One of the benefits of ruling 20% of the planet's land is setting trends on a global level. Take, for instance, tea. While the Chinese drink was hardly a secret before the Brits showed up in East Asia, tea needed their insatiable thirst for the stuff to become a worldwide phenomenon.
Of the five largest tea-producing nations in the world today—China, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Turkey—three never heard of tea until the Brits came along and planted it there. Three of the four biggest importers of tea are either the UK or former British colonies. And tea-loving Middle Eastern nations, which boast some of the world's highest tea-consumption per capita, didn't pick up a taste for it until the colonial era.
All of which is to say that the Brits have done the humble Camellia sinensis plant some favors. But they've also done it some harm.
The British love of tea, while wide in scope, is extremely narrow in taste. Namely, they like their tea black, malty, and tannic; heavily oxidized and blended and ultimately drowned in milk. It's this particular taste that's informed some of the largest players in the global tea trade, and as a result, when most of the world thinks about tea, be they in County Cork or Cairo, they're thinking about—and growing—some variant of the dark, robust teas that the Brits are crazy for.
When grown, processed, and brewed with care, this type of tea can be great. But it's a tiny fraction of the wildly diverse drink that the British fell in love with when they first tasted it in China. And it barely scratches the surface of what quality tea can taste like; many more complex and dynamic teas lie just around the corner.
Those of us who believe tea is just as deserving of our obsession as coffee, wine, or booze owe it to ourselves to see just how diverse those tastes can be. If you're just starting to fall in love with tea, you might be overwhelmed by that diversity, and what all the terms and varieties associated with it really mean.
This post is here to help explain it all.
The Major Types of Tea: It's All About Oxidation
As I explained before, black, green, and every other kind of tea are all made from the same plant. The devil's in the details of course, but broadly speaking, the principle difference between them is how much the tea leaves are allowed to oxidize—a.k.a. brown—after they're picked but before they're dried, which shuts down the enzymatic process. The less a tea is oxidized, the more it tastes like the leaf itself: crisp, fresh, and green. The more it's oxidized, the more it develops rich, dark, and malty notes that, done right, complement the leaf's natural flavors.
Here's a rough overview of the major tea types from least to most oxidized.
Green teas are steamed or pan-fried shortly after they're picked and before they can oxidize, which means they taste like pristine reflections of their origins. They brew light, but with big, sweet grassy flavors. Some are crisp like spring's first peas; others possess a distinct seaweed-like savoriness; others taste intensely sweet and creamy.
Greens also turn bitter more easily than other teas if oversteeped and are especially sensitive to the temperature of their brewing water. While some greens thrive with fully boiling water, others taste their best at much lower temperatures, as low as 120 or 140°F.
Extremely delicate and often quite expensive, white teas are tricky for tea beginners to wrap their heads around. They're often called the "least processed" of all teas, but they're actually oxidized slightly more than green teas, left out to "wither" (oxidize and dry out) for a few hours after plucking before they're dried.
Several white teas are plucked from just the tiny bud and soft top two leaves of a tea shoot, which means they produce lower yields (and higher costs) compared to some other teas. But that's why they taste so delicate, with floral garden-patch notes. Consider them the veal of the tea world, minus, you know, all the cages.
Oolongs are partially, but not completely, oxidized, which puts them in between green and black teas. Farmers will often twist or roll the leaves by hand or machine, which encourages the oxidation process along (and, in the case of rolled-up leaves, produces lumpy nubs that are a sure sign that you're drinking an oolong).
Oolongs run a wide range of oxidation levels, so some are fresh and flowery like greens while others have more oxidized malt. On top of that, some oolongs are roasted after drying, which imparts a subtle smokiness. But regardless, they tend to be deeply fragrant with honeyed floral flavors, misty, airy qualities, and a unique rounded body.
The Chinese refer to fully oxidized tea as "red" thanks to the ochre color of the brew. Black teas are dark, rich, and substantial on the tongue, thanks in part to malty and astringent flavors that develop as the tea oxidizes. Black teas often rely on this astringency for structure, just like red wine relies on tannins.
Black tea leaves are often torn or crushed to encourage oxidation, which can make for smaller leaves than the tea categories above. Generally speaking, the smaller the leaves, the more intense the brew.
While you can find expressions of the above teas all over, pu-erhs hail from just one place: Yunnan province in China. You'll sometimes see the word "fermentation" applied to tea, which is usually a misuse of the word "oxidized." But pu-erhs are actually fermented—a green tea called maocha that's left with some residual moisture, packaged (usually into compressed cakes), and often left to age for years, and sometimes decades, before drinking.
Pu-erhs can brew a light brown or as lush and inky as coffee. These teas are renowned for deep earthy qualities that new tea drinkers often need time to appreciate. The first time I tasted pu-erh, all I got was "potting soil," but with time you may decide they're some of the most fascinating and rewarding teas you can drink.
