Updated: Jun 20, 2022
White Tea: Is essentially unprocessed tea. The name is derived from the fuzzy white "down" that appears on the unopened or recently opened buds - the newest growth on the tea bush. White tea is simply plucked and allowed to wither dry. That's it, really. If the weather isn't cooperating, the leaves may be put into a gentle tumble dryer on very, very low heat to assist (tea waits for no one, not even spring showers), but the leaves are not rolled, shaped, etc. Some minimal oxidation does happen naturally, as it can take a full day or two to air dry the tea leaves. This is why some white teas, like the classic White Peony, show leaves of differing colors (white, green, and brown). White teas produce very pale green or yellow liquor and are the most delicate in flavor and aroma.
Green Tea: Is plucked, withered and rolled. It is not oxidized because during the rolling process, oxidation is prevented by applying heat. Remember our baked apples? For green tea, the fresh leaves are either steamed or pan-fired (tossed in a hot, dry wok) to a temperature hot enough to stop the enzymes from browning the leaf. Just like blanching vegetables, really. Simultaneously, the leaves are shaped by curling with the fingers, pressing into the sides of the wok. The leaves are then rolled and swirled-countless shapes have been created, each with a different taste. The leaves are then given their final firing to fully dry them, after which they are done. The liquor of a green tea is typically a green or yellow color, and flavors range from toasty, grassy (pan fired teas) to fresh steamed greens (steamed teas) with mild, vegetable-like astringency.
Oolong Tea: Is one of the most time-consuming teas to create. It utilizes all of the five basic steps, with rolling and oxidizing done repeatedly. Oolong is a complex category because it's so broad: it's most simply described as half-way between green and black, and that's quite accurate. These teas are anywhere from 8% oxidized to 80% (measured roughly by looking at the amount of brown or red on the leaf while the tea is being made). The leaves are rolled, then allowed to rest and oxidize for a while. Then they'll be rolled again, then oxidized, over and over. Often, gentle heat is applied to slow the enzymes down a bit. Over the course of many hours (sometimes days), what is created is a beautiful layering or "painting" of aroma and flavor. Oolongs typically have much more complex flavor than Green or White teas, with very smooth, soft astringency and rich in floral or fruity flavors. Because of their smooth yet rich flavor profiles, Oolongs are ideal for those new to tea drinking.
Black Tea: Also utilizes all five basic steps, but is allowed to oxidize more completely. Also, the steps are followed in a very linear form; they are generally not repeated on a single batch. The tea is completely made within a day. The brewed liquor of a Black tea ranges between dark brown and deep red. Black teas offer the strongest flavors and, in some cases, the greatest astringency. Black teas are the only style of tea regularly consumed with milk and sugar (though some dark Oolong drinkers may disagree) and are the most popular bases for iced tea. Herbal Tea: Has been around for centuries. It can be made using many different ingredients, including tree bark, flowers, herbs, leaves, roots, spices, seeds, and dried fruit. Despite their name, herbal teas are not true teas at all. True teas, including green tea, black tea and oolong tea, are brewed from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal teas are caffine free.
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