The rainbow of Chinese teas

In this post I’m going to introduce you to six main types of Chinese tea. As I explained in my introduction to Chinese tea, the most important factor in making each type of tea distinct is fermentation. When fresh withered tea leaves interact with air, they oxidise – enzymes in the leaves break down, and the leaves turn brown. Different processes create teas ranging from unfermented to fully fermented and anything in between. Generally speaking, unfermented teas are made with the youngest leaves, and more highly fermented teas with the more mature leaves (although there are certainly exceptions). Differences in leaf and process, combined with several other factors, create the different categories.

I called this post the “rainbow” of Chinese tea because many categories are known by a colour designation: White, Green, Yellow, Red, Blue-Green, and Black. Then there are scented teas, flower teas, and herbal teas, which I’ll cover in another post.

Tea plant - note the pale green shoots, and the darker mature leaves. There's even a flower hidden in there!

Tea plant – note the pale green shoots, and the darker mature leaves. There’s even a flower hidden in there!

White Tea (白茶 bái chá)

White tea was developed fairly recently, within the last 200 years, and is primarily grown in Fujian province. The steeped leaves produce a tea that is yellow rather than green. White tea is largely unprocessed. Only the buds and youngest leaves are picked, then withered and air dried – and that’s all. The leaves are left in a natural state, with no rolling or shaping. They are not roasted, cured or fermented in any way, and only lightly oxidise as they dry. The unopened buds still have fine silvery-white hairs on them, hence the name White Tea. Young tea leaves contain the most caffeine, but since White Tea is unprocessed it isn’t noticeably more caffeinated than other Chinese teas. It does have more antioxidants, though.

White Tea - dry leaves, steeped 10 minutes, steeped 20 minutes, and the leaves after steeping.

White Tea – dry leaves, steeped 10 minutes, steeped 20 minutes, and the leaves after steeping.

Green Tea (绿茶 lǜ chá)

China produces 80% of the world’s green tea, the most consumed tea in China, and it is grown all over the country. Green tea is also unfermented, so it keeps a natural green colour and its antioxidants. Tea leaves are heated, rolled and dried with only light oxidisation during the curing process. Green tea is heat-treated to prevent fermentation. Traditional methods include pan frying and lightly roasting over a charcoal fire. Modern methods include oven drying and steaming. Green tea does contain caffeine, often more than darker Chinese teas, but much less than western teas (and far less than coffee). When brewing green tea (about 1 tsp per cup) it is important not to use overly hot water – definitely lower than boiling point – or the tea will be bitter. Letting it steep too long will also give a bitter taste.

Yellow Tea (黄茶 huáng chá)

Yellow tea is fairly rare, and I have never tried it. It is processed similarly to green tea, but with a slower drying phase. Damp tea leaves are left to dry long enough that they lose their green colour, becoming more yellow. The resulting brew is supposed to be yellow-green in colour, somewhere between White and Green teas, but with a different scent.

Red Tea (红茶 hóng chá)

Fermented teas are called “Red” teas in East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), but “Black” teas by westerners. The Chinese word that is literally “black tea” refers to a different type of tea altogether (which I’ll explain later). Since I’m discussing Chinese teas here, I’m going to go with “red” – but remember that this category is the one most western teas falls into (90% of teas sold in the west are “red” teas). Red tea is made by fermenting tea leaves fully before baking. Fresh leaves are withered, then kept warm and moist for a few hours until the leaves turn black. Red teas made of whole leaves are usually considered a higher quality, but many (including most westerm style teas) are cut more finely. Red tea has a strong smell and flavour, keeps longer, and is more easily transported (without losing flavour) which is probably why it was the first tea adopted by westerners. While most health claims regarding tea have yet to be scientifically proven, there is general agreement that red teas have few clear health benefits, especially as compared to green teas.

Red Tea from Yunnan province - dry leaves, steeped 10 minutes, steeped 20 minutes, and the leaves after steeping.

Red Tea from Yunnan province – dry leaves, steeped 10 minutes, steeped 20 minutes, and the leaves after steeping.

Blue-Green Tea (青茶 qīng chá)

Qing” can be translated green, blue, turquoise, or clear – even black, occasionally. Qing cha refers to semi-oxidised (semi-fermented) teas, more commonly called Oolong tea (乌龙茶 wū lóng chá, “black dragon tea”). Oolong tea goes through a fermentation process similar to that of red tea, but the timing is adjusted to change the resulting flavour. There is a wide variety in Oolong teas, and the amount of fermentation – from barely fermented, to most of the way to a full fermentation. Oolong teas are known for strong fragrance (including fruity or woody scents) and a lingering aftertaste. After fermentation, Oolong tea leaves are prepared in several different and distinct ways. Some are rolled into long curling leaves, others are wrapped into tight balls, sometimes with a little “tail” sticking out. When brewing Oolong tea, use about 2 tsp per cup with water just shy of boiling. Oolong tea leaves can be steeped several times, and often the flavour is enhanced upon rebrewing. Typically the third or fourth of five steepings will be the “best” brew.

Black Tea (黑茶 hēi chá)

The tea known in China as “Black tea” is also called “post-fermented tea”. This is because the process used for Red tea is reversed. The leaves are shaped and rolled before being fermented. The fermentation process is long and exact, and the result is very dark leaves – hence the name “black”. After fermentation, the tea is pressed into cakes, sometimes with complicated designs. Not only does this kind of tea keep quite well, it can even improve in flavour over time. Aged teas (stored for years before being made available for sale) are very valuable. When brewed, Black tea has a heavy, dark colour – darker than most red teas – and an rich, earthy scent and flavour. The leaves should be rinsed with boiling water twice before steeping to drink (about 2 tsp per cup). After rinsing they can be steeped several times in almost boiling water; the flavour usually improves with additional infusions. It is most commonly used in southern and western China – Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang. The most famous black tea is Pu’er, from Yunnan.

Terraced rows of tea plants growing in the mountains of southern Yunnan province.

Terraced rows of tea plants growing in the mountains of southern Yunnan province.

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2 thoughts on “The rainbow of Chinese teas

  1. Pingback: More Chinese teas: scented, flower, herbal | Tanya's Stories

  2. Pingback: An introduction to Chinese tea | Tanya's Stories

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