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The classes of tea 

As discussed in our last post, all true tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant. But 'true tea' can be a misleading term, because the number of different classes (aka types) and styles of tea is almost endless. From bold and astringent to sweetly floral, from light and grassy to rich and buttery, the sheer variety of tea styles that can be made from the humble leaves of Camellia sinensis is quite extraordinary.

The two main varieties of the Camellia sinensis plant small leaf 'China bush' and large leaf 'Assam bush' – give us the six classes of tea: black, green, white, yellow, oolong and pu-erh. While there are myriad variations of style within these, each class is defined by its production method, i.e. how the tea leaves are processed. Where and how they're harvested is also important, as is the cultivar of tea bush.

What are the different classes of tea?

Let's examine the six classes of tea and look at what separates their production techniques and how this influences each ones' character.

White Tea

White tea is the rarest class, yet essentially one of the most simple. At its best and most traditional, white tea is made only from the tender unopened buds of the tea bush, which are usually shaded before harvest. These silvery needle-like buds are carefully plucked from specific cultivars of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (aka China bush) and gently dried in the shade. While there is a modern style of white tea made from young leaves, the best white tea should only be made with buds. They undergo just the smallest amount of natural oxidation (less than 10%) as they dry, bringing out their natural sweetness, orchid-flower fragrance and delicate fruity flavours.

Emperor's Peak Fuliang White Tea

 

Emperor's Peak

Green Tea

Green Tea

Green tea comes in a wide variety of styles (over 3000 in China alone). From the largest factories to the smallest rural processing rooms, high quality green tea production generally follows the same process…

Small leaf 'China bush' tea leaves are carefully plucked in the spring, usually in the early morning, then brought quickly to the factory. After gently sorting, the leaves are left to partially air dry (known as primary drying), which helps prevent oxidation and retain their green colour. The leaves are then delicately worked – spread out and turned or rubbed by hand – to regulate their drying and to shape them, while reducing moisture and preserving the precious inner sap. Lastly, the tea leaves are dried, either by toasting over fire, dry-frying in a wok, tumbling in hot air or baking in an oven. Sometimes they're even dried in the sun, though this is rare nowadays. Green teas range in style from light and fresh, to grassy and astringent, sweet and nutty, or even smoky. The final drying, or firing, stage has some influence on style.

Japanese green tea uses a slightly different manufacturing process to the Chinese one detailed above. In their more mechanised system, Japanese tea producers tend to steam their green tea leaves early in the process to fix the colour before final drying. Steaming brings out distinct characteristics, from vegetable to seaweed flavours.

Asamushi Sencha Japanese Green Tea

Secret Garden Fuliang Green Tea

Black Tea

While black tea originates from China, this style of fully-oxidised tea is mostly associated with India, Sri Lanka and Africa today, especially outside of Asia. The principle defining factors of black teas is that they are typically made with large leaf 'Assam bush' leaves and are completely oxidised. Black tea is not fermented, which is a common misnomer.

The process of making black tea is complex and labour intensive. It starts with the harvesting, which is very specific according to how the leaves are picked. In the factory the tea leaves are withered (similar to green tea's primary drying, but more intensive) to reduce moisture content and make them pliable. This can take around 12 hours and often happens through the night. Next the leaves are rolled: twisted and compressed to release the inner sap and make it available on the outside of the leaf. The leaves are now oxidised on large tables in well ventilated rooms. The chemical reactions that take place inside and outside of the leaf during theses processes are what determines the quality and style of black teas. Flavours can range from brisk and citrussy to bold and pruney, with biscuit, malt and wood notes.

Golden River Assam Black Tea

Bush Tiger Rwanda Black Tea

 Black Tea

 

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is a fascinating class of tea due to its complex production process and extraordinary range of styles. Oolong teas can be incredibly varied and range from delicate, pale and fruity to rich, dark and exotic. Oolong is made from large tea leaves, albeit from the small leaf 'China bush'. Its production tends to come after green tea, which is made in the spring from the small tender new-growth leaves. As the leaves on the plant get larger, so they're perfect for the more intensive oolong tea process.

While oolong tea originates from China (as indeed do all the tea classes), one interesting twist in its development has been in Taiwan. Tea bushes were imported to Taiwan in the mid 19th century from China's Fujian province. The island then fell under Japanese rule for the first half of 20th century, which influenced its tea production. Since then, Taiwanese oolong teas have taken on their own distinct character and style, which has expanded the possibilities of this class even further.

Leaves for oolong tea are generally harvested in the day, then taken to the factory and spread out in the afternoon sun to wither. The leaves are turned to ensure even drying, and when the right amount of withering has occurred, they are taken inside to cool. There follows a labour intensive stage of manipulating the leaf, a bit like the rolling stage of black tea, but far more controlled and delicate. The purpose here is to disrupt the leaves' inner sap and bring about oxidation. This rolling or 'rattling' is one of the key stages in oolong tea, where the character of the finished tea is crafted.

