The 6 Major Types of Tea: the Ultimate Tea Classification

 

All teas are classified into “Six Major Types of Tea ”, no less, no more; period.

 

This is the ultimate tea classification for anyone, from tea enthusiast to tea entrepreneurs alike. After reading this entry you will be confident about how tea types are categorised and which are the major types of tea. Delving into the world of tea means a deep trip through an endless array of tea varieties and flavours.

 

Having a good grasp of the main 6 types of tea is crucial in order to identify aroma and flavour patterns associated with the different types of tea, and importantly, identifying health benefits or properties linked to them. There is plenty of literature on the Internet, blogs, vlogs, etc. However...

 

More often than not, classifications are very messed up, often including Pu’er as one of the major 6 tea types of tea, and not to mention how all types of herbs, Roiboos or even mate are referred as to “tea”. First of all, let’s take a quick look on to “what’s tea”, and then we will jump on to “how is tea actually categorized”, to finally briefly introduce the major types of tea.

What’s Actually Tea? Camellia...

Tea is any plant or tree - depending on the size - from the Camellia Sinensis plant, an evergreen plant native to Southern China, where it has been grown and consumed for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

 

“True” tea uses leaves harvested from this very plant; while any herbal or botanical infusion is far from tea, as they do not even come from the tea plant; all “true” teas come from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Now, Camellia Sinensis is subdivided into three main varieties:

 

+ Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis: the Sinensis variety grows in many tea producing countries: China, Taiwan, Japan, India and Nepal. It is sturdy and more resistant to low temperatures, ideal for high altitude plantations and regions with challenging weather conditions. The tea tree can grow up to 20 feet.

 

+ Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica: it was believed to be native to Assam, in India. Recent studies points their origin to be in Sout East Asia, in border regions between China, Myanmar and Laos. It can reach up to 90 feet high. Nowadays, var. Assamica is mainly found in India, Sri Lanka and Africa.

 

+ Camellia Sinensis var. Cambodian: this variety is native to Cambodia and it is hardly ever used for commercial tea production.

Camellia Sinensis, the tea plant and its varieties

 

Tea Oxidation Levels and the “Six Major Types of Tea”

The tea classification (AKA: the type of tea) is defined by the process undergone by the tea leaves after they are picked, and it has NOTHING TO DO with the tea tree or tea plant varietal. At the same time, how the tea leaf is processed determines the oxidation level of the resulting tea, which eventually defines the type of tea.

 

The 6 major tea types, according to their oxidation levels are: white tea, green tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, black tea and dark tea (or post-fermented tea).

 

Oxidation

Oxidation kicks off as soon as the tea leaves are plucked from the tea tree, and detached from the soil they belong to. A series of chemical reactions are triggered within the tea leaves after picking. Leaves begin to wilt as soon as they are plucked, causing damage to their cellular structure, and compounds that are normally separated, start to mix with each other and with the oxygen in the air.

 

These reactions are referred as “Oxidation” in the realm of tea, which leads to changes in colour and taste of tea. Referring to it as Oxidation may be slightly simplistic - given the complexity of the reactions taking place in the leaves. Some refer to this also as “fermentation”, although this implies microbial reactions, so it's not the most accurate term either. For the sake of simplicity, and given general acceptance of the term, we will refer to it as Oxidation.

 lightly oxidised tea leaves

Management of the oxidation process is crucial in tea crafting, as it will dictate not only the tea type based on its oxidation level - white, green, yellow, oolong, black or dark -, but also the end result of the tea leaves in terms of aroma, flavour and visual aspect. The Oxidation process is a quick one, a plucked leaf will transition from vibrant green to dark in a matter of days. Tea farmers and masters work endless nights to achieve the desired outcome.

 

Now, after having finished the tea production process, we have the resulting different types of tea, as it follows, in order from lowest to highest oxidation:

 the main types of teas, classified by oxidation . Green tea, white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, black tea and dark tea

Green Teas

- Oxidation Levels: oxidation is minimal in green teas, it will be up to a 5% oxidation level.

 

- Production process: “kill-the-green” is the first step of their process. After plucked, the leaves will be immediately pan-fired (mostly Chinese teas) or steam (mostly Japanese teas), stopping (or more accurately, dramatically slowing down) the oxidation process of the tea leaves. After “kill-the-green”, leaves will be rolled, and finally dried.

 

- Nature: cold.

 

 - Famous Green Teas: Xihu Longjing, Taiping Houkui, Biluochun, Huangshan Maofeng, Anji Baicha.

 green tea process: fixing or killing the green

White Teas

- Oxidation Levels: oxidation is low in white teas, up to a 10%.

 

- Production process: white teas are the least processed of all tea types, they only go through two production processes: withering and drying. Withering is the most characteristic process of white teas.

 

- Nature: young white teas are of cold nature. As they age their nature shift gradually to warmer over the years.

 

 - Famous White Teas: Silver Needles, White Peony, Shoumei, Gongmei.

 white tea process: withering

Yellow Teas

 - Oxidation Levels: its oxidation levels range from 10% to 20%.

 

- Production process: it is the rarest of all teas, as it most characteritic process and unique to this type of tea, “yellowing”, is also gradually becoming rarer and extinct, due to the great effort and time required.

 

- Nature: cool nature.

 

- Famous Yellow Teas: Mending Huangya, Huoshan Huangya, Junshan Silver Needle.

 yellow tea process: yellowing

 Oolong Teas

- Oxidation Levels: oolong teas are partially oxidised teas, oxidation levels vary from 30% to 60% approximately.

 

- Production process: oolong processes are withering - “shake the green” ‘- heat the green - rolling - drying. “Shake the green” is its most characteristic process and unique to oolong, tea leaves are either manually shaked or shaked in the “yao qing” or shaking machines.

 

- Nature: neutral. Oolongs nature is the least defined, as their oxidation levels varies widely, from lower oxidation being closer to cool nature, to higher oxidation oolong, closer to a warm nature.

 

- Famous Oolong Teas: Da Hong Pao, Tie Guan Yin, Dancongs, Rougui, Shuixian

 oolong tea process: shake the green

Black Teas

 - Oxidation Levels: black teas are fully oxidised teas, oxidation levels are around 80% - 90%.

 

 - Production process: withering - rolling - oxidising - drying. The defining process of black teas is the leaf rolling before fixing (process to stop oxidation).

 

 - Nature: warm.

 

 - Famous Black Teas: Lapsang Souchong, Jin Jun Mei, Yingde Black Tea

  black tea process: rolling

Dark Teas or Post-Fermented Teas

 - Oxidation Levels: dark teas oxidation levels range from 85% - 100%.

 

 - Production process: “wet-piling” is the defining feature of the dark teas productions process, where large amounts of “maocha” (unoxidised tea leaves) are piled up. Then the pile is dampened and a tarp is used to cover it up to undergo and accelerated fermentation.

 

 - Nature: warm.

 

 - Famous Dark Teas: Anhua Dark Tea, Liubao, Ya’An Tibetan Black, Ripe Pu’Er.

dark tea process: wet piling


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