The wonderful tea tonic comes in various colors: yellows, greens, gold, red, and dark crimson red. Green teas pour into a myriad of green shades: dazzling to vibrant to soft mint. There are Tippy Chinese Green Tea, Matcha, Sencha. Then there are splendid red and crimson-colored teas from the Black tea category, like Assam Black, Earl Gray, Darjeeling Black tea, etc. Chinese Oolong tea occupies the golden spectrum. Then there are sensational dark teas like Pu erh (or Puer). Aside from tea’s fantastic shades and tea leaf shapes, how else can you tell the different types of tea? This article shows you the traditional tea hierarchy and the major characteristics of each type, along with some fun facts. Let’s dive in.
“The tea realm is indeed colorful, and even more so, fascinating!”
Six Types Of Tea
Traditionally, the Chinese sort tea into six major categories. I use a color system based on the tonic or “tea soup” to learn about tea when I was a kid.
- Golden (Oolong)
- Black (Chinese call this category Red. Westerners call it Black. )
- Dark or Pu erh (Puer, Pu-er, Pu-erh, Pu’er, Puerh – How many ways can you spell Puer, right? or Hei Cha means Dark or Black tea – Chinese Black of course!)
All six tea types are made from the plant Camellia sinensis. What makes each cup of tea different is the way the tea leaves are processed.
This single factor—how Tea is processed—was a Chinese ancient secret that had baffled brilliant European scientists for more than 400 years.
Here is a closer look at the six tea types, with corresponding loose tea leaves and tea.
Now let’s take a closer look at each tea type and the major characteristics by category.
1. White Tea
White Tea takes its name after its downy white buds. A very subtle tea, the most delicate white Tea grows in Fujian province, China. Tea-pickers pluck the tender buds by hand and carefully process them without rolling, firing, or oxidation. White Tea is the least processed of all tea types. Some of the most famous names include Silver Pekoe, White Peony, and White Eyebrows.
2. Yellow Tea
Aka Scented tea or Mixed tea. These are traditional tea varietals infused with flowers. Best examples include Jasmine Green tea, Rose Black tea, and Osmanthus Oolong tea. As you can imagine, drinking this flower-scented Tea is like taking a virtual walk in the garden. It awakens the senses and the mind.
3. Green Tea
Green tea carries a refreshing taste, ranging from clean to grassy. I call this the sauvignon blanc of Tea. Green Tea has earned well-deserved accolades for its health benefits around the world. However, Chinese tea connoisseurs discovered long ago that all types of Tea come with varying health benefits. Learn more about the health benefits of tea by type here.
Green tea leaves are stir-fried or steamed (traditional Chinese method that spread to Japan) to stop the oxidation process, then kneaded. Green Tea is much simpler to make than, say, Black or Oolong tea. The whole process takes just a day. Green Tea has a shorter shelf life compared to Oolong or Black Tea. Learn more about how Tea spread to Japan and how Japanese tea-makers continue to evolve and innovate Green tea-making techniques, producing unique blends of Japanese Green teas such as shaded Green Tea.
4. Oolong tea
Of the six tea types, Oolong tea is the most complex tea to process.
I call Oolong the Champagne of Tea. Semi-fermented, Oolong tea bursts with exotic fragrance and a sophisticated taste profile. Highly celebrated in China, Oolong tea comes with ancient lore belonging to fantasy novels. We capture this mystical origin story in the film 9 DRAGONS TEA.
Proper Oolong tea-tasting is a ceremonial experience, showing respect for Tea and the tea drinker. Done right, Oolong tea-tasting is a journey for the mind and the body, stimulating yet tranquil.
“It’s like letting Tea take you on a walk through the meadow in springtime. There is no need for words.”
The best Oolong shimmers with a golden hue and is famous for its long-lasting brew. Each brew reveals subtle differences. Which is the best brew? You decide. My personal favorite is the third or fourth brew.
Watch a short clip of 9 DRAGONS TEA for a traditional tea-tasting ceremony, called Gong Fu Cha, or Kung Fu Cha.
Highly celebrated in Chinese culture, Oolong tea is the most intricate tea to make. Learn about the 15 steps of tea-making.
The invention story of Oolong tea, namely DA HONG PAO (meaning “Big Red Robe” in Chinese), is legendary. Do you fancy dragons? If so, this is your perfect cup of tea! Learn more about the origin of Oolong and the mystical beginnings of Da Hong Pao here.
