Hundreds of years ago, the British East India Company enlisted Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to discover the Chinese secret to making tea. What Fortune envisaged was a plant for each type of tea — a brooding black tea plant with darkened leaves, a cheery green tea plant with a more sprightly hue. Yet, when he set foot in the highly anticipated Chinese tea fields, he realized both black and green tea came from a single plant: Camellia sinensis. Years later, his findings still hold true. The delectable distinctions between our favorite teas aren’t a result of different plants, but different processes. The tea families are more closely related than you may think.
The types of tea, or tea families as they’re more affectionately known, essentially categorize teas based on their defining characteristics. As Robert Fortune discovered long ago, these distinctions arise from specific manufacturing procedures rather than the tea plant itself. Woven into the very fabric of tea culture are two core manufacturing processes, oxidation and fermentation.
Oxidation is a chemical process wherein the plant’s cell walls break down and receive oxygen exposure. Oxidation isn’t exclusive to tea; it’s to blame for the gradual browning of apples left on the countertop or the speckling of a banana. On its own, oxidation occurs at a gradual pace. However, by facilitating cellular breakdown – let’s say, taking a bite of that apple or slicing that banana – you can accelerate the oxidation process. The resultant tea leaves are darker, more aromatic, and delightfully sapid.
Conversely, fermentation is a biological process wherein the naturally-occurring microbes on the tea plant are allowed to transform the plant’s chemical compounds. Fermentation occurs naturally, but can be accelerated by exposing the plant to specific heat and humidity conditions. Then the existing microorganisms transform, developing an array of complex aromas and flavors in the process. Cheese, yoghurt, wine, beer, kombucha, and a number of other foods undergo the same transformation, giving rise to vibrant flavors laden with complexity.
The aforementioned manufacturing binary has shaped modern tea classification, giving rise to the 6 major types of tea. Every change in tea’s handling doesn’t result in a brand new tea family, however. More subtle alterations fall under tea varieties. This refers to slighter changes in the manufacturing process that don’t fundamentally change the nature of the tea. Things like shaping, rolling, and so forth are key in developing aromatic compounds found in different teas.
In classifying teas according to their production process, the absence of manufacturing actually creates a classification therein – white tea. White tea is the least processed type of tea in the Camellia sinensis family tree, and best represents the tea plant itself. White tea only just brushes with oxidation, its unsullied leaves adopting the signature pale colour for which it’s named. The unmistakable flavours of white tea – light, floral with traces of fruit and smoke – bear witness to its delicate origin.
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White tea’s famous relative is none other than green tea, the most widely known type of tea. Green tea owes its distinctive color and flavor to fixation, a requisite step which precludes oxidation from occurring. Exposing the tea leaves to heat effectively neutralizes the enzyme responsible for oxidation, thus allowing the leaves to retain their telltale green color. As with wine, green tea is known for certain flavors and varieties which embody the diverse tea cultures in China, Japan, and Korea.
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Oolongs are partially oxidized, with the level of oxidation differing in each variety. This tea family is so multifarious that oxidation levels fall anywhere from 10% to 80% – effectively bridging green and black teas. Re: flavor, oolongs with less oxidation bear closer resemblance to green teas, whereas those with greater oxidation levels share more similarities with black teas. Yet, with a taste spectrum from sweet to floral to fruity, this group has something for everyone.
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Black tea sits at the upper end of the oxidation spectrum with an eminent appearance and taste of its own. Unlike green tea, black tea oxidizes fully, creating a family which boasts a deep, rich hue and flavors to match. Full-bodied, strong, sometimes flowery and sometimes malty, black teas are prismatic in how they encompass numerous flavors within themselves.
Less common are the dark teas, a name used to characterize teas that have undergone fermentation. This classification includes pu-erh, a striking tea with an unmistakable earthiness. An acquired taste for many, pu-erhs aren’t for the faint of heart. But the process of fermentation helps ripen the tea leaves. Pu-erhs can either be made through traditional fermentation or accelerated fermentation, each method giving rise to unmistakable flavors and fragrances.
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Lastly are yellow teas. This family is tea’s best kept secret, accounting for just a sliver of global tea production. Yellow tea is an enigma. Previously thought to undergo fermentation, research has shown that yellow teas actually experience a non-enzymatic oxidation instead. To achieve this, hot tea leaves are repeatedly wrapped in airtight paper, sapping the leaves’ green color in the process. The result is a tantalizing tea that’s equal parts aromatic and light.
Which one will you try?