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What Is Tea?

Posted on December 08 2020

December 2020 | Vol 2

According to good 'ole Wikipedia, Tea is an aromatic beverage commonly prepared by pouring hot or boiling water over cured or fresh leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub native to East Asia. All tea comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The styles of tea are produced by altering the shape and chemistry of the leaf.

The processing of tea leaves generally occurs in five steps:
Step 1 - Plucking (self-explanatory)
Step 2 - Withering (which means wilting or softening of the leaves)
Step 3 - Rolling (to prep the leaves so they can wring out the juices)
Step 4 - Oxidizing or Fermenting (which occurs when the enzymes in the tea leaf interact with oxygen, think of a piece of fruit. When exposed to air, a cut apple or peeled banana will slowly turn brown)
Step 5 - Firing (which just means drying of the leaves)

There are five types of tea; White, Green, Oolong, Black and Pu Erh. Let's dive into each one, shall we...

White Tea

White Tea is unprocessed tea leaves. The name is derived from the fuzzy white hairs which cover the leaves. They appear on unopened or recently opened buds. White tea is plucked and allowed to wither dry. Nothing else, no rolling, no oxidizing, or firing. It's tea in it's purest form. A minimal amount of oxidation does happen naturally, as it can take a full day or two to air-dry the tea leaves. White tea leaves will produce very pale green or yellow liquor and are the most delicate in flavor and aroma.

Green Tea
Green Tea on the other hand is plucked, withered and rolled however it is not oxidized because during the rolling process, oxidation is prevented by applying heat. The fresh leaves are then either steamed or pan-fired to a temperature hot enough to stop the enzymes from browning the leaf. Kind of like blanching vegetables. Simultaneously, the leaves are then shaped by curling with the fingers, pressing into the sides of the wok, rolling and swirling - countless shapes have been created, all of them tasting different. The liquid of green tea leaves is typically a green or yellow color, and flavors range from toasty, grassy to fresh steamed greens, almost vegetable like.

Oolong Tea
Oolong Tea is the high maintenance tea, because it actually uses all 5 processing steps repeatedly making it the most pain staking to produce. The process takes many hours, sometimes days to complete. The end creation however is a multi-layer of aromas and flavors that can't be beat. Due to the complexity of the processing, Oolongs have more depth of flavor than Green or White teas; their very smooth, soft astringency and super rich in floral or fruity notes. Most new tea drinkers prefer Oolong because of the rich depth of flavors.

Black Tea

Black Tea although also uses all five processing steps, it is allowed to oxidize more completely and are not repeated like in Oolong tea. Black tea can be processed in 1 day. The brewed Black tea ranges between dark brown and deep red hues. It is generally has the strongest flavor and the greatest astringency. Black teas are the most widely used for iced tea.

Pu Erh Tea

Pu Erh Tea is Lamborghini of teas. It has a strenuous and lengthy process to create. It first undergoes a process similar to Green tea, but before the leaf is dried, it's aged either as loose-leaf tea or pressed into dense cakes and decorative shapes. Pu Erh is a fermented tea although it does not produce alcohol. There are two (2) major types of Pu Erh teas, Ripe & Raw. Depending on the type of pu erh being made the aging process lasts anywhere from a few months to several years. Almost like a fine wine, it can have an earthy, woodsy or musty aroma but always a rich, smooth taste. Because of the aged process and the amazing aromas and flavors that are in Pu Erh teas, they are highly regarded.

So there you have it, you can consider yourself a Tea Leaf Expert!

Now go forth and brew!

References and information garnered from Wikipedia, Adagio and other sources.
Image credit: Ascyrafft Adnan on



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