When Europeans first came to love tea in the 17th century, they knew very little about it. The process of transforming raw tea leaves into a substance ready for brewing was a complete mystery to them, and they even believed that green and black teas were made from different plants (one of the reasons for its early naming challenges, see Tea's Scientific Name).
We know of at least one Dutch doctor living in Indonesia who understood the importance of processing in the manufacture of different types of tea, but he was unsuccessful in trying to convince westerners of this. Eventually (like a couple hundred years later) they finally came to believe what we know to be the case today: that all true teas are produced from one of the varieties of Camellia sinensis (see Tea Plants---What They Look Like) and that processing is the key to the primary differences that define the types of tea.
Tea has been categorized in different ways by different people and cultures over the years---by its country of origin or even by the color of the finished tea. We'll use the most common current distinctions based on its essential processing steps. These are the same categories you're likely to see at your local tea shop or grocery store. The primary types of tea include (from lightest to darkest) white tea, yellow tea, green tea (both Chinese and Japanese styles), oolong tea, black tea, and pu'er tea.
Other teas that don't fall precisely into these categories are also worthy of more elaboration because of how readily available they are, how wonderfully distinctive they are, or both. This group includes scented teas, display/novelty teas, flavored teas, blends, and brick teas. Two very common teas, Earl Grey (scented) and English Breakfast (a blend) are included in these groups.
Each of these different types of tea is manufactured or processed at least a little differently than the others. Basics of Processing explains the primary processing steps, the changes that are taking place in the tea leaf, and what is happening in terms of the resulting tastes and aromas. We hope the explanations will help you appreciate the total tea experience more as well as understand the differences you can expect in all the types of tea.
While processing is the key element in giving us the different types of teas we have, many other factors influence the nuances of how a tea will taste. These include where the tea plant is grown (latitude, elevation, whether it's marine or continental, etc.), the soil it grows in, the climate and weather, the amount of rainfall the plant received during the season the leaves were harvested, which leaves were plucked at harvest, and even the time of day when the tea leaves are plucked.
The geographic variations leading to each tea's unique characteristics are often compared to those same distinctions in wine. What a wonderful comparison! It opens up a lifetime of tasting possibilities knowing that a green tea grown near a seacoast is going to taste different from a green tea grown in rocky soil or one at a high elevation…or knowing that an oolong harvested in a dry year will taste different than one produced during a year with ample rainfall…or even to know that all black teas will not taste the same as the harsh teabags I knew in my youth. Life is indeed full of possibilities!
It is mostly the buds and young leaves (collectively referred to as "tips" or "branch tips") of Camellia sinensis that are used to make tea, although depending upon the type of tea, older leaves and stems are sometimes also used. It takes about 3,200 branch tips to produce a single pound of tea. In terms of weight, it takes about 4,200 pounds of tips to produce 1,000 pounds of finished tea. Or to look at it yet another way:
In addition to the type of tea you select, you'll be confronted with other choices when purchasing tea. First, in terms of taste, quality, and other factors, you'll choose between whole leaf (also called orthodox) tea or CTC (crush-tear-curl or cut-tear-curl) tea, the type most commonly contained in teabags. Whole leaf tea, not surprisingly, consists of whole, intact tea leaves that have been twisted, rolled or otherwise manipulated during its processing. CTC tea leaves have been cut up into small pieces when processed.
You'll also have to decide whether to purchase loose leaf tea or teabags. If you're a new tea drinker, you might opt for teabags since they require no additional equipment. Eventually you'll probably find your way to loose leaf tea. In tea shops, loose leaf teas dominate the selection. These are usually whole leaf.
As you begin to drink tea---and especially when you begin to explore classic, traditional teas from tea shops---you'll notice names are more elaborate than simply green, black, oolong, etc. If the names are unfamiliar, it may be difficult initially to distinguish between them. There are many ways of naming teas. Here are a few things to look for in their monikers.
Traditional Chinese tea names consist of two parts that begin with its place of origin followed by the style of leaf. Look for the word Shan in names. It means "mountain," and high grown teas tend to be good, desirable teas. Two fairly common location names for teas are Keemun (or sometimes spelled Qimen) and Yunnan. They refer to a town and a province in China, respectively.
More often than not, a tea shop will also carry a translation, and you can begin to familiarize yourself with the names better. This is particularly helpful when encountering inconsistencies in spelling, primarily due to differences in translation. When in doubt, I've found it helpful to say the name aloud. The name will often sound very familiar to a tea I already know.
Japanese green teas will sometimes include an indication of the harvest in the tea's name. Look for shincha or ichiban in Japanese green teas. Both indicate the tea is from the first harvest of the year and is considered the best.
Newer teas often don't follow traditional naming conventions. With whole leaf black teas, the plantation or place might still comprise the first part of the name, but it's likely to be followed by a series of letters (some combination like FTGFOP) at the end of its name. These are descriptors of the finished leaf. The most important one to look for is an "F" or "B" in the 4th or 5th position. Both of these indicate whole leaf tea, with "F" ("flowery") indicating the tea is made up of larger leaves.
All the different types of tea have many things to recommend them, and your preferences will probably evolve over time as you try different kinds. Mine certainly have changed over the years and also vary with the season and even today's weather. Take the time to try them all as you shop for tea---you're certain to find many favorites.