Food

All about Chinese teas—from green and black to oolong and beyond

Jul 01, 2019

There are a lot of different teas out there, and understanding what sets them apart can be challenging.

Strictly speaking, all tea—whether it’s green, black, or white—comes from one plant: Camellia sinensis. Everything else commonly referred to as tea—such as chrysanthemum, barley, and chamomile tea—is technically an herbal infusion.

True tea, the kind made from Camellia sinensis leaves, has its origins in southeastern China, where the plant grows natively in the mountains.

A man presses fresh Camellia sinensis leaves on his face. The leaves are used to make tea.
A man presses fresh Camellia sinensis leaves on his face. The leaves are used to make tea. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

And while all tea comes from this one plant, it’s how the leaves are processed that makes for such widely different varieties, from mild green tea to the almost coffee-like pu’er.

In general, Chinese tea can be grouped into six categories: green, black, white, dark, oolong, and yellow. Here, we go through all six types and explain what makes them unique.

Xinyang Maojian green tea.
Xinyang Maojian green tea. / Photo: Shutterstock

Green tea 绿茶

Green tea is one of the most widely consumed types of tea in China and makes up the largest proportion of production in the country.

The leaves possess the deep, verdant green of fresh grass, and the tea’s flavor is usually light and crisp.

To make green tea, freshly collected leaves are roasted in a pan to prevent them from absorbing more oxygen and becoming darker. This process also gets rid of the grassy taste.

Hand-roasting green tea leaves.
Hand-roasting green tea leaves. / Photo: Shutterstock

Afterward, the leaves are rolled to draw out the moisture. The rolling action ensures the juices are distributed evenly, giving the tea a slightly sweet flavor. 

Finally, the leaves are dried, turning them into the stringy strands you see in loose-leaf products.

(Read more: Why April is the cruelest month for buyers of China’s finest tea)

Famous varieties of green tea include Xihu longjing 西湖龙井, or dragon well tea, a nutty brew that’s considered the finest in China.

The leaves are so coveted that the population of Hangzhou, the hometown of Xihu longjing, swells in the spring, when people flock to the city to pick the season’s first leaves.

Ceylon black tea.
Ceylon black tea. / Photo: Shutterstock

Black tea 红茶

Unlike green tea, the process for making black tea skips the roasting step and goes straight to the rolling.

Rolling the leaves breaks down the cell membranes of the leaf tissues, allowing them to absorb oxygen.

Rolling tea leaves in preparation for black tea.
Rolling tea leaves in preparation for black tea. / Photo: Shutterstock

The oxidation turns the leaves red, which is why black tea—as it’s known in the West—is called 红茶 hongcha, or red tea, in Chinese.

This process is what gives black tea its musky flavor.

Black tea leaves after oxidation.
Black tea leaves after oxidation. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

One renowned variety is Lapsang souchang 正山小種 from the famous tea-producing region of Wuyi in Fujian Province.

It’s also known as smoked tea because the leaves are traditionally dried over a pinewood fire, giving it a distinct smoky aroma.

White tea leaves. This variety is known as Baihao Yinzhen, which roughly translates white hair silver needle.
White tea leaves. This variety is known as Baihao Yinzhen, which roughly translates white hair silver needle. / Photo: Shutterstock

White tea 白茶

If green tea benefits from roasting and black tea is the result of oxidation, white tea is what you get when you don’t do anything to the leaves.

The buds and leaves are left intact and simply dried, producing a tea that’s lighter in flavor than black, and even green, varieties.

One of the more unusual aspects of a white tea brew: The translucent hairs of unprocessed leaves float visibly to the top of the cup.

A cup of Baihao Yinzhen white tea. Note the translucent hairs.
A cup of Baihao Yinzhen white tea. Note the translucent hairs. / Photo: LD Francis

Most white tea comes from Fujian Province, where the subtropical climate and mountainous geography provide an ideal environment for growing leaves.

Pu'er, a variety of dark tea.
Pu'er, a variety of dark tea. / Photo: Shutterstock

Dark tea 黑茶

Also known as fermented tea, this is the darkest type of Chinese tea you can find. Let a brew sit for a few minutes, and the bitterness reaches a level akin to coffee. (Hence, this is the variety that is actually known as “black tea” in Chinese.)

Dark tea is the result of fermentation. Fresh leaves undergo the same process of heating, roasting, and drying as green and black tea, but afterward, they’re left to oxidize for a longer period of time.

The leaves are essentially aged like wine—sometimes for months, sometimes years—until they’re considered ready to brew.

Dark tea leaves are often left to age in cakes like these.
Dark tea leaves are often left to age in cakes like these. / Photo: Shutterstock

In the past, dark teas were mainly sold to people living in border provinces like Yunnan, Guangxi, and Sichuan because they could last the journey.

Today, these provinces produce some of the best-known dark teas, including Yunnan pu’er 普洱.

Oolong tea. The leaves come in a distinctive ball shape.
Oolong tea. The leaves come in a distinctive ball shape. / Photo: Shutterstock

Oolong tea 乌龙茶

Somewhere between green and black tea, but leaning closer in flavor to black, is oolong tea.

The process of making this semi-oxidized tea is similar to that of black tea, but the degree and duration of oxidation varies. Usually, it’s shorter than that of black tea, and production involves repeating certain steps over and over to achieve the desired look and flavor.

(Read more: Why Britain went to war with China over the beloved cup of tea)

Tieguanyin 铁观音, for example, benefits from a cyclical process of rolling the leaves, drying them, and then rolling them again to bring out their floral notes.

This process also gives oolong leaves their characteristic ball shape.

Oolong tea is particularly popular in Fujian Province and Taiwan, which lies about 100 miles off the coast of Fujian.

Korean yellow tea.
Korean yellow tea. / Photo: Daum

Yellow tea 黄茶

An increasingly rare variety, yellow tea is mellower in flavor than green tea but not as dark as oolong.

The manufacturing process is more or less the same as that of green tea—roast and roll—with the added step of heating the leaves in a clump before drying them.

This allows for some oxidation to occur.

In one yellow tea variety, Huoshan huangya 霍山黃芽, the leaves are baked in a clump to produce a cooked chestnut flavor.

Jasmine tea is an archetypal example of scented tea.
Jasmine tea is an archetypal example of scented tea. / Photo: Shutterstock

Bonus: Scented tea

There is one more category of tea outside these six that includes varieties you might be familiar with: scented tea, which encompasses favorites like jasmine and Earl Grey.

These teas are made by combining flowers or oil with already processed leaves. This is possible because tea leaves naturally absorb the aromas of surrounding plants.

Black tea leaves with jasmine flower petals.
Black tea leaves with jasmine flower petals. / Photo: Shutterstock

For example, jasmine tea is made by laying jasmine blossoms on top of dried green tea leaves. The flowers are left to sit overnight as the tea leaves absorb the moisture from the petals.

Similarly, osmanthus oolong is the result of oolong leaves infused with the aroma of osmanthus flowers, and Earl Grey is a blend of black tea and bergamot oil, which gives it that slight orange peel flavor.

This ability of tea to have a second life after the first processing is perhaps its most versatile quality.

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Credit

Producer and Narrator: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Nathaniel Brown

Editor: Nicholas Ko

Mastering: Victor Peña