The Geography of Tea
The breakdown above will get you started, but just as a French Sauvignon Blanc will taste radically different from an Austrian Grüner Veltliner—even though they're both white wines—a green tea grown in Fujian province, China won't be anything like one from Kagoshima, Japan. In truth, two greens from the same Fujianese village may taste totally different. There are all sorts of variables to consider besides oxidation: the local tea-making tradition, the growing season, soil and climate, the specific variety or cultivar of tea a farmer grows, and idiosyncrasies in processing, just to name a few.
This is where Western tea drinkers, who've only ever known British-influenced black tea, start to get confused. Major brands that sell millions of pounds of tea every year don't want idiosyncrasies. They want consistency, the assurance that every time you buy a their product it'll taste like you expect it to taste.
To get that consistency, they purchase teas at wholesale auctions across the world and blend them together until they fit the brand's desired flavor profile. Doing so erases all of a source tea's regional differences, but even on the single plantation level, the suppliers that sell tea to big brands aren't looking to add much nuance into their product.
In fairness to Westerners, much of the Asian tea market, be it India or China, works the same way. Most people treat it as a basic commodity drink, not something to be cherished. Whether you're in London or Tokyo, the average tea drinker values consistency, price, and a strong brew over diversity and craft.
But I'm betting that if you've made it this far you do want to know more about those differences, and the best way to do so is to take a tour of some of the world's big tea-growing regions and get a feel for what a cup of tea looks like there. To that end, I have to quash some diversity of my own; I'm about to make some broad generalizations and overlook plenty of details as well as whole growing regions. But I'll also single out some noteworthy teas that represent how these differences play out in your cup.
Chinese teas vary enormously in quality, but the good ones can emphasize powerful aromas and lasting finishes on the tongue, virtues that some connoisseurs prize over the taste of the tea itself. Good Chinese greens tend to taste naturally sweet and creamy with little, if any bitterness, and the blacks aren't as heavy on the tannins as super-dark, robust English-style teas.
Tea here is intensely regional and as diverse as it gets; you'll find all five of the tea types above in China (and then some), and different provinces and villages have their own specialties. If you head to Zhejiang province, the tea of choice is the crisp, chestnutty green tea called long jing, or Dragon Well. Over in Yunnan province they're crazy about pu-erh, resonant and funky with basement undertones.
Fujian province is home to many famous teas, including tie guan yin, a buttery oolong poetically named Iron Goddess of Mercy, and da hong pao, a.k.a. Big Red Robe, a dark roasted oolong that grows on the rocky Wuyi cliffs and can exhibit all the mineral, honey, and heather qualities of a fine Scotch. Then there's the sunny-sweet Anhui province mao feng, the cream biscuit richness of teas from Laoshan in Shandong province, the beany Jiangsu province bi lo chun....as I said, China's a diverse place when it comes to tea.
Connoisseurs brew their tea in gaiwans, simple lidded bowls where the lid acts as a strainer, or in small unglazed clay pots; these methods use a high proportion of tea leaves to water so the tea can be re-steeped two, four, or a dozen times, each with its own subtle differences in flavor. Your average Chinese person, on the other hand, will likely just sprinkle some tea leaves in a glass, pour hot water on top, and refill the glass once the water runs low for a no-fuss technique some tea folk refer to as grandpa style.
Taiwanese tea and tea culture borrows heavily from China, particularly the oolongs of Fujian province, which for the past few hundred years have been the island's specialty. These teas take exceptionally well to growing at extreme altitudes, and the country's famed high mountain oolongs encapsulate the crisp sweetness of alpine air. Taiwanese oolongs are powerfully aromatic, from the bright, fruity dongfeing meiren (Oriental Beauty) to the deep nectar taste that characterizes some dong ding oolong.
As in Fujian, many Taiwanese oolongs were traditionally roasted over charcoal after drying to improve shelf life and add hearty smoke and caramel flavors that, when done right, complemented the teas' floral qualities. But these days, more and more consumers want their Chinese and Taiwanese oolongs unroasted, more green and vegetal than sultry and smoky, and many tea producers are happy to oblige, as cutting out roasting altogether reduces their labor costs and the risk of spoiling a batch of tea. A few farmers, though, are still doing things the old fashioned and hard way, both preserving a centuries-old tradition and making some beautifully complex teas in the process, which can be re-steeped as often as a dozen times. Both roasted and unroasted varieties are worth seeking out.
