Tea varieties available in the market

White, black, green…. you may wonder how many types of tea varieties are there on earth! Though we use the same raw material – the same green leaves from the tea plant, the steps we use to make causes all the differences. There are as many as six basic steps that we use to get a particular type of tea. different tea types- green tea cup with teapot

Main steps in tea production are –

  • Plucking
  • Withering – letting the leaves to soften and release excess moisture
  • Rolling/CTC processing/roasting – to shape the leaves and/or eliminate excess fluid
  • Oxidizing – chemical reaction that enables the tea leaves to acquire a brown color and adds flavor and aroma to the finished teas
  • Drying
  • Sorting

We see five broad tea varieties of tea which are white, black, green, oolong and pu’erh. Producers manufacture these teas, available in the market, using different combination of steps mentioned above.  Here I am bringing in a brief description of each tea variety which you may find useful.

White tea:

It was first developed in the Fujian province in China. You will find its first mention in the Song Dynasty (an era of  Chinese history that began in 960 and continued until 1279) document “Treatise on Tea”. White tea passes through the least number of processes compared to other type of teas we find in the market. To make this tea, the tea master withers and then dries the leaves / buds under natural sun. Unlike other tea variants, it does not need panning (a light roasting of the leaf before and between rolling). Hence it retains its natural taste with no extra flavor that smoke and flame can add. Its manufacturing process is very simple – first pluck the fresh tea leaf, then wither and finally dry the leaves. We may accomplish the drying either by air or solar or mechanical drying process.

White tea processing

During its manufacturing, white tea does not go tea-variety-white-teathrough rolling or oxidation process. The leaves used in white tea manufacturing plays a crucial role in the quality of the tea. The tea master selects the leaves under stringent quality control regime. The young unopened buds with fine silver white hairs gives a whitish appearance to the plant. As the name suggests, the tea master selects only these buds for white tea. Strict adherence to this norm only can produce a high quality tea with a greater pekoe value.

In 1876 an English publication first categorized it as a black tea variant. The logic behind this was that it did not require cooking like the green tea. Cooking or panning in green tea is used to deactivate the external microbes and the internal enzymes in the leaves.

Naming of white tea

You may find some tea marketed in that name of ‘Silvery Tip Pekoe’. Those are nothing but white teas, in their traditional name. But now you will also see white tea in the simple broad categories such as China White or Fujian White in the grocery store. Other than China, producers in Taiwan, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India also manufacture white tea, although in small quantity .

As leaves required for white tea can be handpicked only and needs special care to manufacture, it is rare and expensive. But I assure you that white tea, an almost unprocessed variety of tea, is worth the extra penny for the world of benefit it offers. The brew from white tea is not colorless white, rather it comes with a very pale green or yellow liquor. It has a light taste with the most delicate flavor and aroma and a free shape.

Green Tea:

It is that variety of tea which attracts most of the publicity among all the tea varieties. That said, green tea has its share of long history of use and proven health benefits. The tea makers pluck, roast and machine dry the leaves to make it. At first they either roast or pan-fry the plucked leaves. The tea maker ensures stoppage of oxidation in the leaves using this process. You know oxidation is the very enzymatic  process that turns the leaves brown. After this, they dry the leaves in the dryer and then sort as per their size and quality.  tea varieties- green tea

Goodness of green

Green tea requires a little bit of more processing than white tea but less processing than the black. As a result of this, it retains most of the antioxidants and polyphenols that exist in the green tea leaves. We get a number of benefits from drinking the pale green or yellow colored liquor of green tea. China produces almost 80% of world’s total green tea.  Chinese producers make green teas mostly by pan-frying and the tea has a toasty, grassy flavor. Japan is the other most important producer of green tea which  produces around 10% of world’s total green tea output. The green tea from Japan has a vegetative or leafy taste. This happens as the tea undergoes steaming at the time of production. To know more about the health benefits of green tea please read 7 Green Tea Benefits.

Oolong Tea:

The word oolong in English has come from the Chinese word wulong. Wu means black and long means dragon. Oolong tea is specifically most popular among a certain group of people. It is mostly popular among the people belonging to the south China region. Oolong is also popular among the people of Chinese origin living in the Southeast Asia.

Making of oolong tea

For making oolong tea, the leaves are wilted in the sun for some time. The leaves are then shaken inside a container for initiation of oxidation. Oxidation starts when the juice in the bruised leaves come in direct contact with air. Then the tea leaves are spread out for around two hours to dry. To stop the oxidation process, the leaves are then fired in hot woks for a very short period. The oxidation and firing process may be repeated until the leaves dry up tea varieties - oolong teafully and become crisp. This repetitive oxidation and firing process is unique to oolong tea.

Though somewhat time consuming, this process imparts a beautiful painting of aroma and flavor on to the oolong tea leaves. That is why its complexity of flavor far exceeds that of White, Green or Black teas. The degree of oxidation can be varied from 8 to 85% as per the requirement. This can be calculated by having a glance at the ratio of brown color on the leaf during the manufacturing process.

Unique benefits of oolong

In addition to the common antioxidants that all the varieties of tea have, oolong tea has some additional polyphenolic compounds unique to it. This can be attributed to the repeated semi-oxidation process that the tea passes through. Oolong tea not only has caffeine, but also has some additional caffeine like content such as theophylline and theobromine. They act in the similar way as caffeine works and stimulate the nervous system.

