The Secret to Finding New Teas You Love
For a tea lover, the most important thing (we hope) is how good a tea will taste. The trouble is, there are so many teas to choose from that it can be difficult to know where to look to find a new tea you will really enjoy.
As tea type (green, black, white etc) is the most basic indicator of taste, deciding which type you fancy is the best place to start when choosing a tea to drink or buy. So here we are going to cover very essentially how the six types taste.
Why are there six different tea types?
The answer is simple: there are six main ways to process tea and these methods create six main characteristics of taste. Remember, we are being top line here – there are big nuances of flavour within each type.
Very essentially, tea processing is the picking, withering, rolling, heating and drying of the leaves - the order and extent to which these are done, determines the tea type.
So, what are the six main tastes of Green, Yellow, White, Oolong, Black and Puerh tea (not to mention scented tea)?
1) Green Tea
Green tea tastes grassy, vegetal and fresh; it encapsulates some of the freshness we know from spring vegetables. It is like this because very quickly after the leaves are picked, heat is used to lock or “fix” the leaves in their green state. The leaves will be withered before this heating to help develops aromas. The major sub categories of green tea are fired (like Chinese greens) and steamed (like Japanese greens) with the former being sweeter, slightly warmer and sometimes even nutty, and the latter being more vegetal, thicker and more ‘green’.
2) White Tea
White tea tastes delicate, sweet and light and should be very smooth. It taste's like this because of the varieties of tea bush used and because the production is very simple - the leaves and/or buds are picked and left to wither and dry very slowly. There's no rolling and there shouldn't be any firing. The skill lies in not bruising the leaves and buds during the picking so that there is only minimal oxidation; and in the slow drying process, the gentle aromas and sweetness develops. A very well-known style of white tea is Silver Needle which is only the very young buds - it is lighter and more delicate than a tea that also contains leaves.
3) Yellow Tea
Yellow tea could be said to taste like a mellowed version of green tea. If you want the lightness of green tea but don’t want the grassy flavours, you might like this type. It is made in the same way as green tea, except that after the firing, the leaves are kept warm for a long time. This gentle 'keep-warm' stage, removes some of vegetal flavours and helps it develop mellower, slightly riper flavours (think of ripe vs unripe fruit). Yellow tea is a rare category and there are only a few traditional examples – some famous ones include Jun Shan Yin Zhen, Mogan Huangya and Huoshan Huangya.
4) Oolong Tea
Oolong tea has incredible depth of flavour and a wide variety of sub-types - its an incredible rewarding category with very broad appeal. It has some of the freshness of green tea and some of the depth and complexity of black tea. You've got to explore it if you haven't already.
It can vary from: floral, creamy, floral and fresh and fruity, to complex, dark, roasted, chocolaty and comforting. It can be highly aromatic. It has this depth and complexity because larger, older leaves are picked (in contrast to the spring buds and young leaves used in green and white tea), and because they will be repeatedly rolled and fired during production which activates the flavour components in the leaf. Levels of oxidation and levels of baking are key parameters in the taste profile of oolong tea. Different origins and styles will require different levels of concentration – all the way from 10-15% to some that are 90% oxidised. Lighter oxidised oolongs, such as Ali Shan from Taiwan or Iron Buddha (Tieguanyin) from China, will be green-ish, but much potentially more fruity creamy than green tea. More heavily oxidised oolongs will have more richness to them but will retain floral aromas and a fruitiness; some of these, such as Wuyi Oolong or Phoenix Honey Orchid will be more baked to create nutty, chocolaty notes and a cooked sugar-sweetness.
5) Black Tea
Black tea has strength and structure, it tastes rich and often malty with some sweetness. It tastes like this because the leaves have been allowed to fully oxidise or fully concentrate their strength and flavours. You might think of it as opposite to green tea – for people who do not want freshness or vegetal flavours, but instead we want full concentration and depth of flavour. During the oxidation process tannins also develop, which is why black tea will be richer, stronger, more robust and will feel more structured when we drink it.
6) Puerh Tea
Puerh tea starts off life very green and can be astringent but over time it becomes extremely smooth, mellow with incredible depth and complexity. It develops these qualities because it goes through a fermentation process. The main subcategories of Puerh are raw and cooked. 'Raw' means that the tea has been aged naturally over time (we've drunk Puerh teas of even 100 years!), whereas 'cooked' has had the ageing process sped up through being put in hot and humid conditions for around a month. Within the raw category the taste will depend on the age of the tea and the type and quality of the leaves used. The older raw and cooked puerh will be very dark in colour. Young puerh can be light, highly structured with some sweetness – old puerh will be more refined, complex, and super-smooth.
It is worth mentioning scented teas too – these are teas that have been processed as one of the six types above but then been combined with a flower or fruit which the tea will take on the flavour of. The base flavour and structure will be linked to the type that the leaves have been processed in to. Using Jasmine as an example, two types include Jasmine Pearls and Jasmine Silver Needle. Both are highly aromatic with Jasmine, but the pearls as a green tea will have more structure and vegetal flavours than Silver Needle, which as a white tea will be lighter and more delicate.