Varieties of Tea
Green | Black | Oolong | Pu-erh | White Tea
All true teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant. There are many varieties of this plant (reportedly more than 3000). Though different types of the Camellia will produce variations in flavor color, etc., it is the different ways of processing the tea leaves that provides the different types of tea. The major accepted tea categories are black (which the Chinese think of as red), green, oolong, pu-erh, and flavored teas.
In China and most other Asian countries green tea is very popular, and its popularity is growing in the west. It is made by drying plucked leaves of the tea bush (or tree). The leaves are fried or steamed to prevent them from undergoing fermentation or oxidation (that would normally cause them to darken). When not to be crushed, they are rolled or packed into tight balls. Green tea comes to the market in many forms, including loose, bricks, or in convenient tea bags. When brewed, green tea is a light greenish-yellow in color. The flavor is less pungent than black tea, but gives a pleasant earthy after-taste. It is said to retain more of the healthy nutrients contained naturally in tea than teas processed in other ways.
In the west, the most popular tea is black tea. It is used to make iced tea. It is frequently sweetened, and sometimes taken with milk or cream. The crucial difference between green tea and black tea is that in black tea the oxidation process, where the leaves are allowed to turn black from exposure to the air, is allowed to take place. This is sometimes called fermentation, but is not fermentation in the sense that grapes are fermented into wine. This process affects the tannins in the tea giving it a more robust flavor than green tea. The oxidation process is only allowed to go on for about four hours, after which, as in green tea, the leaves are fired.1
The term orange pekoe is often used to refer to black tea. It is actually a grade of black tea describing a tea originally containing a certain percentage of whole leaves of a certain size. The term orange, is thought to come from the Dutch House of Orange which was heavily engaged in trading tea at one time. Pekoe is a specific portion of the tea leaf bud.
Oolong tea is a kind of mid-way between black and green tea. In fact it is oxidized half as long as black tea. The best oolong is thought to come from Taiwan.
India has its own tea growing region. Tea made there is named after a nearby town, Darjeeling. Tea did not come to India until the early 1800s. The seeds used to start the first tea gardens were acquired from China via an act of espionage by an English botanist who absconded with some high quality seeds. The tea is prepared variously, but is generally classed as a type of oolong. Darjeeling tea is highly valued around the world, but especially in countries colonized by the British Empire.
Pu-erh tea is made from wild and agéd Camillia sinensis trees with broad leaves (assamica) found in the Yunnan province of China. There are two ways it can be made. The leaf can be compressed before it ripens, or ripened for several months first. The ripening process simulates an aging process that occurs naturally over the course of several years in unripened po-ehr. It basically is akin to composting. In fact, if the process goes on too long compost will be the result. The compressing is usually done in a knotted bag by a hydraulic press (or even by a lever or heavy stones in less advanced factories). The resulting cakes are then placed on a shelf to air dry.
As it is relatively rare, pu-erh tea is highly prized. There are also fake pu-erhs on the market. A possible indicator of the veracity of the tea is if it has a slight camphor taste and a slightly jagged edge to the leaf. It is thought by many to reduce fat in the body, and to be especially efficacious after a meal comprised of fatty foods.
White tea is comprised of the buds and flowers of the tea tree (Camillia sinensis). In a similar manner to green tea, oxidation is not allowed. The tea is fired soon after harvest. Some studies show that white tea may have a slimming effect on humans2. It has a lighter and sweeter flavor than most other teas. Because it can only be made with the small buds picked at very select times, it is more rare than most teas, and thus more expensive. The varieties of white tea include Silver Needle, White Peony, Long Life Eyebrow, and Tribute Eyebrow. These are of differing degrees of bud quality, Silver Needle being the most prized.
Other types of tea, such as Earl Grey, result not so much from the process of making tea, but from flavorings added later such as flower buds or spices.
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