To many, the tea world comes off as intimidating and even complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. Like a lot of things in life, it’s about exploring your options and deciding on what’s best for you… and tea is no different.
The varieties of tea that you may be familiar with all come from the same Camellia Sinensis plant: black tea, green tea, oolong tea, white tea, pu'er tea, and dark tea. While the plant originates from Southeast Asia, it is now cultivated in tea-friendly climates worldwide. The differences simply come from how the teas are processed after the leaves are picked — and here we break them down!
Camellia Sinensis leaves are “fired” right after they are picked off the plant to prevent oxidation from happening. This process subjects them to a brief period of high heat to neutralize the enzymes that enable oxidation (oxidation is a natural chemical process that turns fresh tea leaves into black tea). Other types of teas also go through the firing process, but green tea is the only one that has it as the first step.
Tea leaves for black tea are initially heavily oxidized, and have the highest level of oxidation compared to the other teas. This gives the leaf a dark appearance and significantly changes the aroma and flavor (like how an apple reacts by turning color when exposed to air).
While Oolong tea is usually described as “partially oxidized tea”, it isn’t the whole picture. Unlike the black and green tea, the way the tea leaves are oxidized doesn’t determine this particular type of tea.
The four regions and their most popular styles are Wuyi Rock Tea, Anxi Tieguanyin, Guangdong Dan Cong, and Taiwan. Each has their own local techniques and traditions that emphasize different parts of the process, and because of this, these teas bear very little resemblance to each other. Many teas labeled “oolong tea” from outside these regions usually mean they are partially-oxidized, but usually do not share other descriptors that result in their final product.
White tea is minimally processed. This means that unlike green tea, it’s not “fired”, nor is it intentionally oxidized like black tea. Unlike the other varieties of tea, there is no rolling or shaping of the leaves so what you’ll get is big and bulky leaves. White tea leaves are dried slowly and methodically in order to reduce moisture and achieve a desired aroma and flavor. This simplicity limits it to only three different styles (Bai Hao Yin Zhen (“Silver Needles”), Bai Mu Dan (“White Peony”), and Shou Mei).
Pu'er (Pu-erh) Tea
Probably the most difficult to summarize, this tea is the only style defined by geography. It all comes from a southern region of Yunnan province in China, because the way of cultivation along with growing conditions cannot be separated from its identity.
Pu'er tea can come in a loose or compressed version of two basic styles:
Sheng (“Raw”) Pu'er: This is a simple, non-oxidized tea whose finished product will change over time because it is air-dried as the final step.
Shu (“Ripe) Pu'er: This tea starts out as sheng pu'er, but later goes through an intentional “post fermentation” process.
There’s so much more to tea that we can go over. The differences in taste, geography, caffeine levels, and more. Let us know what you’d like to know about next!
In the meantime, see why we’re huge advocates of tea drinking in this blog post.