Chinese tea was first discovered and used by Chinese Emperor Shen Nong more than 4,700 years ago (in 2737 BC).
Up to now, more than 500 varieties of tea plants have been discovered and more than 100 varieties have been artificially cultured in China. All kinds of teas are made from these numerous varietal 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
It is worth mentioning that Chinese herbal tea does not belong to the traditional Chinese tea. Herbal tea is just a kind of health tea made from herbs.
1. Green Tea
According to Chinese literature, the earliest record of making green tea is in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Green tea is the most common tea in our daily life, and there are about 170 varieties of it in China. The famous green tea Longjing tea (also called Dragon Well tea) is just one of these varieties.
Green tea is unfermented tea, of which the tea leaves keep the original color, so after brewing it, the color of green tea is green, which is the reason green tea is called “green”.
Due to not being unfermented, green tea leaves retain many of natural nutrients of original fresh leaves, such as more than 85% of tea polyphenols, which have special effects on anti-oxidation, anti-radiation, and anti-aging, etc.
Green tea production process:
- Fixation: destroy the enzymes in fresh leaves by high temperature to stop oxidation of polyphenols, so that prevent 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 was first recorded in the 16th century (The Ming Dynasty).
In China, black tea is called “Hong Cha” meaning “red tea” because brewed black tea is yellowish red. 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 from a southern Chinese city, he saw the color of black tea leaves is black, so he called it “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 more effects on anti-oxidation than tea polyphenols.
Black tea production process:
- Withering: put fresh leaves under sunlight or air circulation place to let them wither naturally. Some oxidation happens in this step.
- Fermenting: the polyphenols of the leaves are oxidized by the action of enzymes to make green leaves turn red.
3. Oolong Tea/Wulong Tea
Oolong tea also called Wulong tea is a half-fermented tea, first created in Fujian in 1725 (The Qing Dynasty), today mainly produced in Fujian and Guangdong, both of those two cities in the south of China.
In Asia, oolong tea is mainly exported to Japan and Southeast Asia. It is called “slimming tea” or “cosmetic tea” in Japan, because oolong tea contains a special chemical substance called Tannic Acid that can reduce fat and cholesterol of blood.
Drinking oolong tea also can help to improve hearing, especially for middle-aged and elder people to keep their hearing.
Anxi Tieguanyin also literally called Iron Goddess of Mercy is a very famous oolong tea.
Oolong tea production process:
- 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 and it is made in the most natural and the least processes way among these six types of Chinese tea.
Put the picked fresh tea leaves under sunlight, let them wither naturally, and then dry them slowly with slow fire. The finished white tea leaves are covered with a layer of white fine fluffs, whole leaves 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 processing method of it was formally formed around 1796 (The Qing dynasty).
White tea contains the necessary enzymes which can significantly increase the activity of lipase for the human body. Long-term drinking of white tea can promote fat catabolism and regulate blood sugar balance.
White tea production process (only two steps):
5. Yellow Tea
Yellow tea is also a slightly fermented tea, but its degree of fermentation is a little more than white tea’s.
The production process of yellow tea was formed in 1567-1572 (The Ming Dynasty).
The production process of yellow tea is very similar to green tea’; yellow tea just has one more step to make tea leaves turn yellow via slightly fermenting. From the chemical point of view, chlorophyll of tea leaves is oxidized to yellow. So the features 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. Beyond that, yellow tea retains other natural nutrients that have special effects on anti-cancer and anti-inflammation as green tea does.
Yellow tea production process:
- Heaping for yellowing. This is an important step making the leaves turn yellow.
6. Dark Tea
Dark tea is a 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”; black tea is called “Hong Cha” and “Hong” means “Red”. So many people are confusing that what real “Black tea” is called if “Red tea” is called “Black tea”. It’s 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’er tea belongs to dark tea. But nowadays, according to the production process, many kinds of pu’er teas are classified into pu’er green tea, pu’er black tea, pu’er white tea, pu’er yellow tea and so on. Due to this reason, some people consider pu’er tea is a special type of Chinese tea.
Dark tea has strong functions of reducing greasy and promoting digestion, which is the why meat-eaters especially like this kind of tea. Furthermore, dark tea contains rich tea polysaccharides which can lower blood lipid.
Dark tea production process:
- Pile-fermentation: pile leaves up to ferment with microorganisms, and after a few days of fermentation, the leaves will turn black. This is the most crucial step for producing black tea.
The essential difference between these six types of tea is the degree of fermentation. The color and flavor of unfermented green 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 aroma and taste gradually become rich and deep.
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 varies as the degree of fermentation deepens.