A New Look at Tea Classification

by Tony Gebely 552 views21

Tea Types and Tea Styles

Throughout history, tea has been categorized many ways: by the color of the finished leaves, by the color of the tea liquor, and by the percentage of oxidation the tea leaves have gone through during processing. The goal of categorizing tea is to provide a clear foundation for education by lumping together teas with similar qualities. Each of the above classification methods fall short of providing a method of classification by which all tea styles can be categorized. Classifying teas by the processing methods that created them however, allows us to achieve this goal as tea styles can easily be lumped together by similarities in processing.


From the same leaves, it is possible to derive 6 different types of tea. These tea types are broad categories that lump together tea styles that share similar processing methods and as a result, similar final products. Most of the knowledge surrounding tea classification is based on Chinese systems as it were the Chinese who first created all of the types and many of the styles of tea we drink today. Nearly all tea processing in the world today shares the ideas and methods first created in China and therefore, it makes sense to learn from these. Most Chinese tea experts recognize these 6 types of tea: green tea 绿茶 (lǜ chá), yellow tea 黄茶 (huáng chá), white tea 白茶 (bái chá), oolong tea 乌龙茶 (wū lóng chá), red tea 红茶 (hóng chá) and dark tea 黑茶 (hēi chá). There are two major differences when comparing the Chinese classification to most western classification systems you may have noticed, they are the recognition of red tea and dark tea.

Red tea is the translation of the Mandarin hong cha which refers to what most Western countries call black tea. The Chinese named this tea after the reddish color of the tea’s liquor, and those systems that call it black tea refer to the color of the finished tea’s leaves. Calling this tea category black tea is confusing because the Chinese already have a tea category called hei cha which translates to black/dark tea (I’ve chosen to use “post-fermented tea” to avoid confusion). Dark or post-fermented tea, again named after the color of the tea’s liquor which can be very dark, nearly black. The post-fermented tea category includes puer as well as many other fermented teas.

Any of the 6 tea types can be flavored, scented, blended, ground, roasted, aged, or decaffeinated. These “altered” teas comprise a 7th tea category known as post-processed teas (not on the above chart).

Tea Types and Tea Styles

Tea Styles
Under each tea type are tea styles that are classified by the variations in processing steps that each style undergoes, these styles can also vary based on the cultivar of the plant being used, it’s terroir (soil, climate, altitude, latitude) and the intention of the tea maker.In fact, some tea styles are not considered to be authentic unless they were made from very specific processing steps, from a specific cultivar and terroir. Let’s explore this a little further as I listed the things that make up a tea style in order of importance.

Variations in Processing
Variations in processing (like steaming instead of pan firing for ‘kill-green,’ percentage of oxidation, or different shaping methods) can dramatically affect the outcome of a tea, so these variations make up much of the definition of a tea style. Some tea styles are named after the shape or color of the finished leaves, or after the color or taste of the liquor — all of these factors are related to variations in the processing methods use to create them.

While we can technically create any type or style of tea from any cultivar of Camellia sinensis, the outcome may not be desirable or “authentic.” Many cultivars have been bred specifically for certain growing regions to be processed into a specific style of tea. Some tea styles are even defined solely by their cultivar, in this case there is often a mother plant that has been cloned for commercial production, Tieguanyin and Dahongpao are two examples of these.

Terroir is a French term used to describe the soil, climate, altitude, latitude of a particular growing region. And some tea styles are either named after the place in which they are grown, or are only considered authentic if grown in a specific region.

Intention of the tea maker
The intention of the tea maker yields the least merit compared to the other factors that make up a tea style, but it is still important and can help you evaluate a tea when a tea style is borderline between two types of teas. If the tea maker tells you that his/her product is a style of black tea but it resembles and tastes like an oolong tea, you might say that the tea is a poor quality black tea, but if the tea farmer had told you that the tea was a black tea, would you have judged it differently?


Comments (21)

  1. I’ve tried to explain the differences between the various types of tea before and I failed pretty miserably. This tea processing chart is the most logical breakdown I’ve seen. I’m impressed.

  2. Great post, so much knowledge about tea. About all of preparation from harvesting to processing.

  3. I’m the girl that posted your graph the other day onto reddit. I don’t want to take your karma, but you should totally keep us updated 😉

    1. Thanks for sharing my chart. Feel free to post my stuff whenever you like!

  4. Thanks for this great overview. It clarified a lot to me! :-)

    Regarding the dark tea: I have seen a video on youtube showing that after thenkill green step there are also rolling and partial oxidation steps: http://youtu.be/YYcQySL_ozg

    1. Hey Jiri, thanks for the comment. The purpose of the kill-green step is to halt oxidation, so if the kill-green step is done correctly, there will be no oxidation. What’s taking place in the video is a drying step. The rolling is actually shaping, which I’ve excluded from my chart because different styles of tea are shaped differently and at different times. Thanks for sharing the video!

  5. Baidu has a good classification system on their website in Chinese. It hasn’t been translated into English as far as I’m aware. Actually, I got a lot of he information for my own classification system from Baidu Baike.

    1. Thanks James, this is a great resource, I’ll check it out.

  6. Tony, this is a sheerly awesome effort. Classifying tea isn’t easy, but I agree that’s it’s definitely something that needs to be done.

    We’ve done a few things differently, which makes this endeavour all the more interesting!

    For example, I omitted pluck (FTGFOP, etc) from the classification system because most plucks are available for most teas. I did this because China uses a different pluck grading system from India, and CTC teas don’t use it at all. Most teas area also available in most plucks (except for the few cases where a far superior pluck changes the name of the tea), so I omitted it from my own classification system.

    I will keep checking back on your progress here. This project is really interesting!

    What will your book be called?


    1. I’m working between 3 titles with the publisher now. Will know soon.

      It wasn’t easy but I had to start somewhere and make building blocks. The plucks are different everywhere, I tried to not include them in the classification, I was only using the Indian tea as an example that the same plant / same pluck / same processing can differ based on when it was harvested. I felt it was important to start with this post to lay down some important terminology that I build upon here and in the book — that tea *types* are green/yellow/white/oolong/etc and tea *styles* are the variances within a type… i.e. bi luo chun, liu an gua pian, etc.

  7. Hi Tony, this is great. I really wish we could have such a classification system in China. I spend so many hours quality checking all the teas that I have to buy. There is indeed no classification system, but I think if there was one, the hard part is to implement such a system.

    The average loose tea trader can just tell you everything if you don’t know about tea. Only the reputable branded teas are motivated to sell the real thing, because the risk losing their brand value.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Hi Online Tea Shopping Addict,
      Can you give me an example of some teas you’ve found that don’t fit into any classification system? While looser in China, I do feel as if there is some semblance of classification unless you can show me otherwise. Thanks!

      1. I disagree that there is no classification or it is looser in China.
        Where else did you think it originated from?
        Did you think the classification was a western invention when China is the only nation to produce all 6 categories of tea (7 according to your own version)

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