According to a recent report, there are currently more than 1,100 different types of tea produced in China. This figure seems staggering, but are all these teas really that different from one another? In reality, only a limited number of tea products are widely known throughout China, while many of the lesser-known teas are only produced and consumed locally in small areas. Two similar teas produced in the same area may have two different names in two nearby villages. In addition, tea distributors sometimes change the name of a tea to gain an advantage in the market. From the perspective of tea production techniques, many teas are very similar, so how many types of tea are there really in China?
Before I start, I want you to know that there are still arguments about how to classify tea in the tea industry. This blog is intended to help beginners who just started drinking Chinese tea to have a basic understanding of the different tea types. I would welcome your own opinions about tea classification, and I hope you can leave comments and share.
Let's first categorize Chinese Tea according to the most common distinction - the method of production.
By this method, all teas can be labeled as processed or unprocessed. Simply put, unprocessed tea is all Green Tea, White Tea, Yellow Tea, Black Tea, Oolong, and Dark Tea which is not flavored. Flavored Tea, Herbal Tea, Flower Tea and other Tea Beverages fall under the category of processed tea. As you can see, most Chinese tea falls under the unprocessed tea category.
Within this category, we can further subdivide teas according to their fermentation levels. There are six categories according to this classification, each one deriving its name from the color of its liquor - Green Tea, White Tea, Yellow Tea, Oolong Tea, Black Tea, and Dark Tea.
绿茶 (Lǜ Chá)
Green tea is an unfermented tea with a green or yellow-green liquor. Green tea has the longest history, and is still the most widely produced tea in China. The first step to making green tea called Shā Qīng (杀青 lit. kill green). In this step, high heat (either from frying or steaming) is used to halt the oxidation process of the fresh tea leaves. This helps to keep the leaves green and to develop their fragrance. The next step is called Róu Niǎn (揉捻, lit. rolling and twisting, also known as shaping). In this step the leaves are formed into one of several possible shapes, such as Flat (e.g. Long Jing), Swirl (e.g. Bi Luo Chun), or Pearl (e.g. Gun Powder). This step is easier after a certain amount of water is vaporized in the first step. The rolling and pressing causes the cells in the tea leaves to break, excreting juice that gives the tea more of its flavor and aroma. During the final drying stage, frying, roasting, or sun-drying is used to fully dry the tea. Some of the green tea may undergo a process called Tān Fàng (摊放, lit. spread out, this process applies to Puerh and dark tea as well). This is similar, but not identical to withering before Shā Qīng, the difference being the length of time used. If the length of time is long enough to initiate oxidation-related chemical reactions, it is withering, otherwise it is Tān Fàng. Most green tea can be brewed for 3 - 4 steeps with a water temperature between 75℃/167℉ and 85℃/185℉.
白茶 (Bái Chá)
White tea is slightly-fermented tea which only requires withering (萎凋, Wěi Diāo) and drying. White tea requires the loss of 80%-90% of water from tea leaves by withering before the final drying process to control the fermentation level. Unlike other types of tea grown throughout China, the tea trees used for making traditional white tea are only found in several small areas in the Fujian Province. White Tea can be categorized according to the types of tea tree and parts of the plant that are used. Silver Needle (白毫银针, Bái Háo Yín Zhēn) and White Peony (白牡丹, Bái Mǔ Dān) are made from the Dà Bái Chá (大白茶) tea tree. Silver Needle teas use only tea buds, while White Peony can have nodes of one bud and two leaves. Gòng Méi (贡眉) and Shòu Méi (寿眉) teas use leaves from the Cài Chá (菜茶) tea tree. Gòng Méi is made with nodes of one bud and two-three leaves, while Shòu Méi contains only leaves. Tea cakes pressed with white tea have been getting popular in the recent decades. White tea cakes can be stored indefinitely using the same storage method as used for Puerh and dark tea, but requiring less light and oxygen. 3 - 5 years of proper storage can enhance the quality of the white tea. Longer brewing time is suggested for making white tea and more steeps can be made than with green tea. In the recent years, a tea called Yuè Guāng Bái (月光白, lit. Moonlight White, also known as Moonlight Beauty) has been getting popular in the white tea market. This tea uses the same big-leaf tea trees as used for Puerh in Yunnan (as a result, it is commonly categorized as Raw Puerh), adopting the production method of traditional Fuding and Zhenghe white tea. Some scholars also categorize this tea as oolong, because of its higher oxidation level compared to traditional white tea. The taste of this tea is very different from the white tea from Fujian.
黄茶 (Huáng Chá)
Yellow tea is a lightly-fermented tea with yellow-color tea leaves and liquor. Yellow tea is made using a special production step called Mèn Huáng (闷黄, lit. cover to make it yellow), in which the tea is traditionally covered with paper. This step can be applied at any stage as long as the tea is wet and warm enough. Withering and shaping are not required for yellow tea, but may be used if desired. Yellow tea can generally be sorted into three types: Huáng Yá Chá (黄芽茶, lit. yellow bud tea), made with pure buds or one bud with one leaf, Huáng Xiǎo Chá (黄小茶, lit. yellow small tea), made with young bud leaves, Huáng Dà Chá (黄大茶, lit. yellow big tea) made with one bud and two-three leaves or one bud with four-five leaves. The market for yellow tea is the smallest among all types of Chinese teas. The traditional handmade production method can take a long time, requiring at least 72 hours between repeated cycles of covering and frying, for a total of up to four cycles, making high-quality handmade yellow tea very pricey. Yellow tea was once considered to fall under the category of green tea, and many people still think that yellow tea is just defective green tea.
