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The Different Types of Tea

characters carved in rock

Most people in the United States have heard of green and black teas. Some have even tried oolong teas or white teas. But what about Pu Er teas? What are Yellow teas? And what actually makes all these teas different? Well buckle your seatbelts tea lovers, it’s a whirlwind of tea knowledge coming at you!

fresh green tea leaves

Green teas attempt to bring forward the freshest notes possible. Fresh picked leaves are taken to processing where they will be heated using one of several different styles. This prevents the enzymes in the leaves from continuing fermentation. Then the leaves are rolled and shaped, fully dried, and packaged. This simple process combined with the very low fermentation (typically 3% and below) defines green teas.

withering black tea

Black tea is usually sweeter and richer tasting than green tea with little fresh taste. Rather than stopping fermentation as soon as possible, black teas are ‘withered’ and allowed to ferment longer. This added step changes the characteristics of green tea by so much that few of the original flavor compounds remain by the time it becomes black tea. The very high fermentation (typically with percentages in the 80s) and the simple processing define black teas.

Oolong is the broadest category of tea and in it you find charcoal roasted robust teas, delicate floral teas, teas that pop with citrus, or are sweet and deep like dried figs. The most telling characteristic of Oolong teas is that they are complex. More than simple drying and fermentation, these teas have 7 to 10 steps in their processing including roasting, various methods of bruising, and complex shaping. This large category typically spans the divide between green and black teas: 5 to 80 percent fermentation.

living tea bud

White tea is the most soft, delicate, and refreshing of teas. It is the least processed and contains younger leaves with a much higher proportion of buds. White tea is picked, allowed to wither, and then gently heated to stop fermentation. The rolling and shaping present in other teas is left off for white tea. Because this tea does undergo withering, it has a higher fermentation percent than green tea, usually 10 – 30 percent.

Pu Er is the most famous style of fermented teas, and at its simplest is fermented green tea. But wait, isn’t all tea fermented already? That’s correct, but the this fermentation is done bacterially in addition to natural enzymes… think wine or yogurt. Pu Er comes in two main styles: Sheng (green, raw) or Shuo (black, ripe). The raw Pu Er has moisture left in it and naturally ages from a fresh and aroma packed greenish tea to one that is woody, fruity, and complex. Shuo Pu Er attempts to speed up the aging process so that a black pu er can be produced in only months instead of decades.

Pu Er Cakes

Yellow tea is the most uncommon of Chinese teas and has an interesting middle step of steaming a partially fermented green tea under a damp cloth. It is this step that produces a yellow colored tea liquid and gives it the taste of a mild raw Pu Er.

While the above are rules are the most important guidelines to what makes up different categories of tea, there are many variations that contribute. For example, there are many different cultivars of teas and while any cultivar can be made into any type of tea, generally there are specific varieties used to make specific types of tea. This reinforces how we view and taste tea. There are also those teas that are blends of styles. For example, an oolong processed tea that is fermented all the way to 85% fermentation is somewhat of a hybrid of categories.