Black, white, green, oolong and red tea… the list can go on. But what’s the difference? And which one is right for you?
The world of speciality tea can be a confusing place. With thousands of types of tea grown in plantations on every continent, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
We’ve put together this concise but in-depth guide to help you make sense of it for yourself.
All varieties of tea are made from strains of the tea plant (most commonly, Camellia Sinensis). The strain (varietal or cultivar) you use affects how the finished product tastes. The location and environment also plays a role – soil, altitude and climate make a big difference. All other factors being equal, however, the way we process tea makes the most noticeable changes to the flavour and character of the tea we drink.
There are many categories of tea that we won’t cover here, and we may explore those at a later date, but for now let’s look at some of the big ones (the ones we currently stock here at Living Leaf): white, green, oolong and black.
White tea is one of the least processed forms of tea. The method of processing preserves many of the catechins in the young leaves. Studies suggest that these may be behind the health benefits associated with white tea.
In flavour, white tea is one of the most subtle. As such, many tea companies infuse it with oils of fruit or flowers. However, it seems such a shame to mask the natural, blossom-like essence of this intriguing tea with such additives. When white tea is well done, it can be one of the most satisfying and refreshing cups of tea you will have.
How is White Tea Made?
- White tea is harvested earlier than any other form of tea, often when the leaves are still budding.
- After being picked, the leaves are sun withered (under the partial shade of nets, depending on conditions). This allows the the enzymes in the leaves to begin the process of oxidation (though they do so at their own pace unlike green tea – see below).
- We then lay the leaves out on bamboo trays and turn them occasionally while they dry thoroughly.
- That’s it. The tea is ready to drink at this point.
Because our tea is oxidising even as it dries, our finished white tea leaves range from brown to green (and everything in between!) – different leaves oxidise at varying rates.
For ease of production, many farms take a different approach to the production of white tea – they cease oxidation very early on (see green below). However, when we dry out our tea, the enzymes which produce oxidation are never denatured, they are simply resting. When you pour water onto them they come back to life and oxidation continues. This is especially noticeable on the Shou Mei. By the time you finish steeping Shou Mei, its leaves have turned from green to dark brown!
How should I brew white tea?
Many guides will tell you that sixty degrees centigrade is right for white, but because our tea is thoroughly dried when packaged, it is incredibly resilient. It’s almost impossible to brew it incorrectly – it can be brewed at a very high temperature. Our white can be brewed over and over again and it doesn’t go bitter if you overbrew – you can even leave it steeping overnight and enjoy a thick, sweet liquor in the morning!
Personally, I still use water that is slightly less hot than I would use for black or oolong tea – the cool the water is, the sooner I can drink my tea. I bring the kettle close to the boil – where I can hear the water roaring, but not bubbling fiercely. Then I pour.
What does white tea taste like?
Shou Mei is fruity and sweet, reminiscent of apple seeds with a hint of almonds, and has a wonderful, clean energy that will keep you glowing all day.
Gong Mei is a light, sweet and delicately fragrant tea. Very clean, with a vibrant clear liquor and soft, gentle energy. The leaves of this tea are smaller and greener than our Shou Mei White Tea.
When should you drink White Tea?
First thing, when you start the day. White tea is fresh spring in a cup – gentle and invigorating. The perfect accompaniment to morning tasks before the day picks up tempo (and pulls you along with it!)
Green tea has become very popular in the last few years, and you may have tried it. The quality of green tea available is steadily improving, but you may well have had a bad experience with green tea and be wondering what all the fuss is about.
Being one of the most delicate teas in flavour, green tea is one that – when it is bad – can taste really quite bitter. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Good green tea isn’t bitter, even if you brew it for too long.
Green is an exciting tea to explore because there are so many varieties of it, each with their own flavour profile and effect.
How is green tea made?
- Shortly after harvesting, producers lay the tea leaves out in the sun to wither. Here the leaves begin to oxidise, but only very slightly. Green tea is the least oxidised of all teas.
- Sometimes the leaves are then bruised to speed up the oxidation process still further, but in most cases the oxidisation of Green tea is kept to a minimum. Oxidation increases the availability of caffeine and polyphenols in the leaves. In short oxidation changes the flavour and the effect of the tea on your system.
- In the next stage, the leaves are heated, in a process called shaqing (or ‘kill green’) to arrest the oxidation.
- Finally, the leaves are rolled by hand before being dried ready to package up and sell.
Different producers use different methods for each of these stages. For example, at Living Leaf, we pan fry our leaves – dry, without oil or water – to stop the oxidation process (stage 3 above).
We also take special care to dry our leaves thoroughly (stage 4). This ensures that all impurities and potential toxins are drawn out of the leaves. Many producers slack on this step, because their priority is to turn out as much tea in as short amount of time as possible, but we think it is worth the extra time and effort. Not only do the resulting leaves make a less bitter tea, you can also brew our tea using water at a high temperature – a big no no for most other green teas on the market!
How should I brew green tea?
