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).
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?