All varieties of tea – black, green, oolong and rare white tea – come from the same plant, the Camellia Sinesis bush, but are distinguished by different processing methods.
Tea is grown in over 30 countries around the world, with the major production being in India, China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Differences in the soil, climate, topography of the growing regions, and methods of harvesting and processing all contribute to distinguish the almost 2000 varieties of finished tea.
Top grade teas have one thing in common — only the most aromatic, young, top two leaves and the unopened leaf bud are used. Up to 80,000 hand-plucked shoots are needed to produce one pound of premium grade tea. Tea production is a labor-intensive process and every step is essential to achieve superior quality.
There are four basic methods of processing tea leaves that give us black, oolong, green and white tea.
Black tea undergoes four major stages of production–withering, rolling, oxidation and drying. The oxidation stage (also referred to as fermentation) is the major determinant that differentiates the tea types. Prolonged exposure to oxygen turns tea from a green color to copper red to brown and finally to a near black color. Extended fermentation time gives black tea its hearty flavor.
Green tea is steamed or fired before rolling to prevent oxidation. Green tea has attracted widespread media attention in recent years as medical research has begun to identify many health benefits associated with the consumption of green tea. Green tea is typically identified with a delicate, grassy flavor, but as with any other tea, quality and taste can vary significantly. Green tea has less caffeine per cup than black tea. This is largely due to lower brewing temperature, shorter brewing times and the absence of oxidation process during production.
Oolong teas are withered and briefly fermented in the sun before being panfried or fired in baskets over charcoal. Oolong teas are considered a cross between green and black teas – they are oxidized, but not to the extent of black teas. The oxidation level of oolongs can vary widely. Oolongs are often the tea of choice for professional tasters and tea enthusiasts. Oolongs typically offer a delicate yet complex fruity, floral taste.
White teas are rare and very costly as a result. During the plucking, great care must be given to the selection of the leaves. Usually only the youngest leaves, still covered with short white hair or down are used. The production of most varieties of white tea consists of only two steps: steaming and drying (some white teas are very slightly fermented). The absence of withering, rolling and oxidation leaves the appearance of the leaves essentially unaltered. The white down of the unprocessed leaves is clearly visible and gives the final tea leaves their sliver-white appearance. When infused, white tea has a pale yellow cup color and a delicate, fresh flavor.