Chinese tea was first discovered and used by Chinese Emperor Shen Nong more than 4,700 years ago (in 2737 BC), which is recorded in the tea book <The Classic of Tea>.
In China, there are thousands of varieties of tea plants, including over 800 in Wuyi Mountain and over 600 in Guizhou Province. All kinds of teas are made from these numerous tea plants.
According to <The Classic of Chinese Tea> written by Chen Zongmao, the president of the China Tea Science Society, Chinese tea is just classified into six main types, though the variety of tea plants is numerous.
Six main types of traditional Chinese tea:
- Green Tea
- Black Tea
- Oolong Tea
- White Tea
- Yellow Tea
- Dark Tea
Each type of tea has its own unique producing process and health benefits.
1. Green Tea
Green tea is a kind of unfermented tea, of which the tea leaves keep the original color, so it has a green color and after brewing, the color of the tea soup is also green, which is the reason green tea is called “green”.
Due to not being unfermented, green tea leaves retain many natural nutrients of the original fresh leaves, such as more than 85% of tea polyphenols, which have special effects on anti-cancer, anti-radiation, and anti-aging, etc.
Production process of green tea:
- Fixation: destroy the enzymes in fresh leaves by high temperature to stop oxidation of the polyphenols, chlorophyll, etc., so that prevent the fresh tea leaves from fermenting and from turning red or black. This is why green tea can keep green.
- Rolling: reduce the volume of tea leaves and lay a good foundation for drying.
- Drying: evaporate moisture of tea leaves and shape it.
2. Black Tea
Black tea is fermented tea, retaining just 10% of tea polyphenols, but new components such as theaflavins and thearubigins are generated during the fermentation process.
Theaflavins have beneficial effects on the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease and reducing blood lipid; thearubigins have an effect on anti-oxidation.
In China, black tea is called “Hong Cha” meaning “red tea” because the brewed black tea is red color. Theoretically, black tea should be called “Red tea”, but why is it called “Black tea”? This question confuses many Chinese people.
It is said that in the 17th century, while a British businessman imported Chinese black tea to Europe, he saw the color of black tea leaves is black-brown, so he called it “black tea”. Since then, “Hong Cha” has been called “Black tea” in English speaking countries.
Production process of black tea:
- Withering: put fresh leaves under sunlight or air circulation place to let them wither naturally. Partial oxidation reactions happen during this step.
- Fermenting: the tea polyphenols, chlorophyll, etc. are oxidized by the action of enzymes to make green leaves turn red or black brown and new chemical substances are produced.
3. Oolong Tea/Wulong Tea
Oolong tea also called Wulong tea is a kind of half-fermented tea, first created in Fujian in 1725 (The Qing Dynasty), today mainly produced in Fujian and Guangdong Province, both of those two cities in the south of China.
Oolong tea is called “slimming tea” or “bodybuilding tea” in Japan, because oolong tea has good effects on losing weight and lowering blood lipids and cholesterol.
Drinking oolong tea can also help to improve hearing, especially for middle-aged and elder people to keep their hearing.
Production process of oolong tea:
- Pan-firing: put leaves into a pan and quickly evaporate the moisture of the leaves with low fire, preventing leaves from continuing to ferment. This is why oolong tea is a half-fermented tea.
4. White Tea
White tea is a slightly fermented tea, which is made in the most natural way and the least processes among these six types of Chinese tea. It is mainly produced in Fujian, and Yunnan Province.
The finished white tea leaves are covered with a layer of white fine fluffs, looking like white leaves, which is the origin of its name.
The name of white tea was first recorded around 1064 (The Song Dynasty), and the producing technology of it was formally formed around 1796 (The Qing dynasty).
The chemical composition of white tea is generally close to that of green tea. But white tea is rich in more active enzymes and has good pharmacodynamic properties. It has good effects on anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, sterilization, promoting blood sugar balance, detoxification, etc.
Production process of white tea:
- Withering: put the picked fresh tea leaves under sunlight, let them wither naturally, and then
- Drying: dry them slowly with slow fire.
5. Yellow Tea
Yellow tea is also a slightly fermented tea, but its degree of fermentation is a little more than that of white tea.
The production process of yellow tea was formally formed during 1567-1572 (The Ming Dynasty) and it is similar to that of green tea.
Yellow tea just has one more step to make some substances oxidized and tea leaves turn yellow through slightly fermenting. From the chemical point of view, the chlorophyll of tea leaves is oxidized to yellow. So the characteristics of yellow tea are “yellow leaves” and “yellow soup”.
Yellow tea contains a lot of special enzymes that are very helpful for treating indigestion and loss of appetite. Besides, yellow tea retains other natural nutrients that have special effects on anti-cancer and anti-inflammation as green tea does.
Production process of yellow tea:
- Heaping for yellowing: this is an important step for producing yellow tea.
6. Dark Tea
Dark tea is a kind of post-fermented tea, which means fermentation occurs in the last few steps of the whole production process.
Unlike other types of tea, dark tea requires external microorganisms to help to ferment. In this approach, dark tea can be fermented thoroughly. This is why dark tea leaves are dark or brown and the soup of dark tea is dark brown.
In China, dark tea is called “Hei Cha” and “Hei” means “Black”; the “Black” is used to call “Hong Cha”, so “Hei Cha” is called “Dark tea”.
The name of dark tea was first found in 1524 (The Ming Dynasty), and it became popular at the end of the 16th century.
In addition, traditional Pu-erh tea belongs to dark tea. But nowadays, according to the production process, many kinds of Pu-erh tea are invented such as Pu-erh green tea, Pu-erh black tea, Pu-erh white tea, Pu-erh yellow tea and so on. Due to this reason, some people consider Pu-erh tea is a special category of Chinese tea.
Dark tea has strong functions of reducing fat, lowering blood lipids, and promoting digestion, which is the reason why meat-eating people especially like this kind of tea.
Production process of dark tea:
- Pile-fermentation: pile leaves up to ferment with microorganisms. After a few days of fermentation, the leaves will turn dark. This is the most important step for producing black tea.
The essential difference between these six types of tea is the degree of fermentation. The color and taste of unfermented tea are the closest to the natural flavor.
For fermented tea, as the degree of fermentation deepens, the color of tea becomes darker, and the fragrance and taste of it gradually become rich and mellow.
Percentage of fermentation of these six types of tea:
- Green Tea: less than 5%
- White Tea: 5%-10%
- Yellow Tea: 10%-20%
- Oolong Tea: 15%-50%
- Black Tea: 70%-80%
- Dark Tea: 100%
It is an infographic below about how the color of these six types of Chinese tea changes as the degree of fermentation deepens.