It’s 2003, and my sister is driving us home from another dull highschool day in her 1988 gold Volvo Sedan, which she affectionately calls “Katherine”. We wheel the 15 minutes home to the ethereal sounds of Enya on CD, talking or not. When we get home, I plop my messenger bag down next to the stairs, jump into the recliner, and turned the TV onto The WB. Gilmore Girls would be on soon. Meanwhile, Shannon sets about rhythmically moving through the same afternoon ritual that she always does, and always will for years to come: preparing tea.
Tea has always been a part of my life. More, in some ways, than coffee has. In fact, I would attribute my learned love of coffee to an inherited love of tea. The process of making either beverage is like a rite to be performed, like an anchor to any lost day. Thanks to my sister, the making and partaking of tea is a balm to me. Thanks to literally thousands of years of growing and processing traditions, the enjoyment of tea is something that almost every culture can relate to.
Like coffee, tea can seem *complicated*. Complicated, that is, to those not directly involved in the ritual or process of producing it. Before I set out to write this, there was so much I didn’t realize, even as a tea-drinker; even as the sister of a very big tea nerd. What makes green tea different from black tea? Or oolong? Or white tea? Is each from a different variety, a singular subvariety? Or does the difference lie in the processing? Also like coffee, these seemingly complex differentiations become a lot less complex when you take a closer look. So… let’s!
The Six Types Of Tea
All of the tea that you and I drink comes from one of two varieties of the Camellia plant: Sinensis (smaller leaves) and Assamica (larger leaves). The two varieties are divided into many subvarieties and cultivars. At a glance before processing, tea leaves may not seem all that different from one another. However, each subvariety and cultivar lends nuance of flavor to the resulting cup of tea. After subvariety and cultivar, the only differentiating factor between types of teas is the way they are processed. Each of these processes can be sorted into six types, and each of the six types can be roughly defined by the amount of oxidization employed:
- White: lightly oxidized
- Green: fixed, no oxidization
- Yellow: fixed, no oxidization
- Oolong: semi-oxidized
- Black: fully oxidized
- Post-Fermented, or Pu-erh: either fully oxidized or not at all, but always fermented
Okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking – what even is “fixed”? How can I be sure I understand what oxidization does, really? Fear not, you know I’ve got you covered with a little rundown of some of tea’s common processing methods.
- Withering: Withering removes excess water from tea leaves and allows for slight oxidization. The conditions for withering, which mostly come down to temperature and humidity, will depend on the growing region, the climate, and the intended outcome.
- Fixation: Also called “Killgreen”, fixation will stop oxidization at an intended level without damaging the flavor of the tea. Traditionally this has been done by steaming or panning via wok, but it’s typically done in a rolling drum.
- Oxidization: Oxidization is, quite simply, exposing tea leaves to oxygen for an extended time. When teas are oxidized, they are left in a climate-controlled room, breaking down chlorophyll and releasing tannins.
- Yellowing: As you might guess, this process is solely used to make yellow teas. After fixation, the tea leaves are sealed in a closed container and then lightly heated, causing the leaves to sweat and turn yellow. The chemical changes during yellowing lend a mellowness to the cup.
- Drying: When all other processes have been applied to a tea, it’s ready to be dried. Most teas are dried by baking, though other methods include sun-drying and air-drying.
- Aging: Some teas such as Pu-erh or certain oolongs, are additionally aged, baked, or fermented.
For each of the six types of teas, different processing methods are applied to achieve a different quality in the cup. Green teas can be light and sweet or contain more vegetal notes. White teas are delicate and can be a great representation of a tea’s most natural taste. Yellow tea leans toward buttery, mellow flavors. Oolongs have been described as lush and floral. Black teas tend to be rich and full-bodied. Each little leaf can undergo a world of change and come out on the other side as nuanced as can be.
A lot can happen from the time tea leaves are plucked to the time they reach your teapot. Different teas are as varied as their origins, cultivars, and processing methods. Each, though, deserves our full respect and, as my after-school tea-time with my sister proved to me over and over again, can make any ordinary day into a place to pause, be grateful, and partake in a ritual older than us all.