All five derive from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. What accounts for their many differences are the length of time it takes for the tea leaves to become oxidized and the processing style, which can include such methods as roasting, steaming, pan-firing and aging.
Below you’ll find an explanation as to how each of these teas differ and learn about their individual characteristics.
Among the five different teas White tea is the least processed and is made of the most tender and fresh buds and leaves. It is harvested only during the spring season. The production utilizes the gentle process of withering, curing, and drying which give white teas delicate flavors, a smooth mouthfeel, as well as a subtly fruity or sweet finish.
White teas tend to have less bitterness than other teas and can be more forgiving of water temperature and infusion times than green teas.
The majority of white teas are made from medium-leaf tea bush varieties that yield silvery-white sprouts and leaves. They are delicately hand-harvested only once a year for a few weeks in early spring when the weather is consistently cool and dry. The withering process of white tea raises an abundance of silvery-white hairs on the dried tea leaves and buds. Authentic white teas such as White Peony are multi-colored like autumn leaves and are covered with a silver-white fuzz that resembles the skin of a ripened peach. Silver Needle, the premier style of white tea, consists of only silvery-white sprouts shaped like needles without attached leaves.
Most white teas brew best at water temperatures of around 185ºF (85ºC).
Green teas are known for their fresh flavor and health benefits. They are predominantly produced throughout China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia during the spring growing season, which runs from March through May.
Tea artisans use various methods of firing the freshly harvested leaves to prevent the natural oxidation process and to preserve the fresh green qualities of the leaf.
Green teas are the least oxidized of all the teas and are categorized by the firing method and craftsmanship technique; steamed, pan-fired, oven-baked, half-roasted, half-baked, hot-air roasted, and sun-dried.
When tasting an assortment of green teas, regional nuance, the season of harvest, the style of leaf and the plucking standard all become apparent.
Most green teas brew best at water temperatures around 170-175ºF (75-80ºC), but some teas may require higher or lower temperatures.
Oolong teas are a category of semi-oxidized teas (they fall between un-oxidized green teas and fully oxidized black teas) that can only be made from certain types of tea bush growing in specific geographical regions. The production methods for oolong tea are known to only a few regions of the world. Today, the main production regions are in Fujian, Guangdong, and Taiwan.
Oolong teas are being produced from larger, more mature leaves. During processing the leaves are shaken and then the edges of the leaves are left to “bruise”. This brings about a brown or red color, while the middle of the leaves stay green. The finishing amount of oxidation depends on the desired type of tea, as well as the skill of the tea maker. This can result in oolong teas that are lightly fermented, like pale delicate-tasting green teas, to forms which are almost fully fermented, like dark and bold flavored black teas.
The production of oolong tea requires some of the most artisanal and sophisticated skills of tea making. Oolong tea artisans are much like boutique winemakers.
Most oolong teas are sold under simple trade names (e.g., Tie Guanyin, Shui Xian, Dong Ding, Dancong). However, experts categorize and understand oolong by its region, age, bush variety and season of harvest, just like wine.
Most oolong teas brew best at water temperatures of around 185-195ºF (85-90ºC). Some require even higher temperatures.
Unlike green tea processing, which attempts to preserve the green color of fresh tea leaves, black tea processing encourages the tea leaves to oxidize and change color from green to coppery red. This change in leaf color is referred to as oxidation.
Being fully fermented, black (or red) tea has dark leaves and produces a deep colored liquid, as well as tender, yet profound characteristics.
Most black teas brew best at water temperatures of around 195-205ºF (90-95ºC).
Originating in Yunnan Province of southwestern China, pu-erh tea has an ancient history of more than 2,000 years.
There are two different types of Pu-erh: Sheng Pu-erh (the raw or green type) and Shu Pu-erh (the ripened or black type). Both Shu and Sheng Pu-erh teas are usually made of Camellia sinensis var. assamica. After fermentation and roasting, pu-erh tea is aged, often for many years, resulting in its dark color and bold, mellow flavor.
Like Champagne or other regionally specific foods and beverages, pu-erh is a geographically indicated product. This tea can only be produced and fermented in southern Yunnan using sun-dried green tea from specific tea varieties found in Yunnan, Laos, Burma and some parts of Thailand and Vietnam.
Being fully oxidized, pu-erh tea has significant health benefits, especially for weight loss. Throughout Southeast Asia, where it remains an integral part of the food culture, pu-erh is regarded as a slimming and naturally safe dieter's tea.
Most pu-erh teas brew best at water temperatures of around 200-210ºF (95-99ºC).