Hey, tea lovers! Today I'm really excited to teach you about the different styles of tea we have and, while they all come from the same plant, the reasons they are all different. The five basic styles are White, Green, Oolong, Black and Pu'erh (pronounced poo-ERR), which all come from Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.
But first, a chemistry lesson
Those of you with me from the start (yes, a whole two blogs ago) may recall that I'm a teacher. One of my subjects is middle school science, so I feel compelled to give a little chemistry lesson before we start. I promise, it's extremely relevant, and whether you ever use it again in your life (as my students might wonder), that's up to you. If it's ever a question on Final Jeopardy, you'll thank me.
Think about a piece of fruit, like an apple or a banana. Both will begin to brown after they're picked, even when left alone. Now let's focus on the apple. If you cut or bruise the apple, it will brown more quickly. This is called oxidation. Oxidation happens when the enzymes in the fruit interact with oxygen, after the cell walls are broken apart.
The same thing happens to the tea leaf. Oxidation is the most crucial part of defining the different types of teas. It can happen quite quickly if the tea leaf is rolled, cut or crushed during processing, or more slowly if left to natural decomposition.
Oxidizing apples Oxidized tea
The thing that stops oxidation is heat. Think about the apples again. If you bake the apples whole or sliced in a pie, the apples will not turn brown. This is because heat at or over 130 degrees stops enzymatic activity and oxidation. The apples will look as fresh as when you first put them in the oven.
Now, on to the different types of tea, beginning with the least processed to the most. The processing includes plucking, withering (the leaves are allowed to wilt and soften), rolling (the shaping of the leaves and the wringing out of the juices), oxidizing, and firing (mechanical drying).
White tea is essentially unprocessed tea. If you look closely at the leaf you'll see white fuzzy "down" on the freshly opened bud. The producer will pick the newest growth on the tea bush and be careful not to bruise the plant in any way. Then it's allowed to "solar wither," which is simply set in the sun and allowed to dry a bit. And that's it. Really! Some minimal natural oxidation can happen, maybe 5-10%, because it can take a day or two to air dry these tea leaves.
When brewed, white teas produce a pale green or yellow liquor (okay, don't get excited. Liquor is the term used for the infused liquid. In other words, the stuff you drink. More on that in a future post) and has the most delicate flavor and aroma.
Plucked, withered and rolled, green tea is not oxidized because during the rolling process oxidation is prevented by applying heat. The process has to be done carefully. Usually the bud and the first two leaves are hand picked to prevent unnecessary bruising which can cause oxidation. Then the leaves are hurried back to the processing area and allowed to wither a little bit. Then the leaves are pan-fired (tossed in a very large wok like a stir fry) in the case of Chinese green tea, or steamed, in the case of Japanese green tea. Both methods apply the heat needed to prevent oxidation.
The leaves are rolled and swirled creating countless shapes, each with a different flavor. The liquor (there I go again) is usually a green or yellow color and the flavor ranges from toasty and nutty (pan fried) to fresher and grassier (steam heated).
Oolong tea uses all five basic steps to produce, with rolling and oxidizing done repeatedly, thus making it very time consuming to create. The leaves are picked when they are a little bit larger; sometimes two, sometimes three leaves are picked. They are rolled, allowed to rest and oxidize, rolled again, oxidize, heated to slow oxidizing down, rolled again, and so on. Oolong falls somewhere between a green tea and a black tea and can be anywhere between 15% to 80% oxidized.
Oolongs are ideal for people who are new to loose leaf tea drinking. The flavors are more complex than green or white, and they have a smooth, soft astringency (how it feels in your mouth) and have rich floral or fruity flavor profiles. They have a wide range of flavors because there is such a wide range of oxidation allowed to happen.
Known in China as Red tea because of the red color of the liquor, Black tea (to the rest of the world) is processed like Oolong, using the basic five steps in processing. The difference is that it is allowed to oxidize more completely. Though it may be called fully oxidize, it actually is 90-95% oxidized. The young leaves are picked, and either hand rolled or by mechanical means bruise the leaf entirely, releasing the enzymes. These essential oils react with the air to oxidize allowing tannins to develop and the tea becomes richer, fuller and more robust.
Black teas are the type that takes milk and sugar well and are the most popular bases for iced teas. They offer the strongest flavors and also blend well with other ingredients to make flavored teas.
Different types of tea
Pu'erh (poo-ERR) is a post-fermented tea and a completely different art. The tea is aged and allowed to ferment. A product of the Yunnan province of China where it grows in very rich, dark soil, old tea plants which have essentially become trees, have large leaves. These larger leaves are processed like Green tea (pick, wither, pan fire) but then they're packed into small "cakes" and allowed to sit for years. And by years, I mean 20-25 years, from picking to fully fermented and ready to use. The microorganisms that exist naturally on the leaf allow the tea to ferment, and as it ferments the tea becomes darker and smoother. This strain of tea is known as "raw" Pu'erh tea.
I should tell you that since the Chinese want to sell tea and don't want to wait 25 years, they have since developed a way to expedite the fermenting process in a very skilled way to cut the fermentation time down to two months. In a nutshell, they pile the leaves after pan-firing into very clean warehouses where they turn up the heat and humidity to accelerate the process. This is known as "cooked" Pu'erh tea.
Wait a Darn Minute! What about Yellow Tea?
Could there be a sixth tea? Well, yes. It's a rare tea grown in China and has the lowest production volume of all teas. It's similar to green tea, but adds a sweltering process which develops yellow compounds and diminishes the green. So since it's so rare and we don't carry any yellow teas, as Forrest Gump liked to say, "that's all I have to say about that."
Uptown Tea Shop carries all five varieties of tea: White, Green, Oolong, Black and Pu'erh. Look for them on our website or in the store. We also carry teas that are not really teas. That's what my next post will be about.
If you enjoyed this blog post, please share it with a friend. I invite your comments and extend a personal invitation to try our teas available on this website. If you're near Charlotte, NC, please come to our store and see us personally.
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