinensis plant. This evergreen plant grows naturally as a small shrub or tree depending on the variety, and is native to many regions in Asia. The vast majority of tea is cultivated in tea gardens (right), yet some tea is made from tea plants growing more naturally (left).
Within the Camellia Sinensis plant, there are two main varieties. Camellia Sinensis var. assamica (left) is the larger leaf variety and is used to make pu’er tea, among other types of tea. Camellia Sinensis var. sinensis (right) is the smaller leaf variety and is the variety growing in most tea gardens in China, making most types of tea.
Within each of these varieties there are many different cultivars, which are essentially subvarieties, that are used to make specific kinds of tea. Processing the leaves of different cultivars in different ways results in hundreds of different types of teas.
Types Of Tea
There are, generally speaking, six different categories of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and fermented. Each of these categories of tea has its own characteristic processing style and it’s own characteristic flavors. And within these categories are hundreds of types of tea that are all unique, most of which are grown and processed in their own unique way. I’ll be briefly summarizing most of these categories below.
It’s important to note that what the west calls “black” tea is actually what would be referred to as “red” tea in the east. And what the west calls “fermented” or “post-fermented” tea is often referred to as “black” tea in the east. The western terms are inaccurate and confusing, but I’ll be using them on this page for the sake of simplicity.
Generalized processing: minimal withering - fixing - optional rolling or shaping - drying.
The leaves for Green Tea are minimally withered, either intentionally or even just while in the picker’s basket. Afterwards, they are usually pan-fried, baked or steamed to kill the enzymes responsible for oxidation in the tea leaves. This step is also known as fixation; it ensures the leaves will remain fresh for a longer period of time, and it may be done multiple times during processing. The leaves may be shaped or rolled depending on what type of tea is being made. After being baked or dried, the processing is complete.
Green tea is known for it’s super-fresh, super-green flavors. San Bei Xiang (left) is a type of Chinese green tea while Sencha (right) is a type of Japanese green tea.
Generalized processing: withering - drying.
The least processed of all the categories of tea, White Tea is only withered and dried. That’s it. The conditions for withering and drying the leaves are often controlled with great care, and may be altered midway through the process to dry the leaves more effectively.
White tea can be very refined like the Yunnan Silver Needle (left) made with only buds. Or, it can be much earthier like this Taiwanese White Tea (right) made with more mature leaves.
Generalized processing: withering - bruising/oxidation - fixing - optional shaping - drying - optional roasting.
Oolong Tea is partially oxidized, somewhere in the middle between green tea and black tea. After withering, the leaves are bruised, shaken or rolled in order to damage the cell walls and accelerate oxidation. They can be lightly oxidized, leading to lighter leaves with lighter flavors, or they can be heavily oxidized, leading to darker leaves with darker flavors. After oxidizing to the desired amount, the leaves are fixed through baking or heating to prevent further oxidation. The leaves may then be rolled or shaped, and are then baked or dried.
Both Taiwanese Baozhong (left) and Zhang Ping Shui Xian (right) are only lightly oxidized before fixing, leading to brighter, more floral flavors.
Generalized processing: withering - rolling/oxidation - drying.
Once a tea has been fully oxidized, it becomes a Black Tea. After withering, the leaves are rolled and allowed to oxidize as much as possible. Because the leaves are already fully oxidized, they never need to be heated and fixed like an oolong tea would. Instead, black tea is only dried to remove moisture and the processing is complete.
Most black teas make use of larger, more mature leaves like the Taiwanese Ruby 18 Black (left). Yet some black teas are composed of upper leaves and buds, like Keemun Black (right).
Generalized processing: withering - fixing - rolling - drying - optional compression.
Pu’er tea is one of the most famous types of tea among Fermented Tea, but it is not the only one. Many exist with a wide variety of processing styles, but the most important part is that they undergo fermentation at the end.
The leaves are first withered to become more pliable, and then they are heated and fixed. Afterwards, the leaves are rolled, sometimes by hand, and then dried. At this point, the final step in the process can begin: bacterial and fungal growth.
In the case of Ripe Pu’er (left), the leaves are placed in a warm, wet pile to accelerate fermentation over the course of a few weeks. In the case of Raw Pu’er (right), no further processing is done (beyond compression). Instead, a similar kind of fermentation occurs naturally over a longer period of time. The communities of bacteria and fungi naturally present within the leaves will continue to grow even while sitting on your bookshelf at home.
Tea can be simple.
It’s easy to get lost in all the complexities of tea, but the best way to learn is also the simplest, most fun way to learn: by drinking tea. Whenever you sit down for a cup of tea, do your best to understand what kind of tea it is, how it was processed, and where it comes from. That way it will be easy to slowly build up a library of first-hand knowledge for a variety of different kinds of tea.
If you decide to continue researching tea, make sure you trust the sources you choose. There is a lot of inaccurate information online, and even experts (which I am not) may have differing opinions.