There are so many different types of tea out there, it's easy to spend a lifetime tasting through everything. In this guide, we’ll explore all the basics so that you’ll be ready to dive in and find your next favorite!
Why do all types of tea taste different? Tea farmer Master Zhang Rongde explains that it is all about collaboration between the weather, the plant itself, and the skill of the craftsperson.
As the end of the day, different types of tea are defined by the craft applied. By learning what makes each tea different, you can better understand what you like.
"Different types of tea are defined by the craft applied."
What is Tea?
Many argue that tea is only the picked leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, but on a cultural level, tea can refer to many plants, especially if we focus on the craft involved in finishing and steeping the leaves.
For our purposes here, we’re talking about the incredible variety of tea that comes from just the Camellia sinensis plant, while acknowledging that tea culture is deeper than botanical classifications.
So where does tea ( Camellia sinensis ) come from?
Tea is an evergreen plant native to Southeast Asia. The plant was first documented in Emperor Shen Nong’s encyclopedia of medicine. The discovery of tea’s stimulant effect led to widespread cultivation, and over time, the development of preparation rituals and finishing techniques that go beyond simple picking and drying.
From a humble wild-foraged medicine to one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, tea has had thousands of years to develop into the types of tea we are used to today.
tea grows in rows and greenhouses in Laoshan
the Li Family's Old Tree Shui Xian in tall groves
giant tea trees tower over Qianjiazhai
Understanding Tea Varieties
What plant does tea come from? All traditional tea comes from the same plant - Camellia sinensis. Despite this common source, we see thousands of different teas consumed across the world. These types of tea are distinct because of the growing region, the specific varietal of tea used, and the finishing techniques applied to the leaves.
• Tea type is defined by craft
• Flavor and aroma can vary within a single tea type due to growing region and varietal
• Even within a tea type, the craft choices of each producers can dramatically change the flavor of any tea
fresh tea leaves in the He Family's workshop in Laoshan
the same Laoshan leaves finished two different ways
6 Different Types of Tea
Types of tea are defined by the craft of the producer.
The least processed teas are white tea and sheng pu’er. Because these teas do not undergo heat-fixing, these usually brew up delicate and floral. Green tea is briefly heat-fixed to lock in its fresh flavor, while black tea is allowed to oxidize, giving it a malty quality. Oolong requires fluffing to coax moisture out of the stems and leaves, making it deeply aromatic.
Through craft, the very same types of tea leaves can be transformed into all kinds of unique types of tea. Here’s our tea guide to get a quick introduction.
This means piling up the leaves as they wither so that they don’t lose moisture too quickly, and exposing them to heat or warm sunlight.
Just like an apple slice beginning to turn brown in the open air, the tea leaves oxidize and turn their iconic reddish-black color.
black tea oxidizes in Wuyishan
comparing buddy Wuyi black teas
traditional large leaf Wuyi black tea
Black tea became a popular tea in Europe because its flavor held up much better over the long ocean voyage from China. Soon, the British Empire was planting tea in India for import back to England. Today, black tea has caught on back in its birthplace of China, and is no longer just for export. The craft continues to evolve among younger farmers and craftspeople, prompting exciting new innovations like Jin Jun Mei.
There is a myth that black tea has the most caffeine, but it turns out that caffeine levels have much more to do with freshness and picking season. That said, it is true that black tea is likely to be brewed stronger and with hotter water, and this can extract more caffeine more quickly than traditional green tea brewing methods.
Types of Black Tea
There are thousands of unique types of black tea out there, from Assam to Earl Grey, but the black teas gaining fame and recognition back in China and raising black tea’s reputation worldwide for serious craft include:
With green tea, asking the question “where do tea leaves come from?” is especially important, because the minimal processing means the finished tea really reflects the environment where it grows. A good supplier knows the farmer and knows that the growing region is clean and biodiverse.
Green tea is made by picking the tea plant during a narrow window in early spring or autumn when the leaves are delicate and sweet, allowing them first to wither and then heat-fixing them to lock in flavor. Shaping and firing can be done by hand by farmers like Li Xiaoping in Dragonwell, or entirely by machine on larger farms.