All tea comes from one plant, Camellia sinensis. The difference in types—white, green, oolong, black and pu-erh—is due to how the leaves are processed after harvest. The specific cultivar used and the local environment of the plant also influence the final product.
White tea originated in northern Fujian Province, China, and is the least processed of all tea types. It's generally only air-dried, which results in slight oxidization. Careful handling of the leaves is important so as to not bruise them. Harvest begins in early spring: The highest quality types are picked before the leaf buds have opened, and consist only of these tips, which are covered in silky white hairs. Other styles are plucked after the plants regenerate and are made up of unopened buds as well as the small new leaves.
White teas are distinct from all other types because they are not heated after picking. The flavor is soft, savory and sweet; these are excellent teas to accompany meals. Steep with good tasting water at below boiling temperature.
Green tea is heated immediately after being picked, preventing oxidization of the leaves. In China, the tea is fired in a wok or oven; in Japan, it’s steamed. The resulting tea is delicate, with a wide range of leaf styles depending on varying production techniques and traditions.
To prevent cooking the leaves and destroying their subtle, vegetal or grassy notes, green tea should be brewed in water that is well below boiling. Green tea has a short life span—enjoy it close to harvest, at its peak freshness. Extensive health claims have led many people to this type of tea, and the nuances in its fresh flavors make them lasting fans.
Oolong, which means “black dragon” in Mandarin, is a semi-oxidized tea that can range in character from a green to a black tea, with flavors from sweet and floral to rich and roasted. The picked leaves are left to wither and then are usually gently rolled, prompting oxidation. This reaction of the essential oils to the air darkens the leaf and produces distinctive fragrances. The tea maker must stop the process at a certain point by rapid heating, called panning. The leaf is then rolled into its final shape. Producing this handcrafted tea is extremely labor intensive, as the tea maker must carefully balance many shifting elements in the critical first few hours after harvest, including leaf quality, weather conditions and oxidation time.
This type of tea is traditionally made in China and Taiwan. The finest varieties are often prepared and enjoyed gongfu style, in a gaiwan or small clay pot, in order to savor their complex flavors and aromas through multiple infusions of the same leaves.
Black tea, or red tea as it's known in China, is the result of complete oxidation of the leaf before being fired. Major regions of production include India, China and Sri Lanka, although this type is grown throughout the world. It was popularized by European merchants who traded in Asia in the late 1600s, which contributed to its current popularity in the West via strong breakfast teas.
To make black tea, the leaf is spread out and left to wither naturally, causing it to lose stiffness and much of its weight. It is then rolled, exposing essential oils to the air and encouraging oxidation. When this is complete, the leaf is heated to stop the process. These teas tend to be full-flavored and have enough body to be mixed with milk or a sweetener.
Pu-erh is a post-fermented tea made from a large leaf varietal grown in Yunnan Province, China. This tea is often aged, which mellows and refines its flavor and character. It is made either as looseleaf or pressed into a myriad of shapes; round cakes (bingcha), rectangular bricks and a birds' nest shape (tuocha) are the most common. Pu-erh can also be pressed into short lengths of bamboo, then dried and stored.
There are two main steps in production: The first is making a base tea (mao cha), and the second is post-fermenting and often compressing it. Pu-erh produced before the 1970s was made from sun-dried green tea and naturally aged, a process now known as sheng, green or raw. In 1973, a technique for accelerating the process of aging and changing the character of the tea was developed by the Kunming Factory. This process is called wo dui and involves increasing the moisture level as well as the ambient temperature to speed up fermentation. These pu-erhs are referred to as shu, brown or cooked pu-erh.
Herbals are not technically tea, although the term “herbal tea” is ubiquitous in the United States. Europeans often refer to these as tisanes or infusions, which is more accurate because they are made from a variety of different plants, flowers, herbs or roots—not the Camellia sinensis tea plant.
Popular around the world for their medicinal and beneficial qualities, they have unique flavors and are naturally caffeine-free. Herbal infusions are best prepared with boiling water and are less sensitive to overbrewing than true teas.