After the rolling/oxidising process, the next stage of oolong tea is drying and shaping. There are numerous techniques used here, but typically the leaves are initially fired to stop oxidation, then shaped. This can be done by hand, with the leaves being bent, crimped or folded in various ways, or they can be wrapped in canvas and rolled around over and over into balls, which twists the leaves into individual clusters (often said to resemble dragonfly heads). Sometimes the leaves are deliberately broken at this stage to release their inner oil. After this shaping and rolling, the leaves are carefully fired again, sometimes quite heavily roasted, to dry them ready for brewing.

While there are many variations of the above steps (not only can there can be between ten and 20 stages in traditional oolong production, but the oxidation of the leaves can range from 15% to 80%), what is consistent with oolong teas is the need to infuse the leaves several times. Due to their larger size and the way they are rolled, oolong teas need time to unfurl and release their complex flavours and aromas. These range from sweet and floral to fruity (apricot) to deep and rich with mineral and peaty notes.

Tung Ting Oolong Tea

Luyeh Red Oolong Tea

Yellow Tea

Yellow is a rarely seen class of tea, but one worth seeking out. It is probably the mot misunderstood and little-known of all the tea classes. Essentially, yellow tea shares many similarities to early harvested spring green teas. The notable exception, however, is that after their initial drying stage, the leaves are carefully and gently steamed to stop oxidation and reduce any astringency. It's a delicate process, one that requires knowledge and skill to keep the steaming light and not to 'cook' the leaves. The result is an exquisitely soft and fragrant tea with a natural stone-fruit sweetness.

Pu-erh Tea

Chinese Pu-erh tea is the only fermented class of tea, although it is not always oxidised. It is a very old class of tea that is little-known outside Asia. Unlike the majority of Chinese teas, pu-erh comes from the southwest of the country. Here, in Yunan province, it is the large-leaf 'Assam bush' that is found, although the bushes – some over 200 years old – are more like trees, growing in remote mountainous areas.

In ancient China, tea was classed by its colour. Pu-erh tea is actually the original 'black' tea, and what we know today as black tea was classed as 'red tea' in the old Chinese system. There are two main types of pu-erh tea: Sheng and Shou. Sheng (aka 'raw pu-erh') is the most traditional, where the large tea leaves are quickly fired to dry them, then piled on top of each other. This causes the heat in the piles to rise, and the sap inside the leaves to ferment. The leaves will then be tightly pressed into large disc-like cakes and left to age, sometimes for decades, to develop and mature like fine wine.

Shou or 'cooked' pu-erh is a more modern variation on the traditional process. The leaves are allowed to oxidise, then piled up in larger, wetter piles than for Sheng. They are kept in hot and humid rooms, where the fermentation is rapidly sped up. After final firing the tea is usually ready to drink. Pu-erh teas have a wide variety of characteristics. While some Sheng pu-erh teas share of some the sweet and floral stone-fruit characteristics of medium-oxidised oolong teas, there are also a myriad of other flavours to explore, from forest floor to woody, herbaceous and mushroomy.

How to enjoy the different types of tea 

The hard work and dedication of the growers, pickers and tea masters that craft our artisan teas is second-to-none. But their skill and knowledge can be quickly unravelled if the tea is poorly prepared. While most people are familiar with teabags, artisan loose leaf tea can be a little more complex and should be brewed in a pot or infuser. Always refer to the specific brewing guidelines supplied with each of our teas.

Here are our 'best practice' tea brewing tips to avoid poor preparation:

Water

The quality of the water you brew with affects your finished tea. While we always recommend using freshly drawn water, we'd also urge you to use a water filter (jug filters are good, two-stage carbon/ceramic filters are better, reverse osmosis – which gives a neutral pH level – are best) to partially purify and soften your water before boiling. This will give the purest brew and the best possible finished tea flavour.

Temperature

While black teas can be brewed with just-boiled water, other tea classes require different temperatures to get the best flavours and avoid extracting too much astringency. Here is a guide, but please refer to each tea's details for specific brew time and temperature:

TEA CLASS

WATER TEMPERATURE

STEEP TIME

NUMBER OF STEEPS

WHITE

85ºC

3-5 mins

3

GREEN

80-90ºC

2-3 mins

2-3

BLACK

100ºC

3-5 mins

1

OOLONG

90-95ºC

3 mins

3

YELLOW

80-85ºC

2-3 mins

2

PU-ERH

90-100ºC

3-5 mins

4-5

 

It's important to follow the suggested brewing guidelines closely to ensure you give yourself the best expression of each tea. You can experiment with different temperatures and times, but we've done this too and collectively agree on the most suitable method.

Making your tea last

All our teas come in nitro-flushed packs so they reach you as fresh as possible. Whichever class of tea you choose, keeping you're loose leaf tea sealed helps to preserve its flavour and aroma. Some teas, like our Jasmine Dragon Pearl, are painstakingly hand-rolled into tiny pea-sized pearls. This ancient technique is an ingenious a way to lock in flavour and preserve the tea until you brew it. But whole leaf teas dry out quickly, so it's best to keep them sealed for freshness. Store them away from air, light, heat and moisture.

If you have any questions or comments about how to choose, brew or look after you're teas, please leave them below.

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