Recently I went into a tea shop, and instead of having teas organized by categories like most places would — pu-erh, black, oolong, green, and so forth — they had their teas organized by the roast. Dark roast, medium roast, and light roast. Granted, they didn’t carry all tea categories. Only black teas, oolongs, and green teas, but the concept caught my attention.
After ordering the darkest roast of oolong they had, I watched my tea being made. The resulting liquid was an incredibly dark color — the color of a shot of espresso. Coincidentally it was almost as potent as an espresso shot in terms of energetic qualities. But instead of getting an over-caffeinated feeling, I was met with good cha chi and a decent tea high.
Indeed tea brews can have so many beautiful color schemes: oak brown, amber orange, jade green, honey yellow… and the list goes on.
As we’ve already learned, the color of the tea doesn’t always correspond with the tea category. In the west, we are mostly used to ordering a black tea and receiving a dark brown, almost black tea brew. When it comes to Chinese black teas (red teas – "hong cha"), the color of the brew can vary from a darkish umber brown to a light golden liquid.
So what are some of the things that influence the resulting color of the tea brew?
The Type Of Tea
The colors of the brew don’t always correspond to their respective tea category. However, in general, pu-erh will have a darker liquid, with a white tea having almost a clear liquid.
The five main different categories of tea are as follows:
Pu-erh is a post-fermented tea. After roasting and fermentation, pu-erh tea is aged (sometimes for many years), resulting in its dark color and bold, mellow flavor.
Otherwise known as red tea or “hong cha.” Black tea processing forces the tea leaves to undergo oxidization and change color from green to coppery red. The change in leaf color is indeed referred to as oxidation.
Being fully fermented, black tea has dark leaves. It produces a deep-colored liquid, as well as tender, yet profound characteristics.
Oolong teas are a category of semi-oxidized teas, falling between un-oxidized green teas and fully oxidized black teas.
The finishing amount of oxidation will depend on the desired type of tea. The result can be a lightly fermented oolong, similar to pale delicate-tasting green teas. Or one that is more fermented, like dark and bold flavored black teas.
Tea artisans employ various methods of firing the freshly harvested tea leaves to prevent the naturally occurring oxidation process and to preserve the fresh green qualities of the leaf. Thus resulting in an incredibly refreshing spring green color of the brew.
Green tea is predominantly produced throughout China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia during the spring growing season, which runs from March through May.
White tea is the least processed among the five different tea types.
It undergoes the gentle process of withering, curing, and drying. This gives white teas their delicate flavors, a smooth mouthfeel, and a subtly fruity-sweet finish.
White teas can be more forgiving of water temperature and infusion times than green teas and tend to have less bitterness.
The resulting liquids can vary in color — from deep sunset orange to an almost clear liquid.
A dark brew color can signify that the tea is highly oxidized, while lighter brews signify milder oxidation. This is easily noticeable with oolong teas. Dark oolongs like Dan Cong Oolongs have higher oxidation and come close to black teas in liquid color and robust, maltier taste. Light oolongs like Taiwanese Dong Ding Oolong have light oxidation and very gentle, light brews that are floral, grassy, and similar to green teas.
This is a method of applying heat to the tea leaves to stop oxidation. This can be roasting, baking, frying, and steaming.
Let’s compare two popular Japanese green teas:
Sencha leaves are steamed shortly after harvest. The result — a beautiful vibrant green tea color.
Hojicha leaves, on the other hand, are roasted after harvest. The result — a warming brown color liquid.
Both are green teas, yet with utterly different results based on the processing methods.
Aging is when processed tea is left untouched for a year or more at a time—developing unique characteristics and flavor profiles (much like a wine or cheese would). How the age of the tea affects a tea brew is evident in the case of white teas.
An un-aged white tea like Silver Needle will have an incredibly light ivory-colored brew. In contrast, an aged white tea like Aged White Peony would have a bright orange color liquid.
This is the last point we would like to cover. While all of the variables listed above depend on the skills of the tea artisans, the steep is solely up to you!
What we mean by “the steep” is how long you choose to steep the tea for. Each tea has a tested time, which is best for it to steep. To extract all its subtle notes and flavors, at the same time not over-brewing it. For example, if our Dragon Well Green Tea is steeped for the suggested time of 3 minutes (western-style), it will produce a delicate lightest green hue. However, if it is over-steeped for 10 minutes, the resulting brew will be a dark orangish color. Not at all what we want from our delicate green teas! Furthermore, the taste will develop unwanted bitter qualities that mute the subtle sweetness of the tea.
In conclusion, in general, oxidized teas produce darker brews while less oxidized or non-oxidized teas produce lighter brews. However, there is always room for originality within a specific tea category!