What is Tea? The Difference Between White Tea, Yellow Tea, Green Tea, Oolong Tea, Red Tea and Black Tea

Before we get started on our journey, it makes sense to answer one basic question, what is tea? Tea is more than just something you brew in your cup with hot water, it actually has a very specific definition. All true teas come from the same plant, Camelia sinensis. Camelia sinensis is an evergreen shrub native to Southern China and India. It has been cultivated for the past 4,000 years as both a medicinal plant and as a social and cultural beverage. 

Hot drinks made from peppermint, rooibos, hibiscus, chamomile and yerba mate, are not actually teas but rather “tisanes” after the Greek word “ptisane” which literally translates to “crushed barley”. 

There are 6 main types of true teas, White tea, Yellow Tea, Green Tea, Oolong Tea, Red Tea and Dark Tea (Heicha). All 6 of these main types come from the Camelia sinensis plant. Here is a brief overview of the different types.

White Tea: White tea is the most minimally processed of all the types. The leaves and buds are picked and then allowed to dry off in the sun, which stops most of the oxidation. Although white tea can be made from both old and young leaves, it is most recognizable for these white buds which is where the tea gets its name.

Yellow Tea: This is the rarest of the 6 types of tea. It is similar to a green tea, but with the extra step called “men huan” or “sealing yellow”. After the leaves have been pan-fired, they are wrapped in a cloth as the natural aromas of the leaves are sealed in. Apparently, this reduces the grassy taste that people normally associate with green teas, making it a unique category altogether!

Green Tea: Green teas are unoxidized. After they are picked they are steamed for just under a minute to stop the oxidation process. The tea maintains its more grassy or vegetal flavors and the leaves maintain their green color.

Oolong Tea: This tea is partially oxidized. Oolong is a broad category of tea, but many oolong teas follow a specific pattern. The oxidation is first sped up, and then it is later halted. To speed up the oxidation process, the tea leaves can be bruised, to bring the enzymes up to the surface of the leaf and expose them to oxygen. This kicks off the oxidation process and then it is later slowed down through the use of heat.

Red Tea: In Europe and North America, this tea is called “Black Tea” but in much of Asia it is referred to as red tea or “Hong Cha” so as to not be confused with Heicha or dark tea. This tea is not heated after harvesting, but is rather allowed to oxidize naturally. The leaves turn a dark brown color, and the liquor is a beautiful amber or ruby color.

Dark Tea: This tea is also known as “post fermented” tea. This includes the better known Pu-erh tea although the term “Pu-erh” technically refers only to dark teas produced in the area of Pu-erh. The broader category is “Heicha” or dark tea. These teas are often pressed into cakes and stored for long periods of time to develop their flavors.