“Tea is water bewitched” wrote the poet Lu-Wah and we totally agree. But how does one know which one to choose among the hundreds of teas on the market? We’ll help you decipher the mysteries of this divine beverage, but of course your taste buds will have the last say.
To start with, we are going to tell you a Chinese top-secret well-kept for centuries: there are only six tea varieties and they all come from the same plant: Camellia Sinensis or Chinese Camelia. Depending on how they are processed, the leaves will become white tea, green tea, black tea, yellow tea, blue-green tea (Oolong or Wulong) or dark tea (Pu’erh).
This is only known since the 19th century, thanks to Robert Fortune, spy extraordinaire and tea thief at the service of Her Most Gracious Majesty Victoria. For Queen and Country, this brilliant Scottish botanist swapped his kilt for a mandarin garb. And for three years, without being found out, he managed to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing from the Chinese. He smuggled 20 000 stolen tea plants and 10 000 seedlings, as well as eight trained Chinese tea growers and producers out of the country. They all made it to Darjeeling where they started planting Camellia Sinensis on the Himalayan foothills.
The difference between the six main types of teas doesn’t describe the colour of the leaves or the brew – some green teas have dark leaves and as for white tea, its name derives from the white downs on the unopened buds –, it stems from differing oxidization levels.
Non-oxidized and non-fermented teas are: White teas, their leaves are the least processed ones. They are simply withered and dried. And green teas. Their leaves, as white tea leaves, undergo little processing. They are heated briefly at high temperature, either by pan-frying or steaming. Then, they are hand-rolled and dried.
Oxidized teas, which are: Oolong, partially fermented. The leaves are withered, then left to dry before being shaken gently to bruise the edges and allow fermentation to begin. Some Oolongs are roasted. And black tea (known as red tea in China). The leaves are wilted, rolled and bruised, left to ferment and finally dried. Tightly rolled leaved yield a stronger brew.
Fermented teas include: Yellow tea, rather rare in the West. The leaves are processed like green tea leaves, but they are covered with straw to encourage fermentation. Then they are twisted and dried. And Pu’erh, which is post-fermented. Leaves go through a microbial fermentation process after they have been dried and rolled length way. After having been compressed into brick form or cakes or nests, they are left to age for one year minimum. It is the only tea to improve with age. The older it is, the most expensive it is!