Depending on the production method adopted and the quality of the raw material used, the taste of oolong tea can be

(a) fruity & sweet

(b) fresh & green

(c) thick & woody.tea varieties - black tea in cup

Different Varieties of Oolong teas are:

  1. Indian oolongs – Sikkim Temi, Darjeeling, Assam smoked oolong
  2. Taiwanese oolong – Formosa Dongding, Formosa Alishan, Formosa Wenshan Pouchong, Formosa Oriental Beauty, Formosa Shanlinxi, Formosa Jade etc.
  3. Chinese oolong – Premium Wuyi mountain rock oolong varieties like Dahongpao, Tieluohan, Baijiguan, Shuijingui, Wuyi Cinnamon, Wuyi Daffodil, Phoenix Daffodil and numerous other standard varieties.
  4. Vietnamese oolong, Thai oolong, Indonesian oolong, African oolongs made in Kenya and Malawi, Nepali oolong etc.

Black Tea:

black-tea-vs-green-tea-black-leafIt is the tea that the maker allows to oxidize completely at the time of manufacturing. You will see the following steps in the making of black tea: withering, leaf sifting, leaf conditioning, rolling (for orthodox) or CTC processing (for CTC), oxidizing, drying and sorting. All these steps, the tea maker follows in a very linear form and thus finishes the manufacturing within a day.

You might have observed that the color of the brewed liquor of a black tea ranges between dark brown and deep red. It offers the strongest flavors and, in some cases, greatest astringent taste. We can enjoy black tea in a number of ways like adding milk and sugar, or with condiments like lemon, ginger etc. You can also enjoy it as a chilled cup of ice tea. Most of the teas produced in the tropical and sub-tropical regions in the world are black tea. To learn more about black tea please also see Black teas types.

Pu’erh Tea:

You will find that the basic difference of pu’erh with other varieties of tea is the former is  a post-fermented tea. In case of all other tea varieties, the maker stops all the processes of tea manufacturing once the tea is ready. But it is not the case with  pu’erh. In case of pu’erh tea, process like fermentation may continue for several years, even few early steps in its production cycle have already been completed. The raw material of pu’erh tea is the tender leaves of Sinensis assamica. You will find the tea species variety with large leaves, in the South Yunnan Mountains in China and Assam. The tea maker maintains a plucking standard of one bud and maximum of two leaves for manufacturing green or black tea. But in case of pu’erh tea, he is more flexible with one bud and up to 3 or 4 leaves.


Making of Pu’erh

To make the enzymes partially inactive, the tea maker pan-fries the plucked tea leaves at first. Then he dries it under the sun. During this sun-drying process, fermentation of the leaves continue uninterrupted. As a result, the leaves acquire the unique flavor of pu’erh tea. We can call this output maocha until it is green in color. You may want to use this beautiful tea directly as loose leaf green tea.

We can divide Pu’erh tea into two distinctively different categories – the raw/green sheng cha and the ripe/black shou cha. Though the time required for its production is very long, you will see that the manufacturing process of pu’erh tea is quite simple. The tea maker takes enough time to manufacture pu’erh tea because time is the most important factor in mellowing and refining of its flavor and character.

If we compress maocha into dense cakes or other decorative shapes, we get the raw pu’erh or sheng cha, which is still green in color. When the raw sheng cha is aged and matured naturally for several years, we get the vintage pu’erh raw tea. We will see the green color of the pu’erh raw tea turning brown in course of this storage period. This happens because of the continuous fermentation happening inside the leaves. In case you do not compress the loose maocha immediately and instead send it for undergoing the Wo Dui ripening process for some more months and then compressed into cakes, then you will get the ripe pu’erh or shou cha.

tea varieties- two girls chatting over tea

What is Wo Dui ripening process

The Kunming Tea Factory developed this process in the year 1973. The maker uses this process for piling, wetting, and mixing the maocha and it performs the following jobs.

  1. Increases the moisture and the temperature level of the tea to attain fermentation at an accelerated pace
  2. Ensures a more even fermentation of tea leaves in the ripened pu’erh
  3. Gives the fresh pu’erh the flavor and color of aged raw pu’erh

We can give the pu’erh tea different shapes. Some of the common shapes you can give to pu’erh at the time of compression include the shape of a round cake or a rectangular brick or a bird’s nest etc. People in Hong Kong, Guangdong Province in China and Taiwan very much like Pu’erh tea. Manufacturers in China as well as in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Japan produces different types of Pu’erh. Like vintage wine, tea lovers consider well-preserved and aged pu’erh teas as living teas. They are crazy for the unique aroma and rich, smooth taste associated with pu’erh.

You will find different categories of Pu’erh tea with demand in the market which are:

  1. Maocha in loose form that can be used as the raw material for pu’erh tea or as green tea.
  2. Pressed but non-fermented maocha i.e. pu’erh raw green tea.
  3. Pressed maocha that has undergone fermentation up to a year i.e. up to one year old raw pu’erh.
  4. Vintage raw pu’erh that is aged, the most sought after pu’erh tea.