The Secret to Finding New Teas You Love
For a tea lover, the most important thing (we hope) is how good a tea will taste. The trouble is, there are so many teas to choose from that it can be difficult to know where to look to find a new tea you will really enjoy.
As tea type is perhaps the strongest indicator of taste, the first thing to work out is which tea types are your favourites.
Why are there six different tea types?
The answer is simple: there are six main ways to process tea and these methods create six main characteristics of taste. Remember, we are being top line here – there are many nuances of flavour within each type, just like there are many nuances of taste within the wine categories.
Very essentially, tea processing is the picking, withering, and drying of the leaves. How quickly they are dried and what drying method is used, as well as if, when and to what extent they are bruised or rolled during processing, determines which type of tea they become.
So, what are the six main tastes of Green, Yellow, White, Oolong, Black and Puerh tea (not to mention scented tea)?
1) Green Tea
Green tea tastes grassy, vegetal and fresh, it encapsulates some of the freshness we know from green fruit or green vegetables. It is like this because very quickly after the leaves are picked, heat is used to lock or “fix” the leaves in their green state. The leaves will be withered before this heating, without rolling or bruising and it is this wither that develops the aromatics. The major sub categories of green tea are fired (like Chinese greens) and steamed (like Japanese greens) with the former being sweeter, slightly warmer and sometimes even nutty and the latter being more vegetal, thicker and more ‘green’ as a result of the steaming.
2) White Tea
White tea tastes delicate and sweet and is very light. It is like this because all that happens when the leaves or buds are picked is that they are left to wither very slowly. The skill lies in not bruising the leaves and buds during the picking so that they do not oxidise and very slowly in the air, the natural sweetness in the bud/ leaf concentrates. A very well-known style of white tea is Silver Needle, which is only the very young buds and is therefore lighter and more delicate than a picking that includes leaves.
3) Yellow Tea
Yellow tea is a mellowed version of green tea. If you want the lightness of green tea but don’t want the grassy flavours, you might like this type. It is slightly ripe and has a very smooth texture. It is made like green tea, except after the firing, the leaves are kept warm for a long time. This warm period removes the greenness or vegetal flavours. There are very few yellow teas as it is a rare category – some famous examples are Jun Shan Yin Zhen, Mogan Huangya and Huoshan Huangya.
4) Oolong Tea
Oolong tea has complexity and a wide variety of tastes. It is floral, creamy, fresh or fruity, roasted and mineral and can be highly aromatic. It has this depth and complexity because larger, older leaves are picked (in contrast to the spring buds and young leaves used in green and white tea), and because they will be repeatedly rolled and fired during production which activates the essential oils in the leaf causing the leaf to oxidise. This means that the flavours and essential oils concentrate. Levels of oxidation and levels of baking are key parameters in the taste profile of oolong tea. Different origins and styles will require different levels of concentration – all the way from 10-15% to some that are 90% oxidised. Lighter oxidised oolongs, such as Ali Shan from Taiwan or Iron Buddha(Tieguanyin) from China, will be green-ish, but much more fruity, creamy and quenching than green tea. More heavily oxidised oolongs will have more structure and darkness to them but will retain floral aromas and a fruitiness. Some of them too, such as Wuyi Oolong or Phoenix Honey Orchid will also be baked after they have been processed and this will develop the flavours further – often with nutty notes, and a cooked sugar sweetness.
5) Black Tea
Black tea has strength and structure, it tastes rich and often malty with some sweetness. It tastes like this because the leaves have been allowed to fully oxidise or fully concentrate their strength and flavours. You might think of it as opposite to green tea – we do not want freshness or vegetal flavours, instead we want full concentration and depth of flavour. During the oxidation process tannins also develop, which is why black tea will be richer, stronger, more robust and will feel more structured when we drink it.
6) Puerh Tea
Puerh tea has an earthy flavour to it, it is smooth, woody, mellow and sometimes sour. It tastes like this because it goes through an ageing process that slowly ferments the leaf. This fermenting brings out a lot of earthiness but also some of the green character of the young, fresh leaves used to make it. The main subcategories are raw and cooked. Raw means that the tea has been aged naturally over time, whereas cooked has had the ageing process sped up through hot and humid conditions. Within the raw category the taste will depend on the age of the tea. The older raw and cooked puerh will be very dark, almost treacle like. Young puerh can be light, highly structured with some sweetness – old puerh will be more refined, complex, and smooth.
It is worth mentioning scented teas too – these are teas that have been processed as one of the six types above but then been combined with a flower or fruit which the tea will take on the flavour of. The base flavour and structure will be linked to the type that the leaves have been processed in to. Using Jasmine as an example, two types include Jasmine Pearls and Jasmine Silver Needle. Both are highly aromatic with Jasmine, but the pearls as a green tea will have more structure and vegetal flavours than Silver Needle, which as a white tea will be lighter and more delicate.