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Tea Types

Black, Green, Oolong, White, Pu-erh and Other Tea Types

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An image of Silver Needle white tea.

Once a rarity in the West, white teas such as this Silver Needles are quickly becoming a mainstay of specialty tea.

Marko Goodwin
There are thousands of types of tea in the world. In the West, teas were traditionally classified as green tea, black tea and oolong tea. More recently, white tea and pu-erh tea have been added to the list of common Western tea classifications. Other tea types include yellow tea, scented/flavored tea and blended tea. Each of these tea types has processing methods, aromas and flavors that set it apart from the rest. Here's what makes each tea type unique.

Black Tea
Black tea is the most common type of tea in the Western world. It is noted for its full, bold flavor and its ability to pair well with many Western foods, particularly sweets and creamy foods. For this reason many popular teas for afternoon tea are black teas.

Black tea's processing is different from other types in that it is fully (or almost fully) oxidized. Oxidation is the same natural process that occurs when you muddle herbs and allow their flavors and aromas to develop for a few minutes. Typically, black tea is rolled or crushed with machines to release its natural essential oils, which react with oxygen in the air to change the flavor and aroma of the leaves. When oxidation is deemed complete, the tea is heated and dried to end the oxidation process.

Generally, the flavors and aromas of tea become fuller and deeper during oxidation. Notes of tannin, malt, chocolate, earth, stonefruit, grape and/or citrus emerge. The final color of the leaves is chocolaty brown, brown-black or blue-black.* The brew tends to be reddish, which is why 'black tea' is known as 'red tea' (hong cha) in China.

* Tippy teas may be flecked with (or made entirely from) silver or golden tips. Nepalese black teas tend to be less-than-fully oxidized, so they are often flecked with greenish leaves.

Green Tea
Green teas are rapidly gaining popularity in the West among Baby Boomers and others for their purported health benefits. In Japan and many parts of China, green teas are a staple of local cuisine. Green teas range from sweet and mellow (such as Long Jing) to vegetal/grassy and lemony (such as Sencha).

Unlike black tea, green tea is unoxidized. Japanese green teas (such as Sencha and Gyokuro) are typically steamed. Chinese-style teas (such as Long Jing and Bi Luo Chun) are typically processed with dry heat using an oven-like rotating drum and/or a cooking vessel similar to a wok.

These different processing methods produce different flavors, just as steaming or roasting the same vegetable would result in different flavors. Japanese-style green teas tend to have strong vegetal (vegetable-like), grassy or oceanic/seaweed notes and a slight citrus undertone. Chinese-style green teas may have some vegetal flavors, but also often have a mellower, sweeter flavor profile with notes of nuts, flowers, wood and/or vanilla.

Oolong Tea
Also known as 'blue-green' tea or 'wu long' oolong tea is capable of an incredible depth and complexity that attracts many foodies, wine fanatics and serious tea drinkers. It's sometimes called 'the connoisseur's tea' for this reason. Its flavors/aromas and its reputed (although, many think, over-hyped) ability to aid in weight loss are factors in its rising popularity.

Oolong is often described as 'somewhere between green and oolong tea.' Whereas green tea is unoxidized and black tea is (almost) fully oxidized, oolong tea is partially oxidized. It is rolled by hand or machine (to bring the essential oils to the surface for oxidation) and pan fired, and then allowed to oxidize. This process is repeated many times until the desired level of oxidation is achieved. During this process, the leaves may be rolled into balls, twisted or otherwise shaped. Many oolongs are roasted after they have been oxidized in order to further develop their flavors and aromas. However, there are additional processing techniques (such as rolling and shaping) which further differentiate oolong from black tea and green tea.

Depending on their processing, oolongs may have flavors and aromas of honey, orchids and other flowers, lychee and other fruits, wood, butter or cream, vanilla and/or coconut. (As an exception, Wuyi oolongs are noted for their mineral flavors, which are not typically present in other oolongs.) These nuances often change and develop over multiple infusions, and the aroma is often as complex and enjoyable as the flavor.

Pouchong Tea
Pouchong (or Baozhong) is sometimes considered to be a subclass of green tea or oolong tea. It is green in color, but it is lightly oxidized, like an oolong. Some suppliers sell it as a green, others as an oolong, and still others as its own class of tea.

White Tea
White tea is gaining a following because of its high levels of antioxidants and typically low level of caffeine.** It typically has a very delicate, nuanced flavor.

White tea processing is minimal. It is plucked from the buds (and, in the case of Bai Mu Dan / 'White Peony,' the buds and leaves) of varietals that have a lot of down (fine white 'hairs' the new buds use for protection) on them. The buds (and sometimes leaves) are carefully air-dried, sun-dried and/or oven-dried.

The differences between white teas are often more to do with quality than variations in processing, and the differences are not as pronounced as, say, a fired green tea versus a steamed green tea. Unless they have added flavors, white teas are very subtle and mellow, with flavors such as delicate flowers, field grasses, dried wood and cocoa.

** Some suppliers are saying that white tea has no caffeine. This is incorrect. When brewed at a low water temperature for a short brew time, it is low in (but not free from) caffeine. According to a recent study, it's actually higher in caffeine than many black teas when brewed with boiling water for longer infusion times.

Read on to learn about more tea types, including pu-erh tea, yellow tea and flavored teas.

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