There are thousands of types of tea in the world. In the West, teas were traditionally classified as green tea, black tea and oolong tea. More recently, white tea and pu-erh tea have been added to the list of common Western tea classifications. Other tea types include yellow tea, scented/flavored tea and blended tea. Each of these tea types has processing methods, aromas and flavors that set it apart from the rest.
Here's what makes each tea type unique.
Black tea is the most common type of tea in the Western world. It is noted for its full, bold flavor and its ability to pair well with many Western foods, particularly sweets and creamy foods. For this reason, many popular teas for afternoon tea are black teas.
Black tea's processing is different from other types in that it is fully (or almost fully) oxidized. Oxidation is the same natural process that occurs when you muddle herbs and allow their flavors and aromas to develop for a few minutes. Typically, black tea is rolled or crushed with machines to release its natural oils, which react with oxygen in the air to change the flavor and aroma of the leaves. When oxidation is deemed complete, the tea is heated and dried to end the oxidation process.
The final color of the leaves is chocolaty brown, brown-black or blue-black.* The brew tends to be reddish, which is why 'black tea' is known as 'red tea' (hong cha) in China.
* Tippy teas may be flecked with (or made entirely from) silver or golden tips. Nepalese black teas tend to be less-than-fully oxidized, so they are often flecked with greenish leaves.
Green teas are rapidly gaining popularity in the West among Baby Boomers and others for their purported health benefits. In Japan and many parts of China, green teas are a staple of local cuisine. Green teas range from sweet and mellow (such as Long Jing) to vegetal/grassy and lemony (such as Sencha).
Unlike black tea, green tea is unoxidized. Japanese green teas (such as Sencha and Gyokuro) are typically steamed. Chinese-style teas (such as Long Jing and Bi Luo Chun) are typically processed with dry heat using an oven-like rotating drum and/or a cooking vessel similar to a wok.
These different processing methods produce different flavors, just as steaming or roasting the same vegetable would result in different flavors. Japanese-style green teas tend to have strong vegetal (vegetable-like), grassy or oceanic/seaweed notes and a slight citrus undertone. Chinese-style green teas may have some vegetal flavors, but also often have a mellower, sweeter flavor profile with notes of nuts, flowers, wood and/or vanilla.
Also known as 'blue-green' tea or 'wu long' oolong tea is capable of an incredible depth and complexity that attracts many foodies, wine fanatics and serious tea drinkers. It's sometimes called 'the connoisseur's tea' for this reason. Its flavors/aromas and its reputed (although, many think, over-hyped) ability to aid in weight loss are factors in its rising popularity.
Oolong is often described as 'somewhere between green and black tea.' Whereas green tea is unoxidized and black tea is (almost) fully oxidized, oolong tea is partially oxidized. It is rolled by hand or machine (to bring the essential oils to the surface for oxidation) and pan fired, and then allowed to oxidize. This process is repeated many times until the desired level of oxidation is achieved. During this process, the leaves may be rolled into balls, twisted or otherwise shaped. Many oolongs are roasted after they have been oxidized in order to further develop their flavors and aromas. However, there are additional processing techniques (such as rolling and shaping) which further differentiate oolong from black tea and green tea.
Depending on their processing, oolongs may have flavors and aromas of honey, orchids and other flowers, lychee and other fruits, wood, butter or cream, vanilla and/or coconut. (As an exception, Wuyi oolongs are noted for their mineral flavors, which are not typically present in other oolongs.) These nuances often change and develop over multiple infusions, and the aroma is often as complex and enjoyable as the flavor.
Pouchong (or Baozhong) is sometimes considered to be a subclass of green tea or oolong tea. It is green in color, but it is lightly oxidized, like an oolong. Some suppliers sell it as a green, others as an oolong, and still others as its own class of tea.
White tea is gaining a following because of its high levels of antioxidants and typically low level of caffeine.** It typically has a very delicate, nuanced flavor.
