There are over 20,000 different teas in the world, according to Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss in The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to the World’s Best Teas. But if you’re interested in learning about specialty tea, there are six main kinds you’ll want to start with.
So make yourself a brew and get ready to learn the difference between your matcha, oolong, and English Breakfast.
Tea tasting. Credit: Kaith Sandoval
Specialty Tea vs Tisane
Stroll down the tea aisle of any supermarket, or even wander through a specialty tea shop, and you’ll see a wide variety of teas: peppermint, chamomile, oolong, Rooibos…
But not all of these are actually teas. Some are just tisanes.
Tea comes from the Camellia sinensis bush. Any beverage that isn’t made with this plant isn’t, strictly speaking, tea. Raspberry tea, hibiscus tea, ginger tea: delicious though they may be, they’re misnamed.
These herbs will become a tisane. Credit: Sonder Coffee & Tea
A Quick Note on Tea Varieties
Camellia sinensis is the tea species but, much like with Arabica coffee, you’ll find varieties and cultivars. We won’t be looking at tea varieties in great detail in this article, but we will quickly cover the basics.
There are three main commercial tea varieties: Sinensis, Assamica, and Cambodiensis. Sinensis, according to Royal Tea NY, is better suited to cold climates than the other varieties. It originates from China but you’ll also find it in Japan, Taiwan, India, and Nepal. Assamica is mostly found in India, Sri Lanka, and Africa, despite originally coming from Southeast Asia. And Cambodiensis is common in Cambodia and Java, but you’ll rarely consume a pure brew of it: this plant is more commonly used in hybrids
There are also many sub-varieties, cultivars, and, of course, indigenous varieties that are not widely commercially consumed. And just like with coffee, not all tea varieties are suited to all tea-producing climates.
The 6 Main Tea Categories
Before you start exploring the world of tea varieties, however, you need to understand the main categories of tea: black, oolong, green, white, yellow, and fermented/pu’erh. This is the first question a tea seller or assistant will ask you when you go to buy tea. What’s more, it has a dramatic impact on the tea’s taste and ideal brewing temperature.
And these categories all comes down to oxidation.
Coffee roasters will recognise the term “oxidation” as the Maillard Reaction, but it’s very different with tea. A chemical reaction, it browns the leaves, adding aroma and flavours – in particular, according to Tony Gebely in World of Tea/Tea: A User’s Guide, theaflavins and thearubigins.
Theaflavins, Gebely explains, add briskness, brightness, and a yellow colour. Thearubigins add depth, body, and a reddish colour.
The process may be stopped, encouraged, or otherwise controlled to affect the final cup of tea. So let’s take a look at the different ways this happens.
Pu’erh Dali Tuo tea. Credit: Ankori Tea
Black tea – which Kasim Ali, Owner of Waterloo Tea and Founder of the Tea Brewers Cup, tells me is sold as “red tea” in the Chinese market – is the most oxidised of all teas. The moment the leaves are picked, they begin to wilt and oxidation begins. They are often then crushed or rolled to speed up the process.
The flavour profile is strong, with plenty of depth and body. As the most oxidised tea, you would also brew it at the highest temperatures. Kasim Ali recommends 95–100℃/203–212℉. And much like coffee, the greater the temperature, the more bitter you can expect the brew to taste.
Some of the most famous black teas include the English Breakfast blend and Earl Grey, which is flavoured with bergamot.
Black tea is also the most widely consumed in the Western world, and there are regionally specific tea traditions. These include India’s chai, made of black tea with milk and spices, and the British tradition of adding cold milk and sugar – much to the bemusement of the rest of Europe.
This black tea has been left in the cup, where it will continue brewing. Credit: Tea Angle
The only difference between oolong and wulong tea is the name. Oolong is the most recognised in Western countries, yet linguists would say that wulong is a more accurate romanisation of the original Chinese kanji.
Oolong tea is also perhaps one of the widest categories of tea: according to Max Falkowitz in Serious Eats, oxidation can run between 8 and 85%. This means you will also come across vastly different flavours.
All oolong tea processing begins with some form of encouraging oxidation, such as bruising the edges of the leaves. It also ends with a form of “fixing”, the process by which oxidation is paused. This could be pan firing, steaming, baking, or some other way of adding heat. However, Gebely states that the process between the initial oxidation and the fixing will vary because of the different oxidation levels.
When brewing, Kasim suggests that medium oxidised teas are brewed at 85℃/185℉, while lower oxidised teas should be brewed at 80℃/176℉.
Jingmai Oolong tea leaves. Credit: theoolongdrunk
Green Specialty Tea
Green tea is only very lightly oxidised. After the initial withering, the leaves must be quickly fixed. This tends to give it a lighter profile, and it will also lose its flavour much quicker than black or oolong tea.
While associated with Asia, there are significant differences between the offerings from the different Asian countries. To start with, Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss emphasise that Chinese and Japanese green tea tastes vastly different thanks to the varieties and terroir (The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to the World’s Best Teas).
Then you have the way the green teas are processed, prepared, and brewed. This results in categories such as sencha, matcha, longjing and bilochun.
Matcha, which is ground into a powder, is perhaps the most well-known green tea thanks to Starbucks “matcha lattes”. Japan’s highest-quality green tea category, it is ground into a powder (meaning it quickly becomes stale). It’s consumed in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Ali recommends brewing Chinese green teas at 75℃/167℉, but Japanese green teas at 65℃/149℉. “Some Japanese greens will brew closer to 50℃ (122℉),” he adds.
Hui Ming green tea from the region of Zhenjiang in China. Credit: Ankori Tea
Yellow tea is a slightly obscure but prized type of tea produced in China. It’s similar to green tea but goes through an additional yellowing phase. Kerri Shadid explains in The Daily Tea that, after fixing, the leaves are wrapped in cloth which allows slight oxidation to occur a second time. They are then slowly charcoal dried, fixing the tea one final time.
Shadid describes this drink as “more aromatic and ‘mature’”, and not possessing the “astringency” that green tea can have. She recommends steeping it for one to three minutes in 170–180 ℉ (77–82℃) water.
Korea also produces a tea described as “yellow tea”, but many tea professionals consider it to be different to Chinese yellow tea.
Yellow tea from Xiang Ya. Credit: Ankori Tea
White tea is often described as unoxidised, but this is inaccurate since exposure to air will always result in some oxidation. It’s made mainly with the young buds of the tea plant, which are still covered in white hairs. This is what gives the tea its name.
The flavour is the lightest of all the specialty tea types, and it’s often described as the most complex and subtle. It can be fruity and floral.
White tea ready for brewing. Credit: Ankori Tea
Fermented & Pu’erh Specialty Tea
Oxidation is sometimes referred to as fermentation, but that’s inaccurate. There is just one category of fermented specialty teas leaves – the most famous of which is Chinese Pu’erh.
These teas are fermented after the oxidation and fixing. This also means that you can allow the leaves to age, much like with wine.
Bear in mind that this is different to Kombucha, which is fermented after the tea has already been brewed.
Sheng Pu’erh tea. Credit: Ankori Tea
Just like with coffee, no two teas are the same. The variety, terroir, production, processing, and brewing all impact on the final flavour of the cup. Yet if you want to learn more about specialty tea, start by trying these six different types. Their different cup profiles will introduce you to the wide variety that this drink has to offer.
Feature photo credit: La Marzocco Cafe
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