All teas come from the Camellia sinensis, of which there are three main varieties: China (C. sinensis var. sinensis); Assam (C. sinensis var. assamica); and Cambodia (C. sinensis var. cambodiensis). These different varieties produce teas with their own distinct flavor and quality.
The China variety comes from a bush with multiple stems, with leaves that produce a delicate tea. Left to grow in the wild, the bush can live for hundreds of years.
The Assam variety comes from a small, single-stemmed tree with large leaves that produce a strong, earthy-flavored tea.
The Cambodian variety is a hybrid of the China and Assam varieties, and combines the qualities of both.
Many hybrids have been cultivated from these main varieties, much like grapes for wine. And like wine, the flavor of a particular tea reflects the climate and soil of where it was grown, thus creating a plethora of teas with different tastes and flavors.
The method of treating leaves determines the type of tea produced. There are six types: white, yellow, green (“unfermented”), oolong (“semi-fermented”), black (“fermented”) and puerh. Unfermented means that the leaves are dried or steamed immediately after picking to prevent oxidization, and the enzymes remain inactivated.
White: A specialty of the Fujian province in China, it is called ‘white’ because of the delicate, silvery white, downy hairs that cover its leaves. The tea leaves undergo only two processes—withering and drying. The tea has a delicate flavor and a light fragrance.
Yellow: Yellow tea is very rare, and is only produced in China. The bud and first leaf are plucked and heated, dampened and wrapped in paper and left to dry for several days, then heat dried. The tea has a golden hue and is mild in taste.
Green: Green teas vary depending on how the leaves are processed, which can involve rolling, twisting or curving them after they are roasted. In Japan, the leaves are steamed until they are soft enough to be rolled then steamed. Japan also produces matcha, a powdered green tea that is used in some tea ceremonies.
Oolong: This tea can be made from young leaves or more mature leaves, and the fermenting process is stopped early, producing a tea that combines the features of both green and black. Chinese oolongs are oxidized up to approximately 30 per cent, and produce a lighter green tea color. Taiwanese oolongs are oxidized up to approximately 60 or 70 per cent, and are darker in color and earthier in flavor.
Black: The leaves for this tea are fully fermented. In the West, the tea is called ‘black’ because of its dark color. In Japan and China, it is called ‘red’ because of its reddish tint. India produces the largest number of black teas, such as Darjeeling and Assam. Black tea is also produced in Sri Lanka and a number of South American and African countries. Africa is fourth in world tea production.
Puerh: This kind of tea is named for Puerh, a city in Yunnan province in southwest China. Like champagne in Champagne, France, Puerh can only technically be produced in Yunnan, though other regions produce similar-tasting kinds. Puerh is also called ‘compressed’ or ‘black’ tea. The leaves come from trees that are said to be over five hundred years old. There are two types of Puerh: naturally fermented, or raw, and manually fermented, or cooked then compressed into moulds. This tea improves with age, and the cakes can be aged for 50 years or more, with vintage teas commanding very high prices.
Source: Saberi, Helen. Tea, A Global History. London, 2010. Print