The Japanese are all about green tea, and they prefer it with some bitter or astringent bite to balance out the green sweetness. While green tea producers in China typically halt oxidation by pan-frying, Japanese tea-makers instead do so by steaming their leaves before drying them. Steaming locks in an intensely green color, more verdant than the straw hue of most Chinese greens. It also emphasizes the leaves' bitter and vegetal qualities, yielding a tea that's less sweet and more savory with distinct seaweed notes and a precise structure on the palate. Japanese teas aren't as amenable to re-steeping compared to Chinese and Taiwanese varieties; at best you'll get two or three good steeps, but after that you're done.
Japan has fewer distinct styles of tea than China. Instead, a single tea plant can be used to make multiple products. Sencha is the everyday tea here, and while it varies in quality, all of it has the hallmark bittersweet and grassy flavors of Japanese green tea. Sencha leaves plucked later in the year, when the tea tastes less green and sweet, become the more robustly flavored bancha. Dark, smoky hojicha is made by charcoal-roasting bancha leaves. And kukicha is a unique "twig tea" made from tea leaves cut with dried stems and twigs for an unusual but lovely creamy, woodsy flavor.
Over on the high end, perhaps the most recognizable Japanese tea is matcha, the jade-green powder made of stone-milled tencha leaves that's whisked into a frothy brew with a bamboo whisk. Nutty, savory, and creamy as a latte, it's no surprise that matcha has such a central role in Japanese tea ceremonies. But for my money, the prize of Japanese tea is the famously pricy gyokuro. It's made by shading tea bushes with tarps for the final three to six weeks of growing before harvest, thus starving the plants of light and forcing them to produce extra chlorophyll for an astoundingly flavorful tea that's so rich and intense, sweet yet alarmingly savory, that it's often compared to a cup of soup.
India and Sri Lanka
Once the British got a taste of Chinese tea, they decided to bust the Chinese monopoly and grow it themselves, setting up plantations across India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time), and other of their then-colonies around the world. Teas grown here, almost all malty black teas, are lasting colonial legacies; tea estates tend to be large with few farmers working on small artisan scales. You'll find similar plantation systems (and similar black teas) in countries like Turkey, Indonesia, and Kenya.
Teas in India destined for teabags or bargain-oriented bulk packaging are often made by the "crush-tear-curl" or CTC method, in which the leaves are battered about and broken into small pieces to encourage intense oxidation, then rolled into tiny pellets. CTC leaves brew the generic but dark and robust tea favored by much of the world's tea market. Higher quality Indian teas, and most Sri Lankan teas, are oxidized with less mechanical intervention in what's called the "orthodox method," which takes more time but makes for a more nuanced brew.
Once dried, these "orthodox" leaves are graded according to leaf size. Tiny, coarse-tasting dust particles called fannings are what make up nearly all teabags. Broken Orange Pekoe leaves are larger but brew up quite robust; Orange Pekoe are a little more delicate. Batches are also graded with special modifiers if they contain a relatively high proportion of delicate unopened buds or young tea tips from the very top of the plant ("tippy" or "flowery").
Indian tea drinkers prefer CTC tea for chai, which is made by boiling tea leaves and peppery spices with milk and sugar until the resulting brew is thick, sometimes almost syrupy; you need a dark and robust tea to stand up to all those spices and caramelized milk flavors. Sri Lankans, on the other hand, take their tea the British way; brewed with larger leaves like Orange Pekoe or Broken Orange Pekoe, milk and sugar added afterward. (And in true British spirit, the Sri Lankans are kind of snobby about it.)
The teas grown in the Himalayan mountains deserve special attention. Misty peaks, some a mile high in the air, lay the foundation for some incredibly distinctive tea, which is often compared to golden and berry-sweet muscat grapes.
"First flush" Himalayan teas picked in the early spring are clean and sparkling, with lively pine or citrus notes, while later season "second flush" teas are more full-bodied and wine-like. Though Himalayan teas are typically heavily oxidized, some, particularly from the expensive, small-yield first flushes, can be so lightly oxidized that they're more like greens or light oolongs.
The most famous of these teas are grown in Darjeeling, and they're so regarded for their terroir that the term "Darjeeling tea" is tightly regulated, much like Champagne or Prosciutto di Parma. But Darjeeling doesn't hold a monopoly on Himalayan tea. Nearby Nepal is asserting itself more and more in the global fine tea market, and growers there are making some wonderful and nuanced teas (if a little more rustic) with the same misty, arboreal qualities of their Darjeeling neighbors.
A Global Taste for Tea
Of course there's more. You'll find tea bushes in Vietnam, Korea, Argentina, and even the U.S. And we haven't gotten started on local tea culture traditions, like the double-pot method used to brew Turkey's strong, bitter black tea; or Morocco's Chinese gunpowder tea spiked with mint leaves and sugar; or, my favorite, the Russian proclivity for stirring some fruit preserves into your cup.
But hopefully this tour will get you started on a tea journey of your own. Read up more with my general introduction to tea, and check out this list of recommended vendors to start buying tea of your own.