Most tea lovers know that all tea comes from the same plant – camellia sinensis. Whether you’re drinking green, black (also known as red), oolong, pu-erh, or yellow tea, camellia sinensis is the steeped leaf you are consuming. It can be kind of astonishing to keep this in mind as we enjoy so many different flavors and styles of tea.
How can teas be so different and all come from the same green leaves? The extraordinary distinctions of tea are a deep testament to how versatile camellia sinensis is, and how long humans have been working and designing tea. Depending on the culture producing the tea and their particular styles of production, processing and finishing — the outcomes will be very different — and make the world of tea so endlessly fascinating.
A case study of tea might begin with green tea. Many Chinese green teas are pan-fired, and most Japanese green teas are steamed, resulting in two totally different experiences. This example also works well in our introduction to tea, because it’s also important to keep in mind that there are many exceptions to the general rules that define regions and types, such as the fact that there are a few rare, pan-fired Japanese green teas.
Before launching our general overview, it’s important to define a word often used in the world of tea, cultivar.
When farmers intentionally grow plants to have particularly advantageous traits, they’re called cultivars. The word cultivar is literally an abbreviation of cultivated variety. Over time, tea farmers have found ways to cultivate tea plants to yield the best results for a particular geographic region, climate, and taste profile. There are thousands of cultivars around the world and hundreds in Japan. Yabukita is by far the most common cultivar in Japan, and others include Saemidori, Koshun and Okumidori.
With this in mind, let’s leap into our broad overview of all kinds of tea, with an in-depth focus on the category of Japanese green tea!
WHITE TEA is a delicate and fragrant tea hailing from China. It is called white because of the delicate, fine white hairs that cover its young tea buds. White tea leaves undergo minimal processing that includes withering and drying.
YELLOW TEA is golden in color and has a mild and mellow taste. It is extremely rare and only produced in China. Buds and leaves are harvested and then wrapped in paper or cloth and left to dry for several days. This slow oxidation/micro-fermentation process “seals the yellow.”
OOLONG TEA is a traditional tea that is withered under the sun and then partially oxidized. The oxidation amount will determine if the tea will be green/lighter in color (oxidized around 30%) or deepen into a darker shade (when oxidized around 70%). This partial oxidation is what gives oolong its character. After drying, leaves are basket-tossed (breaking down the cells of the leaves) and pan-fired, halting the oxidation process.
RED/BLACK TEA, is called “red tea” in Japan and China and known as “black tea” in the West. This is a fully oxidized and fermented tea and one of the most popular in the world. Common red/black varieties are Darjeeling and Assam.
PU-ERH is named for a city in the Yunnan province in southwest China, which is its origin. There are two types of pu-erh, Sheng Pu (raw pu-erh) which is pan-fired at a lower temperature to allow some fermentation to naturally continue, and Shou Pu (cooked pu-erh), which is manually fermented with beneficial microbes and becomes a compressed black tea. Pu-erh ages well and the molded cakes can be highly valued.
HERBAL TEA, aka TISANES are not actually teas as they do not come from the camellia sinensis plant. They are often made of herbs, such as lavender, peppermint, or roots such as cinnamon, or fruit, like an orange peel, or flowers, such as hibiscus. Herbal blends create rich and varied flavors. Herbal teas are also typically caffeine free unless blended with an actual tea, (usually black.)
Finally, we end with green tea.
GREEN TEA, as we shared at the beginning of this post, grown outside of Japan is often pan-fired. In Japan, leaves are typically not pan-fired but steamed to neutralize active enzymes and halt oxidation. After steaming, the tea leaf is withered and then manipulated (rolled by hand or allowed to curl) to achieve the desired finish before steaming again.
A few varieties of Japanese green tea:
煎茶 SENCHA: The most popular tea in Japan! Sencha leaves are steamed for between 60-90 seconds, which locks in their natural vegetal traits. This steaming process accentuates the green spinach and asparagus-like notes.
番茶 BANCHA: While the cultivation and processing of bancha are identical to sencha, bancha is made from the tea leaves that are sorted after the harvest, tending to be larger and more coarse, and therefore considered to be of a lower grade. The leaves are often to be collected later in the season, sometimes the 3rd or 4th flush. These leaves have lower caffeine than sencha.
新茶 SHINCHA: The green tea leaves of the first harvest are celebrated for their bright, robust freshness. These early leaves are usually collected in the spring and kick off the tea harvesting season in Japan.
粉茶 KONACHA: This tea is composed of the dust, flakes, tea buds and small leaves left behind after processing gyokuro or sencha.
釜炒り茶 KAMAIRICHA: This is a rare, pan-fired green tea and accounts for around 2% of Japanese tea production. It is a centuries-old specialty and is also known as “Chinese green tea.”
ほうじ茶 HOUJICHA: is a traditional style of Japanese green tea made with bancha from the autumn and winter harvests. An additional roasting transforms the leaf, creating a smooth, amber brew.
玄米茶 GENMAICHA: is a classic green tea, blended with toasted and popped rice.
茎茶 KUKICHA: also known as twig tea or bōcha (棒茶) is a blend of stems, stalks and twigs. Regular kukicha comes from the production of sencha or matcha. When the tea material comes from gyokuro production it is called karigane (雁ヶ音 / かりがね).
京番茶 KYOBANCHA: is a traditional bancha roasted in the prefecture of Kyoto, noted for its smoky aroma and low levels of bitterness, caffeine and astringency. Unlike most Japanese teas, the leaves are not rolled and are much older and larger than the leaves used for gyokuro and sencha.
かぶせ茶 KABUSECHA: is a high-quality, umami-rich green tea that is shaded from the sun for around 10-14 days before harvesting.
深蒸し煎茶 FUKAMUSHI SENCHA: tea leaves are steamed for a longer time than regular sencha. This process breaks them down and creates a deep green color and full rich flavor.
玉緑茶 TAMARYOKUCHA: is a rare “coiled green tea” that is steamed. It accounts for only 3% of all Japanese tea and is also known as guricha or mushiguri, which means “curly tea” and “steamed curly.”
玉露 GYOKURO: This high-grade tea is shaded from the sun for up to three weeks before harvesting. It is one of Japan’s finest teas and high in amino acids. The shading slows the growth and enables the tea more time to develop depth and complexity. The brew is almost broth-like, smooth and rich, with no astringency. The tea is brewed in small quantities at a lower temperature, allowing for multiple infusions.
碾茶 TENCHA: Tencha is the name for tea leaves used for matcha before they are ground into fine powder. The leaves are shade grown, like gyokuro, but processed differently — the steamed leaves for tencha are dried but not kneaded, making it ideal for grinding into matcha powder and being whisked.
抹茶 MATCHA: The tea leaves used for matcha are shade-grown for three to four weeks before harvest (tencha); stems and veins are removed during processing. The full leaf is consumed when it is whisked into hot water. This is extremely healthy and commonly used in Japanese tea ceremonies.
We hope this intro to the exceptional world of tea can help you start tasting — and going deeper — with the many wonderful options available!
Featured photo credit: Ben Moreland
Do you like tea and more specifically Matcha? Join our green tea tour in Kyoto with a local expert!
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