Updated: Sep 16, 2021
When choosing a tea, the endless variety can be a little daunting. Formosa oolong? Green sencha? Perhaps genmaicha? How about pu’erh, or Darjeeling? What gives each of these teas its unique flavor? Many people don’t realize that these varieties' wide range of distinctive styles and tastes all begin with the leaves of the same plant: Camellia sinensis.
Some of the earliest archaeological evidence documents the custom of tea drinking as far as 4,000 years back in China. Tea was an enormous export from China and for a long time was carefully guarded so that only dried leaves left the country. Without live specimens to reference, Carl Linnaeus, the “father of modern taxonomy,” concluded that black and green tea came from completely different plants. During the period of 1843 - 1861, Scottish ethnobotanist Robert Fortune smuggled live tea plants out of China, which confirmed to the tea drinking world that green and black tea actually come from the same plant (Camellia sinensis).
Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub that can grow quite tall when allowed to do so, so much so that it often ends up resembling a tree in the wild. On tea plantations, the plants are kept pruned at waist height for the ease of the pickers. When harvesting, tea pickers are after the topmost growth, typically consisting of the two to four top leaves and a bud. Once the leaves grow large, they are much too tough and waxy for tea production. One major facet affecting the flavor of tea is the soil in which the bushes are grown, as each different region produces many unique flavor nuances. Those familiar with wine grapes will understand this concept well!
Black teas are fully oxidized after the leaves are picked. After the harvest, leaves destined for black tea are withered by having air blown over and around them. The leaves are rolled or cut. This process used to be done completely by hand, but modern machinery has taken over much of this process due to high global demands. The next step is oxidation, which is sometimes erroneously referred to as “fermenting,” though no fermentation is taking place. As the leaves oxidize, enzymes are released that change the color and flavor of the leaves.
This process differs a little when it comes to pu’erh (a special black tea variety with its own unique preparation), which does require an additional step involving fermentation. After the leaves are dried, they are piled up to "cook" and then stored to age. Pu’erh tea can be left loose, or pressed into cakes. This process adds depth, smoothness, and complexity. Many say that pu’erh is an acquired taste, but it is the favorite of many.
When brewed, black teas take on a reddish to brownish hue. They are characterized by a range of flavors, including roasted, tannic, smooth, or biting.
The process for creating green tea begins very quickly after the harvest. This is done by either steaming or cooking the leaves in the first few hours after plucking to keep them from oxidizing. There are different styles for producing green tea that can involve pan-flipping the leaves, or rolling them (as is done with gunpowder green).
Brewed green tea leaves produce a light green to golden drink. The taste of green tea can vary immensely, from roasted, sweet, vegetal, or grassy to almost oceanic in flavor.
White teas have the gentlest flavor out of the three. While they are growing, bushes utilized for the harvest of white tea typically have to be protected from the sun. Shading the teas decreases the astringency and boosts chlorophyll, resulting in a sweeter flavor.
The young leaves undergo minimal processing and no oxidation to retain their delicate color and flavors. For white teas, such as white silver needle tea, often just the very top, unopened leaf bud is picked. Other varieties, such as Kumaon white tea and white peony tea, are made from slightly larger and more opened leaves from the top of the plant.
The resulting brew from white tea leaves is usually very pale and clear, reflecting the delicate nature of precious white teas.
Oolong tea goes through the same process as black tea, but it is only oxidized for half the time.
How Teas Get Their Names
Beyond the most basic designations of black, white, green, yellow, pu-erh, and oolong, teas can have some very complex naming conventions. Some are named for the way they look, while others receive names simply based on where they are grown or processed. The most famous, of course, are teas like Darjeeling and Assam from India and Ceylon from Sri Lanka.
Some of the most prolific teas are those that acquire their name through ancient legend and folklore, like Iron Goddess Oolong, also known as Ti Kwan Yin or Tieguanyin (鐵觀音). According to legend, a poor farmer in the Fujian Province of China lived near a dilapidated temple dedicated to the Iron Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. The farmer is said to have cleaned and restored the temple, after which the Iron Goddess appeared to the farmer in a dream and told him to find a treasure left for him behind the temple. When he awoke, he found a small tea bush that he then cultivated. Thus, Iron Goddess Oolong was born.
Da Hong Pao oolong tea
Another tea that finds its origins in legend is one of China’s most famous teas: Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe, an oolong tea. According to folklore, a Ming Dynasty tea farmer cured the emperor, or possibly his mother, of a serious illness by serving tea made from bushes on Jiu Long Cliff deep within the heart of the Wuyi tea-growing region. To thank the farmer, the emperor ordered that lavish red robes be placed on the bushes, and thus the name Big Red Robe was born. Today, the six original bushes are not cultivated or harvested, but they are insured by the Chinese government for one million Chinese Yuan and it is illegal to pick from them.
An Ali Shan oolong originates on Mount Ali in Taiwan, and pu-erh tea is named after the city of pu-erh in Yunnan province because it was the center of the local tea trade along the Tea Horse Road during the Tang Dynasty.
One of the more controversial place-name-based teas is the pan-roasted green tea called Longjing (龍井茶) or Dragon Well. This Chinese tea is quite famous and comes from Longjing Village near Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. There are, however, many inauthentic versions of Longjing on the market, and these tend to originate in Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Guangdong provinces. Many of these tea producers say that they process the tea leaves according to traditional Longjing methods, but discerning tea drinkers can usually tell a true Longjing from a tea simply named “Longjing.”
Poetic and Descriptive Names
Although modern teas don’t always pull naming conventions from the traditional, poetic origins of specific types of tea, according to Warren Peltier in The Ancient Art of Tea: Wisdom From the Ancient Chinese Tea Masters,
“Poetic imagery is conjured up in literary terms for tea: Jade Flower Bud, One Spearpoint, Jade Flower, Thick Clouds, Eagle Claws, Dew Buds. These poetic titles form some of the basis for the artistic origins of tea, and at least, the artistic origins of many tea names.”
During the Tang and Song dynasties, "Thick Clouds" was a term used by tea poets in admiration of their tea. During these periods, when tea was boiled or whisked in a bowl, a white froth appeared on the top of the tea, which the poets compared to thick, white clouds. “Thick clouds overflow the teacup.”
A Yellow Mountain Fur Peak tea
In modern times, poetic examples feature specific descriptions of the leaves themselves, like Bi Luo Chun (碧螺春), or Green Snail Spring, whose name describes the shape of the leaves. Yellow Mountain Fur Peak (黄山毛峰, Huang Shan Mao Feng) is so called because of the small white hairs on the leaves and the fact that the processed leaves resemble the peak of a mountain.