Tea Varieties

At GourmetCoffees.com, we carry a wide variety of teas. But what is tea and what are the varieties we carry? Let's take a look.

What is Tea?
The tea most of us are accustomed to comes from the Camellia sinensis bush. This evergreen plant is native to and grows in Asia. Tea is also grown in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The largest producers of tea are China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. According to Chinese legend, drinking tea began around 2740 BC. It was primarily used for medicinal purposes at that time. Beginning around 620 AD, tea made its way into recreational consumption.

Tea can be grown and cultivated outside of the mostly tropical and subtropical area where it is normally seen. There have been teas grown in England and Scotland, Washington state in the US, Vancouver in Canada, the island of Tasmania in Australia, and in New Zealand. It takes about three years before a plant can be harvested and anywhere from four to twelve years for it to bear seeds. After the plants reach maturity, they are kept pruned to about three feet. Keeping the plants short has a couple of benefits. First, it makes it easier to harvest and second, shorter plants give off more new shoots. The new shoots are what make the best tea due to their tenderness. Of the mature plant, only the top couple of inches are harvested. The buds and leaves in this area are called flushes and each plant can grow a new flush every seven to fifteen days.

How is Tea Processed?
Once tea is harvested, depending on which variety of tea is being processed, the leaves and buds will go through a combination of withering (or wilting), oxidizing, crushing, bruising, and/or fermenting. All of these steps are in addition to the drying that takes place and happen before things like blending and flavoring. Here are the steps for processing tea. Not all teas go through all these steps, again depending on the variety of tea.

  • Withering (or wilting)
  • Bruising (or disruption, maceration)
  • Oxidation (or fermentation)
  • Fixation (or kill-green)
  • Yellowing (or sweltering)
  • Shaping
  • Drying
  • Curing (or aging)

Let's talk about what each of these steps is and what they do to the tea.

Withering - also known as wilting, can be accomplished either outdoors in the sun or indoors in a breezy room. This step removes about a quarter of the water weight in the leaves. It also allows the proteins in the tea leaves to become amino acids which increase the amount of caffeine that is freed. Both of these can change the flavor of the tea.

Bruising - also known as disruption or maceration. This step can be performed at varying levels giving the tea leaves different flavor profiles. A light bruising is caused by shaking the tea leaves in a tray or basket while a more intense bruising can be accomplished by crushing, rolling, or kneading the tea leaves. Typically, this stronger bruising is performed by a machine. By bruising the tea leaves, it helps to jump-start the oxidation step by breaking down the leaf cells and releasing the oxidative enzymes.

Oxidation - also known as fermentation, oxidizing tea leaves turns them a darker color. They are left in a climate-controlled room which allows the enzymes to break down further. This releases tannins which affect the flavor of the tea. Varying levels of oxidation produce different flavors as well as the varied colors you see in the brewed tea. A light oxidation, seen in oolong teas, gives a more earthy or grassy flavor. Heavy oxidation, usually 100% as seen in black tea, can produce a more wine-like flavor.

Fixation - also known as kill-green, fixation halts the oxidization of the leaves once it reaches the desired level. Originally accomplished by panning in a wok or steaming, today fixation is often done by baking the leaves or heating them in a large rolling drum. Heating the leaves like this stops the oxidizing enzymes and removes any unpleasant aromas.

Yellowing - also known as sweltering, is only used on yellow teas. The tea leaves are heated to roughly 100 degrees F for up to 8 hours in a closed container after the fixation step. This turns the leaves a yellow-green color and gives the tea a uniquely mellow yet bright flavor.

Shaping - the leaves are rolled after fixation which causes some of the leftover liquid inside the leaves to seep out. Rolling the leaves can take place by hand or by machine. Once the tea is rolled, it can either move on to the next step or can be formed into further shapes. Some common shapes are pellets, balls, or spirals. A more unique shape is the tea brick which was once used as currency China.

Drying - once the tea has been withered, bruised, oxidized, fixed, and shaped, it's time for drying. This is how tea is finished prior to sale. The most common drying method is baking though other ways include putting the leaves in the sun, drying in a well-circulated room, or panning in a wok. This part of the process produces or enhances a number of the flavors found in the tea. It is extremely important for green tea.

Curing - also known as aging, adds other flavors and aromas to the teas. In addition to aging, the curing process can include fermentation or baking. Some teas, like oolong, are aged by fire, imbuing it with a lovely smoky flavor and scent. Once the tea has completed its processing, it can be packaged for sale or it may go on to be flavored or blended.

Varieties of Tea
Now that we know how tea is grown and processed, it's time to learn about the varieties of tea. All these teas come from the same plant mentioned before, Camellia sinensis. They appear different from each other and have different flavors and aromas due to their processing.

White - white tea has been withered and is unoxidized producing a pale-yellow, almost clear, liquor after steeping. The flavor of white tea is sweet and mild.

Yellow - yellow tea has not been withered or oxidized and is allowed to turn yellow, or swelter, after fixation and prior to rolling and drying. This produces a tea that is slightly orange and has a sweetly floral flavor that is bright and clean. This is the only tea in this section that we do not carry at GourmetCoffees.com

Green - green tea is both un-withered and unoxidized but unlike yellow tea is not sweltered after fixation. It has a slightly green colored liquid and its flavor is mellow with a slight vegetal flavor.

Oolong - oolong tea has been withered, bruised, and oxidized. Oxidation on oolong teas is anywhere from 5% to 70%. Depending on the amount of oxidation, the tea liquor will be some shade of reddish brown. The refreshing flavor of oolong is fruity and sweet.

Black - known as red tea in China, black tea has been withered, occasionally bruised, and is fully oxidized. The most consumed tea in the Western world, black tea is rich and robust with a slight sweetness.

Check out our selection of teas and find your favorites. To learn about herbal teas and tisanes, follow this link. For information about proper steeping times and water to tea ratios, visit this page.