As I mentioned above, because our tea is thoroughly dry when it is packaged, you can actually brew our tea using water at a higher temperature than is usual for green tea.
Again, the same rules as for white apply. I take the kettle up to roaring, just before it begins to bubble. Then I pour.
What does green tea taste like?
If I were to characterise our tea, I would say fresh, bright and alive – floral, with subtle summer grass notes. Someone I know described ours as being like a blast of fresh mountain air!
Unlike other green teas you may try our green isn’t bitter even if you brew it for longer than you should.
When should I drink green tea?
If green tea was a season, it would be early summer, invigorating and fresh.
It’s ideal to drink green tea late morning or early afternoon! The only times when you might avoid it is late at night before you sleep and early in the morning before breakfast.
I drink green tea: while I’m working working – it’s an excellent coffee replacement; for an afternoon pick-me-up before heading out to run errands; or simply when the sun is shining and I want something simple and bright that will put a huge smile on my face.
Oolong is perhaps the most mysterious tea for a lot of people. To save confusion, restaurants and retailers will often just call it green tea. But, as you will see if you compare our oolong to our green tea, oolong has its own unique character. For a lot of people oolong sits in the goldilocks zone between the flavour they expect from tea and the fresh, floral character of green tea.
To clarify a point of confusion: oolong/wulong – same thing! Just two different ways to represent Chinese in latin script.
How is oolong tea made?
Actually the process that oolong goes through is not much different to that of green tea.
As with green tea the leaves are withered and bruised. But instead of ceasing the oxidation quickly, the second stage of the process goes on longer. The leaves are left in well ventilated rooms to oxidise and ferment. During this time the leaves turn darker. Oolong oxidation ranges from 8% to 85%.
After this oolong is rolled and dried, like green tea. But unlike green tea, after the drying stage, oolong is sometimes roasted to varying degrees. The degree of fermentation/oxidation along with the degree of roasting give oolong its complex flavour.
How should I brew oolong tea?
Oolong can be brewed using any of the methods we suggest in our How to Brew Tea series.
Usually how you treat oolong depends on the oxidation and roast levels. The more oxidised and roasted, the more you can punish oolong with scalding hot water. However, as I mentioned our teas are dried thoroughly and so can withstand high temperatures.
Again, I heat the kettle until it is almost bubbling and pour the water.
What does oolong tea taste like?
Oolong is exciting because it has the most potential of all teas to exhibit complex aromas and flavours. When explored using gongfu brewing oolong is where many people really fall in love with tea.
Our oolongs exhibit these varied characteristics – some are floral, some are vegetal and some sweet.
Roasted oolongs are sweeter, think hints of brown sugar and warming cinnamon.
Unroasted or lightly roasted lightly roasted is floral and slightly vegetal or nut buttery (undertones of marzipan).
If you want to get a feeling for the range of flavours oolong offers, our sample pack gives you all six of ours!
When should I drink oolong tea?
Flavour wise, oolong is the most complex tea we stock. It can also be the most rewarding. If you spend some time with it – brewing it for different lengths of time and using different methods – you can really get to know this tea. With good oolong, you can be years into your exploration of it and still find new flavours you didn’t know were there.
So, while oolong tea is great to drink in the evening with good friends and flowing conversation, it also deserves some attention – drink it when you have time for introspection and when you want to work on your gongfu-tea game.
This is the tea that most of us in the west are most familiar with. Although there is a good deal more care that goes into the processing our hand-made black tea than what you might find in your average bag of Typhoo.
In China black tea is called red tea – confusing, I know – due to the rich colour that water turns. So if you hear people talking about red tea the chances are they are talking about what is more commonly knows as black tea in Europe and America. Rooibos, or red bush, a caffeine-free, tea alternative from South Africa is not made from the tea plant.
How is black tea made?
Again the process is similar to oolong, only during the fermentation stage the leaves are left for even longer. Black teas are fully oxidised – anywhere between 85% and 100%.
Like oolongs, black teas can can be roasted – Lapsang Souchong is a distinctive example.
How should I brew black tea?
I’ve said it already. Our teas are fully dried and don’t follow the ‘cooler water for green’ methodology.
Brew the black tea hot hot. Boil the kettle, wait for the bubbles to stop raging and pour over the leaves. The bowl tea method is perfect for black tea, as is gongfu if you wish to try that.
With black, it’s best that you don’t lose any heat, so preheating your bowl, cups, or teapot is a good idea.
Drink the tea as soon as it is cool enough.
What does black tea taste like?
Satin smooth, warm and comforting. Deep, dark and chocolaty base notes, as you’d expect from a Yunnan black, but it is fragrant and fruity – as you’d expect from the ‘golden lily’ Taiwanese plant.
When should you drink black tea?
Perfect to warm you up during the winter. Very comforting and reassuring. Drink before mediation or when you just want to spend the afternoon curled up with a book.
Ok on an empty stomach, but pairs well with light snacks. You could even add a dash of… tea snobs please don’t lynch me… milk – the ultimate gourmet breakfast tea.
So there you have it. A brief introduction to the main types of teas.