What is tea?

The word tea refers to both a plant and a beverage made by processing the leaves or buds of the tea bush Camellia Sinensis. The beverage tea is made by steeping the processed leaves in hot water for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the type of tea. All of the various types of tea come from the same plant, which will have different characteristics due to differences in climate, soil, season, and care. The full flavor of the final product is developed from the freshly harvested tea leaves by oxidation (fermentation), heating, drying, and even combining the final product with various other substances to make blends and styles that vary by culture, geography, and personal preference.

What are the different types of tea?

Tea is generally broken up into four main categories, three of them depending on their oxidation level. The four main varieties are White Tea, Green Tea, Oolong Tea, and Black Tea, black tea being historically the most common in the western world, but green tea is rapidly gaining lost ground. Herbal teas, while not actually made from tea, are generally included when talking about tea, but are in fact considered a tisane, not tea. There are also countless sub varieties and blends of tea that will be addressed in this FAQ as well, and while they may not easily be categorized, they are respected and unique varieties of tea which are appreciated around the world.

Types of Tea
What are the different types of tea?
Tea is generally broken up into four main categories, three of them depending on their oxidation (fermentation) level. The four main varieties are (for much greater detail, please click on the tea name):

White Tea
White tea is made from the immature buds of the tea plant that are picked and processed before they have had time to ‘ripen’ and develop many of the characteristics that are generally associated with tea. Due to their underdeveloped nature, they tend to have much less caffeine than any of the other tea varieties. They are not allowed to oxidize at all and produce a pale liquor and are the most subtle of teas. In poorer areas, where tea has been unaffordable to some, guests have been served another kind of ‘white tea,’ which is simply hot water.

Green Tea
Green tea is tea that has been allowed to mature and has been picked, pan fired (or steamed) to stop the oxidation process after a very short period. The natural vegetal flavor of the leaf stands out and often a green tea will have a subtle sweetness that is lost when the tea is turned into a style such as oolong or black tea. Green tea produces a greenish to yellow liquor and can range in bouquet from grassy to floral.

Oolong Tea
An oolong tea has been allowed to oxidize partially and thus produces a more complex, darker liquor, and sits on the scale between a green and a black tea. An oolong can be slightly oxidized to very oxidized depending on the variety of the tea. The depth of character for an oolong ranges greatly and is partially a result of the degree of oxidation, so an oolong can end up being closer to a green tea, or a black tea, depending on how it is produced. The liquor produced, therefore, can range from a greenish yellow, to a dark amber.

Black Tea
Black tea has been allowed to oxidize fully before being fired (dried), and the many chemical reactions that have occurred produce a dark, very complex tea. All of the vegetal qualities of the leaf are gone and replaced with a depth of character unparalleled in the food world. The liquor produced ranges from a dark amber to a black that would rival coffee.

Sub Varieties and Blends
There are many other sub varieties of tea, such as Pu-erh, Kukicha, Genmaicha, and many blends like the familiar Earl Grey. These teas run the gamut of flavors and characters due to the conditions under which they are produced, and the blending of particular teas has a long and rich history in western culture. These teas deserve pages in their own right, so please follow the links from the names to discover more about what makes them so different from each other.

Pronounced tee-zahn, this is the French term (now adopted by most western cultures) for any infused beverage made with anything other than actual tea leaves. This includes herbal tea, Rooibos, Heuningbos, fruit melanges, and many others.

Where Does Tea Come From?

All tea comes from the processed leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. It is a tropical and subtropical evergreen plant preferring warm, humid climates, regular rainfall, and plenty of sun exposure. Almost all tea is grown on estates, or tea gardens, ranging in size from a family’s acre plot to giant plantations with hundreds of workers. When left untended, the plant can grow over ten feet in height. For cultivating purposes however, the tea plant is kept around 36 inches, or waist height. Saplings reach picking maturity in five to seven years and can be cultivated for more than 100 years. On average, 4.5 pounds of freshly picked tea leaves, or 2 to 3 thousand shoots, yields one pound of tea.

