Did you know that there are six categories of tea: white, green, yellow, oolong, black and dark; and they are all made from the same leaf?
The main difference is their level of oxidation, followed by the way the tea is processed after the fresh tea leaves are plucked.
What's oxidation? It's a natural process that takes place when the plucked tea leaves are gently bruised. It changes the antioxidant and nutrient make-up of the leaf and is one of the reasons why we have such a beautiful variety of leaf colours, textures, aromas and flavours. White, green and dark tea are not oxidised at all, black is fully oxidised and oolong sits right in the middle. Yellow tea is oxidised in a slightly different way, which you'll see below.
Here I introduce each tea category to you, explain the flavours you might experience, share an example of each type of tea and guide you on how to brew it.
Yellow tea is the rarest of all teas. It is produced in a similar way to green tea but what makes it unique is a process that sees its leaves wrapped in cloth to generate non-enzymatic oxidation. This creates a tinge of yellow in the leaf colour and a flavour that is more mellow than green tea.
Taste: roasted nuts, vegetables, flowers and fruit
Tea: Huo Shan Yellow Bud (China) has soft floral and vegetal notes and a subtle nutty finish.
Brew: 3 minutes at 85°. Steep twice.
Black tea is the most-consumed tea in the West. Its leaves are fully (100%) oxidised which creates the dark brown dry leaf colour and its deeper flavours. In China, black tea is produced on a smaller scale, using more manual processes. In countries such as India, it is produced on a larger scale, with wider use of machines. While the flavours below are typical of black tea, Darjeeling (a style of Indian black tea) is a lighter style with notes of fruit and flowers – a flavour profile that might feel similar to oolong.
Taste: malt, wood, caramel, nuts, chocolate
Tea: Black Pine Needle (China) has a beautiful chocolatey aroma and a raisin, chocolate and spice flavour. Kenilworth (Sri Lanka) has a sweet, robust flavour with notes of malt and oak.
Brew: 3 minutes at 100°. Steep twice.
Dark tea is also known as fermented tea or in China, Puerh tea. The leaves are processed in the same way as green tea, then fermented, creating an earthier flavour. There are two types of fermented teas - sheng or ‘raw’ and shu or ‘cooked’ - a newer style. For Sheng, the leaves are stored in a warm dark, humid room and typically aged for between 10 and 50 years (30 to become vintage). The leaves for Shu tea undergo rapid fermentation. They are watered, covered with a cloth and kept in a hot room with high humidity for around 60 days then compressed and left to stabilise for around 3 months. Fermented teas are usually compressed into cakes rather than being left as loose leaves.
Taste: dark chocolate, caramel, musk, leather, forest-floor
Tea: Puerh nest (China) has complex notes of damp earth, musk and dark chocolate.
Brew: 4 minutes at 95° (rinse the leaves in hot water first to ‘wake them up’). Steep up to 10 times.
I am lucky enough to spend hours every month tasting tea from all six categories to decide what goes into our monthly subscription boxes. My favourite? Well, I'm constantly changing what I drink but I typically start the day with a black tea and will then normally have a dark or light oolong later in the morning, and a green or white in the afternoon. I save dark tea for a chilly day or after I have eaten too much (it's meant to be good for digestion!). What's yours?
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