It all comes from the same plant. Perhaps because of the thousands of different types of teas available it can seem a little confusing. It's not particularly confusing but it must be said that if you did decide to make a study of tea then you could be studying for a very, very long time. I suppose it depends on how far you want to take it, personally I think it's quite interesting and fun. I like trying out new things and with tea, not only are there always teas to try but you can seriously get into creating new blends.
Anyway, here are some of the things that I have picked up about tea over the years.
The tea plant is called Camellia Sinensis and, much like coffee, wine and all those other wonderful things, the flavour and characteristics of your teavary by the soil, altitude and climate where the plant is grown, when it is picked and then how it is treated once harvested. It's an evergreen, tropical plant that takes three to five years to mature, if left wild will grow into a tree, but cultivated plants are pruned and grown as a bush for ease of plucking as well as promoting fresh shoots which provide new, tender leaves which are generally plucked every seven to fourteen days. It looks remarkably similar to our garden privet hedges.
There are two major varieties of the tea plant grown. One being Camellia Sinensis : variety Sinensis, mainly grown in China and the other Camellia Sinensis : variety Assamica, mainly grown in India. Of course, this being the world of tea, there are exceptions.
For example, Darjeeling tea, although grown in West Bengal in north eastern India, uses the small-leaved Chinese variety of the tea plant Camellia Sinensis. This is because Archibald Campbell (1805–1874) a chap in the medical service, smuggled some seeds over from the Kumaun region in China after being transferred to Darjeeling in 1841. I keep meaning to find out more about Dr A Campbell.
Regardless of the variety of tea plant used, or where it is grown, tea leaves are then divided into categories based on what happens to the leaves after they are picked. It is this next part of the process that gives the leaves their description of being a black, green, white, or oolong tea. Again, there are some great exceptions, Kukicha, also called twig tea, is also harvested from the tea plant, but as the name rather helpfully suggests, uses twigs and stems rather than leaves. I only recently found out about this, and for years thought that people in the shop asking for twig tea just meant large leafed tea and for some odd reason called it twigs. So for those people that I then sold Oolong or Orange Pekoe too, I can only apologise.
So, onto what happens to the leaf after it is plucked:
Starting with the leaves that essentially have the least done to them, white tea is created by taking the new buds that have been picked from the plant before the leaves unfurl. They are then spread out on trays or racks and left to wither so that moisture in the leaf evaporates and then dried. This lack of processing means that the natural health benefits of the leaves are fully retained and very, very little caffeine is in the leaves. White tea has the lowest amount of caffine, followed by green tea and then black tea. Often white tea leaves are quite intact looking with a soft silvery down to them, therefore often referred to as Silver Tip. These brew a light colour and flavour.
Then we have our green tea, where the tea leaves are picked then laid out to wither then, but before the oxidation process really starts, the leaves are steamed ( Japan ) or pan -fired ( China ) and is then rolled . This is done to prevent the veins in the leaf breaking before rolling so that minimal oxidation of the leaf occurs. The leaf is then dried and will have retained most of their colour, kept most of their natural goodness and are generally, still low caffeine. Some green teas will have been allowed to oxidise more than others, essentially the greener your green tea leaves look, the less they have been oxidised. As with white tea we are looking at quite a light colour brew, slightly greener tasting, a little more grassy.
Black tea leaves will go through more processes in that, after the leaves have been withered they are then broken up or rolled and laid out exposed to the air. This allows the natural juices, or enzymes in the leaves, to be released and, on contact with the air, they will oxidise. After a few hours the leaves turn a golden russet colour and oxidisation is complete. After this step the leaf will be dried and all the moisture is evaporated and the leaf turns a dark brown or black and we have that recognizable, strong, flavour and aroma. This process does mean that black leaf tea is slightly higher in caffeine than either green or white tea and that less of the natural health benefits of the leaves are retained, but in return we have this great amber brew, with its complex yet recognisable smell and stronger flavour.
On to Oolong tea. Occupying the middle ground between green and black tea, it follows the same process as black tea, but the oxidisation varies hugely. Longer oxidization results in a darker oolong which is more similar in taste to a black tea, while shorter oxidization makes it more similar in nature to green tea. It can produce a reddish brown leaf that can still be a little green in the middle or it can produce a very green leaf, dependent on the amount of oxidisation. Generally it brews a light golden colour and can be very delicate.
There are more types of tea, yellow (ridiculously expensive), pu'erh (aged tea, quite interesting) and then all of the different grades of leaf.
Last, but not least, how to brew. Endless really. I should add that for everything that I've written above, it should be used as a basic, rather than definitive guide, because I am learning more about teas all the time. Take twig tea for example, seriously, I should have known about that years ago. Still have not tried it, but at least I now know that it exists.