Tea Growing Regions

The Camellia sinensis plant grows naturally in China, Japan, India, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka. The air, soil, climate, weather, and traditions of the country of origin each affect the tea’s terroir, or specific personality. For example, when arresting oxidation in the processing of green teas, the Japanese heat the leaves with steam while the Chinese tradition calls for pan-firing. Further, each region is known for specializing in a particular type of tea. China produces white, green, oolong, and black, Japan produces green, India produces black, Taiwan (Formosa) is known for oolong, and Sri Lanka (Salaan) produces black teas.

Five Basic Tea Types

All tea types start out as a green leaf on the Camellia sinensis plant. How the leaf is processed determines whether it will be a white, green, oolong, black, or pu’erh tea. The key stage in processing that differentiates one tea from another is oxidation. Just as an apple begins to brown once it is cut in half, this process begins the moment the leaf is plucked from the plant, initiated by enzymes within the leaf. The more the leaf is rolled and crushed during processing, exposing a greater amount of enzymes to oxygen, the more quickly and thoroughly it will oxidize. To arrest this process, the tea leaves are heated during the stage known as “firing,” de-activating the enzymes’ ability to sustain the oxidation process.

  • White tea: Leaves laid out to wither and dry, nothing is done to promote or inhibit oxidation
  • Green tea:
    • Chinese style: After withering, the leaves are pan fired to arrest oxidation
    • Japanese style: After withering, the leaves are steamed to arrest oxidation
  • Oolong tea: Leaves are carefully manipulated and monitored to promote partial oxidation.
  • Black tea: The leaves are crushed and rolled to promote full and rapid oxidation.
  • Pu’erh: Unoxidized or oxidized leaves are either aged or processed to simulate aging.

Note: Any infusion not made from Camellia sinensis is technically an herbal or fruit infusion known as a tisane. Many of our favorite White Lion “teas” are actually tisanes such as Organic Ginger Snap, Cranberry Hibiscus, Organic Citrus Chamomile, Tranquility, and Tuscan Garden.

Processing Details

The tea in your cup represents a level of skill and artistry developed and perfected over thousands of years. Today, tea is produced through two methods: orthodox and non-orthodox, also called unorthodox. Orthodox methods strive to preserve the integrity of the leaf whereas non-orthodox methods use machines to crush the leaf into very small pieces. The most common process used for unorthodox production is CTC (crush-tear-curl). Within the orthodox method there are two basic styles: Chinese and British. In the traditional Chinese style, the tea processing is performed entirely by hand. These original methods were adapted by the British who developed machinery to accomplish some of the same steps and processes that the Chinese has been doing by hand for centuries. These machines mimic the hand rolling motions to prevent breakage, and it is not uncommon to see some machinery used in modern Chinese tea processing.

Basic Steps:

The plucking of the tea leaf marks the start of a journey that ends with the choicest of teas in your cup. Skilled pickers pluck the leaves according to what the plantation owner or production manager determines each day—the unfurled leaf (or bud), one leaf and a bud, two leaves and a bud, or just one leaf, etc. The leaves are then collected, cleaned of debris, and sent to the factory for processing.

Like any leaf, the freshly plucked tea leaf is plump with water and therefore crisply snaps when bent. In the first stage of Orthodox tea production the tea is laid out on large trays in order to promote moisture loss. In this process known as withering, the leaves become soft and pliable in order to prepare them for the next step. In the British style, this step is facilitated with large fans that blow air under the leaves. Overall, the leaves lose approximately 10-15% of their moisture content.

Once the leaves are pliable enough to prevent breakage, they are rolled in order to break the cell wall structures of the leaf allowing the oxidase enzymes within the cells to come in contact with oxygen and initiate the oxidation process. This can be done by hand or machine and is also the stage where some of the tea leaves are shaped.

Often incorrectly referred to as fermentation, oxidation takes place when the cell wall structures of the tea leaf are broken and the oxidase enzymes are released. This process alters the flavor of the tea and develops the color. The leaves are placed in trays and stacked in racks or spread out on surfaces where they are allowed to oxidize. Black teas lay out for hours developing their traditional dark color while green teas maintain a light color because they are essentially non-oxidized.  

To stop the oxidation process, the teas go through a firing stage where the leaves are chemically stabilized. This step also dries the tea leaves to prevent mold or other degradation from developing in packaging and transit. In the British style this is accomplished with large, temperature-controlled ovens whereas the Chinese style uses wood or gas powered dryers. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese are also known for wok dried, or pan fired, teas and the Japanese signature processing uses steam to arrest oxidation.

