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Six types of tea – which will be your favourite?

Six types of tea – which will be your favourite?

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. 

 White tea

White tea produces a lovely pale infusion and has the most delicate and subtle flavours of all tea. It is the least processed tea type as the leaves are simply plucked and dried. 

Taste: subtle, sweet notes of hay, flowers and fruit. 
Tea: Silver Needles (China) has an aroma of sun-dried hay and a delicate flavour of fruit and flowers. It typically has a lower caffeine concentration than most teas.
Brew: 4 minutes in water around 85°. Steep the leaves twice. 

Green tea

Green tea is the most common tea consumed in Asia. There are a large number of styles of green tea and its flavour profile is stronger and more savoury than white tea. Its leaves either picked young or left to mature before plucking and, after drying, are heated (in a pan or vat in China; by steaming in Japan), which prevents oxidation. They are then shaped, dried and sorted. Steaming is the reason that Japanese green tea has marine characteristics in its flavour profile as well as the deep, Jade-green leaf colour. 

Taste: vegetables, cut grass, nuts, fruit and flowers (China); marine, green vegetables, mild nut notes (Japan).
Tea: Long Jing (China) has a fresh cut grass, spinach and sweet melon aroma and a roasted chestnut and refreshing vegetal* flavour. Gyokuro (Japan) is a pleasant, savoury tea with notes of seaweed, spinach and green beans, followed by a mild nutty aftertaste.
Brew: 3 – 4 mins (China) at 85°, 1-2 mins (Japan) at 70°. Steep twice.

Yellow tea

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.

Oolong tea

There are two types of oolong: ‘light’ – oxidised at around 30% and ‘dark’ – oxidised at around 70%. Light oolongs are often rolled, compressed and heated multiple times – a process that releases the aromatic oils – before being dried and fired to seal in their flavours. Both light and dark oolongs are very fragrant. 

Taste: flowers and fruit, butter and cream, highly aromatic (light oolongs); roasty notes, dried fruit, wood (dark oolongs)
Tea: Jade oolong (light, Taiwan) has flowery aroma and a flavour of buttered greens and fruit. Cassia Oolong (dark, China) is a complex tea with sweet spice, woody and fruity aromas alongside a cinnamon, nut, apple, tree bark and dried fruit flavour.
Brew: 2 – 4 minutes at 85° for light and 90° for dark. Steep three or more times.

Black tea
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
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. 
Fermented tea
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.
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?

- Anna 

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*’Vegetal’ is a general term used in tasting to capture notes of grass, herbs and vegetables.


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