乌龙 (Wū Lóng)
Also known as Qīng Chá (青茶, lit. cyan tea), Oolong is a half-fermented tea, with dark-green or green-brown tea leaves. Oolong is a major category among the six tea types. This tea is produced mostly in Fujian, Guangdong, and Taiwan, with a wide variety of shapes and tastes. Most oolong teas have a fruity or flowery aroma, and a rich, smooth taste. Fresh tea leaves for Oolong can be picked throughout the season, but only spring and fall leaves produce the highest quality tea. After withering the fresh leaves, the next step for making oolong is Yáo Qīng (摇青, lit. shake green), when the leaves are shaken to bruise them. The red edge of some oolong tea leaves is the result of this step. In the next step, Liáng Qīng (凉青, lit. cool green), the leaves are cooled down. Some oolong teas require several repetitions of these two steps. Shā Qīng (Kill green), shaping and drying follow to stop the fermentation, and these three processes are mixed in different orders for different types of oolong tea. Oolong is usually brewed using boiling water, and the brewing time is a little longer than for other tea.
Black Tea (Red Tea)
红茶 (Hóng Chá)
What is known in the West as black tea is actually called red tea in China. It is a fermented tea, and is consumed and produced all over the world. The basic steps for producing black tea are withering, shaping, oxidation, and drying. Besides broken black teas, there are two other black teas produced in China: Souchong and Gongfu Black tea. Souchong is from the Fujian Province, and Tongmuguan is known to produce the best Lapsang Souchong tea. Gongfu tea is planted and produced in many areas in China, and gets its name from the complicated production process (Gongfu, 工夫, lit. take effort). Gongfu teas are mostly named for the location of their production, e.g. Qimen (known as Keemun), Dian Hong, Tan Yang and so on. In China, people prefer drinking black tea without milk or sugar, especially Souchong and Gongfu black tea, which are usually not as strong as broken black tea. Drinking it without milk or sugar also makes it easier to taste the difference of the different teas.
黑茶 (Hēi Chá)
Dark tea is a post-fermented tea and is called black tea in Chinese. Dark tea was traditionally used to supply remote and border areas of China since the pressed tea bricks can more easily survive long transportation. Shā Qīng, shaping, heaping/fermentation, and drying are the basic steps for making dark tea. The dry tea will usually be pressed into bricks or strip shapes.
What about Puerh?
Puerh (also known as Pu'er) tea was historically considered to be a Dark Tea, but in recent decades people have been listing Puerh in its own separate category. As we know, Puerh can be both raw and ripe. Raw Puerh is unfermented, with a production process similar to green tea. Raw Puerh can be drunk directly (known as Dian Qing or Shai Qing Mao Cha), can be pressed into a cake, or can be fermented to make ripe Puerh. Puerh can be kept indefinitely if stored in a proper environment. A cool and dry place with access to air can age the tea and enhance its quality. Although aging raw Puerh is done to allow oxidation to occur, which is similar to how ripe Puerh is made (fermented in the tea factory before being sold), they are still two different teas. No matter how many years raw Puerh is aged, it won't become ripe Puerh, because the temperature and humidity for ripe Puerh is completely different from those used in aging raw Puerh. Aged raw Puerh can be pricey, but it doesn't mean it is necessarily better than ripe Puerh. A properly produced and stored ripe Puerh is a very rich and pleasant tea. Choosing the tea that fits your taste and your life style is the most important factor.
According to the form of the final tea products, Chinese tea can be also classified into three different types: loose leaf tea, pressed tea, and tea bag tea.
Loose Leaf Tea 散茶 (Sàn Chá) Most Chinese teas are loose leaf teas and they are usually sold by weight. Loose leaf tea makes it easier to adjust the amount of tea used to the volume of a container and the strength of one's personal preference, but it is also more difficult for beginners to start with. The brewing process is a very important part of Chinese tea: the amount of the tea, the temperature of the water, and the length of the brewing time are all keys to making a good cup of tea. Making loose leaf tea is hard, but it is also a great joy.
Pressed Tea 紧压茶 (Jǐn Yā Chá) Most pressed tea is dark tea which requires post-fermentation. Pressed teas were first made for easy transportation of the dark tea to remote areas. The most common shapes of pressed tea are brick, strip, cake, and Tuo (沱, bowl-shape). Raw and ripe Puerh are commonly pressed to cake and Tuo shapes. Recently, manufacturers have started making miniature Tuo and ball shapes for single-session use. Tea manufacturers have also started to press white tea to cake shapes for aging purpose as well.
Tea Bag Tea 袋泡茶 (Dài Pào Chá) Tea bag products were not available in China until Lipton brought their black tea into the market. Tea bags were first used for broken tea or tea dust, but with the increasing demand for high-quality tea, loose leaf tea is also produced in tea bag form now, especially blended flavored tea. A new trend in China is making your own teabags from the broken leaves left after breaking a tea cake for easy brewing.
With rapid developments in the tea industry, new tea products are being produced more than ever. As many new products amalgamate techniques and ideas from several traditional categories, classification may become less rigid. Nevertheless, the traditional subdivisions can give a useful starting point and overview to thinking about tea. In the end, the most important thing is whether a particular tea appeals to your own taste and lifestyle.