Chinese Tea Types
Updated: Oct 14
Sometimes, when I pour to my guests a nice tea, aged well, full of layers and infinite complexity, something rare; Interested and curious as they might be, in the end they will ask me: "Wait, it's green tea, right?!"
Let's put things in order.
Real tea only refers to natural tea leaves derived from the tea plant Camellia Sinensis, while herbal tea and flower infusions, or any other species of blends, are not included in this category. Today there are thousands of varieties and cultivars of the tea plant and many types of tea around the world, all originated from the same Camellia Sinensis plant, that was discovered in China over 3000 years ago. As for the initial classification of tea as a beverage, it is necessary to go back to the Chinese sources and separate the major tea processing procedures into five main types, or families of tea: Green tea, White tea, Wulong tea, Pu'er tea and Red tea.
Different tea making procedures come out with different chemical compounds in which will affect our body differently, meaning that each main type of tea has different medical benefits that may affect our body for better or worse. According to the Chinese tradition, tea consumption is dynamic and individual, determined by various parameters such as season, time of day, and physical and health condition. Originally, tea was meant to balance different health systems in our body, such as the five elements and energy flow (qi 气) between the body parts.
Each tea family has its own identity, which also determined by its source, meaning the area in China where significant changes took place in the cultivation and processing of the leaves, to the point where it noticeably differs from other types of tea. Tea has evolved in southwest and southeast China into two separate tea industries, which to this day differ into two main varieties, the mother and father of tea - the Sinensis variety in the east and the "big leaf" variety (da ye 大叶) in the west, while the later is well known by its controversial botanical name of Assamica. From these two varieties, the world's two most advanced and important tea families were developed - Wulong tea of Fujian province in the east, and Pu'er tea of Yunnan province in the west.
Each main type of tea has an internal classification of up to hundreds of subtypes, which can be determined by different criteria, such as cultivar, growing area, outlook of the leaves, plucking standards, sometimes even a mythological story that distinguishes it from other similar leaves. These subtypes are familiar to us in different tea names, such as Silver Needle which is a type of white tea from Fujian Province, classified by its timing and standard of picking. Other nicknames, like Dian Hong and Golden Tip are adjectives in the sorting of Chinese red tea or pure tea in Yunnan province.
The following is a summary of each of the five main types of tea, according to the general features and differences between them:
Fresh tea that undergoes an early leaf heating process known as Kill Green (shā qīng 殺青). Kill Green can be done by various ways such as stir frying in wok or steaming, at speed and high temperature of over 100°C. This procedure is designed to eliminate the enzymes in the leaves in order prevent oxidation and further development of the leaves, and therefor shortens the shelf life of the tea. This method left small room for error and creativity among growers and is now considered old fashioned in China. In Japan however, green tea is still being produced almost exclusively, using advanced and impressive modern technologies. Green tea leaves are gradually being transformed into various traditional forms, such as snails (碧螺春 bi luo chun), "ironed" strips (tai ping hou kui 太平猴魁) and even grind powdered like the Japanese Macha.
Although in Western countries it is widely publicized as the healthiest tea, green tea in China has been suffering from lack of popularity and relevance for decades, and for a reason. The modern green tea industry in China is notorious, producing mainly cheap tea destined for export, with a shallower tea profile compared to advanced types of tea. However, in recent years we have been witnessed to private farms attempting to restore the old crown and produce high quality green tea using traditional methods.
Wulong Tea (Oolong)
The dominant tea of Fujian Province in southeastern China, with hundreds of different types and names. It is also the source of the tea industry in Taiwan. Advanced tea that undergoes a controlled process of partly oxidation in various ways, up to the desired level of accuracy. Wulong tea can be divided into two main families: light wulong and dark wulong. Light wulong (qing xiang 清香) is a fresh and refined traditional tea that is best known for its traditional double-rolled version Tia Guan Yin from Anxi Province, one of the most well-known and admired teas in the world. Dark wulong (nong xiang 濃香) is basically a light wulong that undergoes an additional process of charcoal baking, on low heat for long hours.
Wulong tea is arguably most complex tea to produce out of all types of tea and for decades has been at the technology forefront of the tea industry in China. A multi-season tea known for its balanced nature and rich and exceptional wide palette of unique aromas and flavors produced naturally, more than any other drink in the world.
An advanced tea originated in the endless landscapes of Yunnan Province in southwest China, the exclusive region in the world where this tea is grown and produced. It is also divided in two main versions: Raw Pu'er and Ripe Pu'er. Raw Pu'er (sheng pu'er 生普洱) is probably the closest tea today to ancient tea. Tea trees grow wild without human intervention, charcoal heating and drying the leaves in greenhouses under the sun - are some of the practices of traditional sheng pu'er tea making. In contrast, Ripe Pu'er (shu pu'er 熟普洱) is a modern version of raw pu'er, undergoing an additional process of accelerated fermentation by creating suitable conditions for natural and controlled development of mold.
While producing pu'er tea, it is important not to eliminate all the enzymes in the leaves to allow aging - a slow and prolonged process of fermentation through years, even after packing. A unique tea with varied layers of deep flavors, and the potential to reach superior complexity and extremely high price tags. For some reason, pu'er tea is popular in the west mostly in its ripe version.
Tea leaves undergo a slow drying process at low temperatures that will usually remain in their original shape, without rolling the leaves. White tea contains a large amount of antioxidants and has many medicinal values and references in Chinese medicine. Original white tea produced, packaged and stored in proper conditions, can also be improved by aging and its value will increase accordingly. Tea that has become popular recently, in China and abroad, and is gaining successful versions of different profile from east and west China, and gradually more places across the globe.
Accidentally recognized as black tea. Red tea is a simpler version of wulong tea, which undergoes a similar procedure until the leaves are completely oxidized, usually without complex oxidation and rolling methods. The most popular tea in the world, with the highest number of growing areas, thanks to its relatively easy production. Apart from China, the main production areas of red tea are placed in India, Sri Lanka and Kenya.
It is worth mentioning other attempts to expand the scope of the main tea genres in China and other countries around the world. The following are types of tea that have not yet been able to form a unique identity and therefore officially belong to the existing tea families:
Dark Tea (hei cha 黑茶) - Considered to be the original version of ripe pu'er. Originated in Anhui province of China and usually consists stamens. Fun fact: hei cha literally means "black tea" in Chinese.
Yellow Tea - Originally from east China, northern to Fujian province, yellow tea is arguably belongs to the green tea category and undergoes a finishing process known as fixing, which is the equivalent to the ripe pu'er post production.
Darjeeling Tea - A unique tea industry in Northeast India, which doesn't focus on daily CTC for Indian Chai making. Despite its unique profile, various tea-making techniques and oxidation levels, Darjeeling tea is still widely considered as red tea. Alright, black tea.