Known for its health benefits, Oolong is the world’s most expensive tea. DA HONG PAO, produced in Wuyishan, leads the pack. The film 9 DRAGONS TEA traces Oolong tea’s history and how this storied tea spread from Wuyishan to Japan, India, and other countries.
5. Black Tea
Black Tea is a historic tea. Do you ever wonder where your favorite cup of Black tea, such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Darjeeling Black tea, come from?
The origin of Black teas is Lapsang Souchong, invented in Wuyishan, Fujian province of China. Lapsang tells an amazing story of how a small cup can create a big impact in the world.
Lapsang Souchong gave birth to all other Black teas, including Assam Black tea, Ceylon Black tea, Darjeeling or Kenya Black tea, etc. How did tea spread from the Wuyi Mountains to India, Sri Lanka, and Africa? An excellent question indeed.
In the documentary 9 DRAGONS TEA, we interviewed Mr. Jiang Yuan-Xun, the direct descendant of Lapsang Souchong’s inventor. The 24th generation Black tea master told the incredible origin story and how Lapsang Souchong tea influenced the world. This historic Black tea fueled the American spirit for independence.
Why is Lapsang Souchong a world-changing tea? The smoky Tea fueled the American spirit of independence.
Did you know that all the Tea thrown into the Boston Harbor on Dec. 16th, 1773 were from China? Considered the “crown jewel of tea” from the 1600s to mid-1800s, Lapsang Souchong represented two-thirds of all the Tea destroyed that fateful evening, known as the Boston Tea Party.
History written in tea leaves
The original Lapsang Souchong Black tea had a smoky aroma. Have you heard of the term “bohea,” a common name for Black Tea? Tea historian Bruce Richardson explains how this term came about and recounts the exciting chapter of American history. We captured this historical scene on ground zero – Old South Meeting House in Boston for the documentary.
Black Tea is fully fermented, including withering, rolling, and drying inside a smoked chamber, which gives the tea its red color.
In wine-speak, Black Tea is the zinfandel or merlot of Tea.
Recently, the Lapsang Souchong family created an ultra-refined Black tea, called Jin Jun Mei, known as the crown jewel for Chinese Black tea drinkers. Light and refreshing, Jin Jun Mei Black tea streams as a ray of light ruby and is a pure delight to taste. Of course, the Chinese wouldn’t think for a second to add milk or sugar into their Black Tea.
6. Dark Tea, or Pu erh (or Puer aka “Hei Cha”)
Pu-erh Tea is a world unto itself. Indigenous to Yunnan Province in China, Pu-erh has a long history, spanning over at least 2,000 years. A fascinating tea category as vast as it is diverse, Pu-erh Tea is a fermented tea and comes in two sub-categories:
- Sheng (raw in Chinese), and
- Shou (ripe in Chinese)
Both raw and ripe Pu-erh refers to the tea leaves’ undergoing a complex process of gradual fermentation to reach maturity over time. Made from large-leaf tea trees or “dayeh” in Chinese, the finest and rarest Pu-erh comes from ancient trees as old as 2,000 years.
Why Pu Erh Captures the Heart and the Purse String
Pu erh is phenomenal tea! Pu erh tea’s health benefits are legendary among the Chinese. This dark beauty tea deserves its documentary. A cup of aged Pu-erh Tea reveals ancient secrets of man and nature, culture, and history. Have you heard of the Tea-For-Horses trade? Pu-erh tea served as currency to trade for prized horses between China and Tibet on the Ancient Tea Horse Road over a thousand years ago.
A cup of earth
Quality Pu-erh tea shows a deep, dark crimson color and is rich in earthy flavors and aromas, which Pu-erh lovers seem to be addicted.
“Tasting a cup of well-aged Puer tea is like taking a walk through the forest or being inside a cave.”
In wine-speak, quality Pu-erh tea is like a French cabernet sauvignon. Smooth, refined with a beautiful deep red hue. Similar to wine, Pu-erh Tea comes with a standard label, declaring the year and production region.
The Chinese have long treasured Pu-erh Tea for its legendary health benefits. A well-aged Puer tea cake commands top dollars among feverish collectors worldwide.
Also called “Hei Cha,” meaning “black tea” in Chinese, Pu-erh is an “old tea,” and its dark crimson hue also made it an easy target for counterfeiting. So buyers beware.
“Tea is a language unto itself — This cup makes us more human.”
And there you have it–all six types of tea! I hope this blog helps you understand a bit more about each tea type. Happy siping!
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In pursuit of simplicity, knowledge, and a cup of good tea.