From a recent incomplete report, there are more than 1,100 different tea products in modern Chinese tea industry. The number seems really big, but are these teas really that different? Actually, only very limited tea products are known by most people in China, but a lot of tea are only produced and consumed locally in a small area. A similar tea may have two different names in two villages. Businessmen sometimes change the name to win a market. From the tea producing techniques, a lot of them are very similar. So, how many types of tea in China indeed?
Before I start, I want you know that there are still arguments about how to classify tea in the tea industry. I'm writing this blog to help the people who just started drinking Chinese tea to have a basic knowledge about tea types. I hope you can leave comments and share your opinion with us too.
Let's first categorize Chinese Tea with the most common way you know: Producing method
All teas can be labeled unprocessed tea or processed tea from producing method. Simply, unprocessed tea is Green Tea, White Tea, Yellow Tea, Black Tea, Oolong, and Dark Tea which are not flavored. All Flavored Tea, Herbal Tea, Flower Tea and other Tea Beverage are under processed tea.
As you can see, most 'Chinese Tea' fall under unprocessed tea category. There are six basic types of Chinese teas that are categorized with their process and fermented levels. They are named with the color of their liquor.
绿茶 (lǜ chá)
Green tea is an unfermented tea. Tea liquor is usually green or yellow-green. Green tea has the longest history and is stilled the most produced tea in China. The first step of making green tea is 杀青 (shā qīng, lit. kill green) which is using high heat to stop the oxidation of the fresh tea leaves. This can help to keep the leaves green and develop the fragrance. Tea leaves are either fried or steamed in this step. After 杀青, 揉捻 (róu niǎn, lit. rolling and twisting, also known as shaping) is easier to take place since certain amount of water is vaporized from the leaves and the tea is more flexible to be shaped. Flat(e.g. Long Jing, Swirl (e.g. Bi Luo Chun), Pearl (e.g. Gun Powder), and other shapes of green tea are usually formed in this step. At the same time, by pressing and rolling the tea, the cells in the leaves are broken and the juice comes out of the leaves to give the tea more flavor and aroma. During the last drying process, frying, roasting, or sun-drying is used to fully dry the tea. Most of the green tea can usually be brewed for 3 - 4 steeps with a water temperature from 75℃/167℉ to 85℃/185℉.
P.S Some of the green tea may have a process called 摊放 (tān fàng, lit.spread out)similar as (but not) withering before killing green, the difference between them is the length of time. If the time is long enough to make the chemical reaction, it is withering. Otherwise, it's not.
白茶 (bái chá)
White tea is slight-fermented tea which only requires withering (萎凋, wěi diāo) and drying. White tea requires to loose 80%-90% water from the leaves by withering before the final drying to control the ferment level . Not like other types of tea growing everywhere in China, the tea tree for making white tea is mostly in several small areas of Fujian Province. White Tea's products are very simple too. Pure buds is called Silver Needle (白毫银针, bái háo yín zhēn), buds and 2 leaves are called White Peony (白牡丹, bái mǔ dān), these two types white tea use 大白茶 (dà bái chá) as the material. Using the tea leaves from 菜茶 (cài chá), 贡眉 (gòng méi) is made with 1 bud and 2 - 3 leaves. The white tea made with only leaves is called 寿眉 (shòu méi). Tea cake pressed with white tea is getting popular in the recent decade. White tea cakes can be stored permanent when using the same way as Puerh and dark tea but requires less light and oxygen. 3 - 5 years 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 green tea.
黄茶 (huáng chá)
Yellow tea is a light-fermented tea. The tea leaves and and liquor are both in yellow color. The special producing step for yellow tea is 闷黄 (mèn huáng, lit. cover to make it yellow). This step can be processed at any stage as long as the tea is wet and warm enough to let it happen. Withering and shaping are not required for yellow tea but can be applied to some of the yellow tea.
乌龙 (wū lóng)
Also known as 青茶 (qīng chá, lit. cyan tea). Oolong is a half-fermented tea, the tea leaves are usually in a dark green or green-brown color. Oolong is a big category of six tea types. Although it is produced mostly in Fujian, Guangdong, and Taiwan, but the shapes and taste have a big variety and differences. Most oolong teas have some fruity or flowery aroma and a rich, smooth taste. The fresh tea leaves for Oolong can be picked all season, but only spring and fall produce good quality tea. After withering of the fresh leaves, the next step for making oolong is 摇青 (yáo qīng, lit. shake green, known as bruising). The red edge of some oolong tea leaves is the result of 摇青. 凉青 (liáng qīng, lit. cool green) is necessary for the leaves to cool down and some oolong teas require 摇青 and 凉青 repeating for couple more times. Kill green, shaping and drying will follow to stop the fermentation, these three processes will be mixed in different orders for different oolong tea making. Oolong is usually brewed with boiling water, and the brewing time is a little longer than other tea.
红茶 (hóng chá)
Black tea is called red tea in Chinese. It is a fermented tea and is consumed and produced all over the world. Black tea's basic processing steps are: withering, shaping, oxidation, and drying. Besides the broken black tea, there are another two black teas are producing in China: Souchong and Gongfu Black tea. Souchong is from Fujian Province, and Lapsang is known to produce the best Souchong tea. Gongfu tea is planted and produced in a lot of areas in China, it got its name for complicated producing process (Gongfu, 工夫, lit. take efforts). Gongfu tea are mostly named with the location, e.g. Qimen, Dian Hong, Tan Yang and so on. In China, people prefer drinking black tea without milk or sugar since Souchong and Gongfu black tea are usually not as strong as broken black tea. On the other hand, it will be easier to taste the difference of the different teas.
黑茶 (hēi chá)
Dark tea is a post-fermented tea and it is called black tea in Chinese. Dark tea used to supply the remote and boarder areas since the pressed tea bricks are easier for long transporting. Killing green, shaping, heaping/fermentation, and drying are the basic steps for making dark tea. The dry tea will usually be pressed into bricks or stripe shape.
What about Puerh?
Puerh tea was under Dark Tea category in the history, but in the recent decades, people think that Puerh tea should be listed separately along with Dark Tea. As we know, Puerh has both raw and ripe tea. Raw Puerh is consider to be unfermented and the producing process is similar as (but not) green tea. Raw Puerh can be drank directly or pressed into the cake or ferment again to make ripe Puerh. Puerh can be kept permanently if stored in a proper environment. Cool and dry place with air can age the tea to enhance the quality. Although aging raw Puerh is to let the oxidation happen which seems similar as the result of ripe Puerh (fermented in the tea factory before selling to the market), they are still two different tea. No mater how many years aging of raw Puerh, it won't become ripe Puerh, becuase the temperature and humidity of heaping for ripe Puerh to ferment is completely different from natural aging of raw Puerh. Aged raw Puerh can by pricey but id doesn't mean that ripe Puerh is not good. Choosing the tea that is good for your taste and your life style is more important than those factory data.