White tea processing is minimal. It is plucked from the buds (and, in the case of Bai Mu Dan / 'White Peony,' the buds and leaves) of varietals that have a lot of down (fine white 'hairs' the new buds use for protection) on them. The buds (and sometimes leaves) are carefully air-dried, sun-dried and/or oven-dried.
The differences between white teas are often more to do with quality than variations in processing, and the differences are not as pronounced as, say, a fired green tea versus a steamed green tea. Unless they have added flavors, white teas are very subtle and mellow, with flavors such as delicate flowers, field grasses, dried wood and cocoa.
** Some suppliers are saying that white tea has no caffeine. This is incorrect. When brewed at a low water temperature for a short brew time, it is low in (but not free from) caffeine. According to a recent study, it's actually higher in caffeine than many black teas when brewed with boiling water for longer infusion times.
Yellow tea is an extremely rare type of tea with unique processing and a subtle flavor. It is grown and processed on a lake island in China. After harvest, it is slightly fermented (not oxidized, which is unusual) under straw, then rolled into “needles” and dried. The flavor is typically fruity with hints of cocoa, vanilla and flowers.
Pu-erh tea (also spelled “puer” or “pu’er”) is a rare type of tea that is both oxidized and fermented. It is noted for its deep, earthy, espresso-like flavor. Pu-erh is traditionally consumed after heavy meals and is purported to aid in digestion and cholesterol reduction.
Pu-erh goes through several stages of processing. The first is similar to green tea processing and results in a product called “sheng cha.” Sheng cha can then be processed in one of two ways to make pu-erh, both of which involve fermentation akin to the fermentation in wine production. It can be produced quickly (or “ripened”) with the addition of heat and moisture, or it can be produced in a traditional fashion, in which moderate moisture levels and the passage of time fuel fermentation. Aging pu-erh is more expensive, but (when done well) it yields a more complex, smooth, enjoyable tea.
Poor-quality pu-erhs typically taste muddy or moldy. Good quality pu-erhs usually taste smooth, intensely dark and slightly sweet, and may have notes of dark chocolate, espresso, plum, moss, wood, rich soil, mushrooms or nuts. Some compare it to an old growth forest. Pu-erhs that need more aging may taste sharp or bitter.
Long associated with afternoon tea and other Western traditions, Earl Grey is the best-known flavored tea in the United States. However, scented and flavored teas have been made in China long before they ever reached the West. Jasmine-scented green tea, osmanthus oolong and rose black tea were crafted as long ago as the Tang Dynasty. Unlike pure teas, in which the aroma and flavor depend on the terroir, varietal and processing, scented and aromatized teas get the majority of their flavor from added scents and flavors.
Flavors may be added synthetically or naturally. Synthetic flavoring involves tiny amounts of “nature-identical,” natural or artificial flavor being blended with tealeaves. Natural flavoring involves placing a non-dried flavor ingredient (such as fresh jasmine flowers) next to dry tealeaves. Tea is hydrophilic (“water-loving”), so it absorbs the moisture and aroma/flavor of the jasmine flowers. After fresh jasmine flowers have been placed alongside the tea many times, the tea takes on the aroma of the flowers.
The range of aromas and flavors available from scented and flavored teas is astounding. French tea flavorists are particularly known for their experimentation with unusual flavors, such as seaweed, but most flavored teas are made with fairly pedestrian flavors, such as sweet spices and fruits. Although flavored teas get much fo their flavor from the added ingredients, it is important to note that the quality of the tea itself can have a substantial impact on the flavor, too.
Like scented/flavored teas, blended teas are teas with added flavors. However, blended teas contain actual pieces of added ingredients. These may be fruit, flowers, spices or other ingredients. Blended teas are often also flavored. Sometimes, when teas are flavored and blended, the blending is intended more for visual appeal than actual flavor.
More on Flavor Profiles
If the flavor notes above tantalized your taste buds, be sure to read this article on Tea Flavor Profiles.