The Camellia sinensis tea plant gives us the gift of different types of tea - all of our traditional teas (black, oolong, pu-erh, green, and white teas) come from this simple tea bush.
When the Western world was first introduced to black and green tea, it was believed that the different types of tea came from different plants. Now we know, however, that Camellia sinensis is the source of our much-loved traditional teas, even though each of the different types has a distinctive flavor, aroma, and appearance.
Many factors can influence the taste, fragrance, and quality of a cup of tea, such as the variety of tea plant, the unique climate and soil of the tea plantation, whether the harvesting was manual or mechanical, and even the harvest season.
And, of course, the tea processing method affects tea's taste and aroma. Once tea leaves have been picked, those earmarked for a specific type of tea will be processed in a certain way, resulting in the lovely, delicious final tea product you find in your favorite tea shop or market.
Very shortly after harvesting, tea leaves and buds are processed. All traditional teas originate from the leaves and leaf buds of Camellia sinensis - it's what happens after the leaves and buds are plucked that primarily determines which of these different tea types is produced.
White tea has the least processing of all teas. After picking, buds and leaves intended for white tea are simply withered and then dried. Some high-quality white tea (e.g. Silver Needle) is made entirely from the tender leaf buds, while other white teas include the first young leaves of the tea plant, as well.
| Related: White Tea Benefits
Green tea is also known as "unfermented tea," which means this tea does not go through an oxidation step. Freshly picked tea leaves earmarked for green tea are briefly heated or steamed to prevent any oxidation or fermentation. After rolling and drying, the tea is ready for grading and packaging.
Yellow tea is a very rare, high-quality tea with a yellowish hue. To make yellow tea, first the harvested tea leaves are heated and gently rolled. The
leaves are then wrapped in cloth or paper and allowed to rest and oxidize.They may be reheated and rewrapped at set intervals for up to three
days, and allowed to cool and slowly continue to oxidize slightly. The final step is drying the tea leaves.
Processing yellow tea is time- and work-intensive, resulting in a rare, costly tea.
Pu-erh tea is available either as loose tea leaves or in compressed shapes. Tea leaves intended for pu-erh tea are first dried in the sun. Then, in one processing method, the leaves are softened and compressed into cakes, bricks, or other shapes. After drying, the cakes are stored and aged over a period of years to encourage natural oxidation and a rich, deep flavor.
In the alternate processing method, additional heat and humidity are applied to the dried leaves to speed up the oxidation process. After drying, the leaves are sold loose or compressed into various shapes.
Oolong tea is also called "semi-oxidized" or "blue-green" tea. For oolong tea, tea leaves are withered, shaken or "bruised" gently, and then oxidized. Oolong tea has anywhere from 8 to 85% oxidation - the longer the oxidation, the darker the leaves and the resulting infused tea.
Finally, the leaves are heated or dried to stop the oxidation process and decomposition of the leaves.
| Related: Oolong Tea Benefits
Black tea processing involves four steps - withering, rolling, oxidizing, and firing. Once the tea leaves are wilted, they are rolled or crushed lightly, fully oxidized, and then fired or heated to stop the oxidation process - and the result is the richly colored, highly flavorful tea we know and love.
After processing, any tea allocated for flavored, scented, or fruit teas will be enhanced with flowers, fruit, or spices, such as jasmine, rose, or lemon. Don't confuse these flavored or scented teas with herbal teas or tisanes, which are made from plants other than the Camellia sinensis tea plant.
Once the different types of tea have been sorted, graded, and packaged, they will wend their way to your favorite online or local specialty tea shop or the shelves of your local grocery store - a world away from the Camellia sinensis plant and the tea plantation that provided the fragrant, delicious beverage in your teacup.
Next up, more about how very beneficial a cup of hot traditional tea can be for us.
The different types of tea from Camellia sinensis are each delicious and aromatic in their own way - and, each provides unique wellness benefits, too. Whether you adore black tea, can't imagine life without your beloved green tea, or love to mix it up, trying new and different types of tea whenever the urge strikes, each tea from the tea family can support and nurture physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Gascoyne K, Marchand F, Desharnais J, Americi H. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2011.
Pettigrew J. The Tea Companion. London: Quintet Publishing, 2004.
Zak V. 20,000 Secrets of Tea. New York, NY: Dell Publishing, 1999.
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