In the final step of processing, the leaves are sorted visually and/or mechanically by size and color into lots of like tea leaves. This can be done by hand or machine and while it is a preliminary part of the grading system, it may or may not be the only grading the leaves receive.  

White Tea:

White tea is traditionally the most delicate and least processed of the five main types. Its processing consists of plucking, withering, and drying. Despite the apparent ease of processing, the skill is seen in the great care taken when plucking the tea. The highest quality Silver Needles consists only of the unfurled leaf tip when it first appears in early spring. It should be undamaged by weather, insects or people, and the buds should be uniform in shape. It takes more than 4,500 hand-sorted leaf buds to make a pound of this tea. The withering takes place outside if weather permits or inside temperature-controlled rooms if the air is too cool or moist. Over an extended period of time, this turns into drying until the tea is dry enough to transport.

Green Tea:

With green tea the leaves are plucked and withered then tossed in a hot pan or rotating drum until the natural enzymes are neutralized, arresting the oxidation process. The leaves may be simultaneously shaped by machine rollers or by hand pressure, as is the case with many specialty teas. In some regions the tea undergoes more shaping followed by a second firing where the oxidation process is completely arrested. A final firing removes any excess moisture so the leaves can be sorted without spoiling. The exact steps may vary somewhat from one region to another, or the shaping or firing steps may be repeated more or less often. The final step involves the sorting of the tea by machine or hand.

Oolong Tea:

Oolong teas range in flavor from mild and floral to strong and toasty and are arguably the most demanding teas to manufacture. The flavor and color are determined by the processing techniques and the oolong tea ranges from a lighter, less processed tea of 8-10% oxidation to a darker, more processed tea of about 40-70% oxidation. Just as there are many different kinds of oolongs, there are many variations in their processing techniques. The basic process, however, starts with withering the fresh leaves for 8 hours or more. Then they are lightly bruised by tumbling or shaking, which breaks the cell walls and starts partial oxidation on the leaf edges. Pan firing and air drying are used to further reduce moisture content. Periods of rolling, drying, and rest are interspersed, developing a unique, slow, and partial oxidation process. Some oolongs are given a final baking as the last step in processing.

Black Tea:

Black tea is processed in the British style, for whom the tea was originally produced. After plucking, the tea is withered on large screens while fans pull or push air under the leaves to reduce moisture. The leaves are then rolled and crushed in a mechanized rotating drum that mimics the traditional hand motions to break the cell wall and shape the leaf. The leaves are then spread out on large trays to oxidize. Highly oxidized black tea undergoes this process for a few hours as the leaves develop their dark, rich color. After the leaves are fully oxidized, they are fired in large ovens to take out moisture and stop the oxidation process. The fired leaves are then sorted by hand or machine.

Pu’erh Tea:

Strictly produced in Yunnan, China and the immediate surrounding area, the processing techniques of Pu’erh tea were guarded for centuries. While the traditional methods are now known at a basic level, some secrets of its production remain guarded. The original technique calls for the tea to go through a gradual, natural aging process. As the demand for this tea increased however, tea producers looked for ways to speed up the “aging” process of the original sheng cha, or uncooked, pu’erh tea. Eventually a process was created whereby the pu’erh leaves undergo an additional oxidation step allowing for immediate consumption. The result, shou cha, or “cooked” tea, has a mellow taste close to, but not the same as, a naturally aged, well cared for sheng pu’erh.

Like all tea, the tea leaves are first withered after plucking to reduce the moisture content. After this the leaves are pan fired by tossing in a wok until there is an aroma of tea. After this the tea leaves are hand rolled to further break down the leaves’ cell walls, stimulating the enzymatic action and starting the oxidation process. The pu’erh is spread to dry in the sun or is dried in dryers where the moisture content is reduced by 90%. This tea, now known as mao cha, or rough tea, is then rolled for a second time and sorted into grades for finishing. The rough tea is now finished as either sheng cha, uncooked, or shou cha, cooked. Both variations can be finished as either a loose leaf or pressed tea. In order to press the tea, it is placed in a form and steamed through perforations to soften the leaves. Then, it is placed in a cloth bag and put in a mold which is pressed in with a hydraulic press, cooled, and wrapped.