Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Basics First

Most introductions or lectures about tea begin by listing the major tea categories, and it doesn’t hurt to repeat them here: White teas, Green teas, Yellow teas, Oolong teas, Black teas, Scented teas, and Specialty teas.

It’s probably a good idea also to underline the fact that all teas come from the same plant, since it’s a common misconception that Green teas and Black teas come from different plants.  The best example I can think of to illustrate this basic fundamental is when we were treated to a tasting of a Green, an Oolong, and a Black tea, all made from a recently developed sub-varietal.  The Green was in a class of its own, but there was an obvious affinity between the Oolong and Black teas in our cups; they were clearly an Oolong and a Black, conforming to one’s expectations of these categories, but the brews shared flavor nuances that reflected their common origin from one strain.

So, on to processing and what happens to the leaves.

White teas and Green teas are both unoxidized* (see clarification below) but undergo different processing methods.

A premium spring Green; budsets evident

A premium spring Green; budsets evident

Yellow teas make up the smallest category.  Some may put Yellow teas within the Green category, but here I follow the guidelines of the Tea Department at Sichuan Agricultural University.

Jasmine tea is probably the best known of the scented teas.  Other flowers used to scent teas include osmanthus, gardenia, magnolia, and roses.  The main feature these teas share is that a natural ingredient is used; no natural or artificial flavors or essences are applied to the tea leaves.

The last category, Specialty teas, is a catch-all for (artificially) flavored teas, aged teas, tea bricks, and hand-tied “flower” teas.

Green teas and Black teas are easy to identify as discrete categories: the former comprises unoxidized teas and the latter group is made up of fully oxidized teas.

Silver Needles White tea

Silver Needles White tea

But I would suggest another way to think of tea categories, a way that brings a better understanding of tea processing and a better appreciation of the results, how these tea taste.  Rather than viewing different teas in separate, very distinct categories, I suggest we consider them along a continuum, from the non-oxidized teas at one end to the fully oxidized and aged teas at the other end of the spectrum.

Budsets (Green tea)

Budsets (Green tea)

Seen this way, a Pouchong Oolong confirms what our eyes, nose, and palate tell us: that this tea is much closer to a Green than the heavily roasted, deep amber Oolong most people think of when Oolong is mentioned.  And the Oolong that has been oxidized and fired longer bears a closer affinity to Black teas farther down the spectrum.  Viewed from this perspective, how reasonable and wonderfully appropriate then to find some Black teas served in small gong-fu teasets, as is the practice for many fine Oolongs.

A lightly oxidized Oolong; note how green the leaves are.

A lightly oxidized Oolong; note how green the leaves are.

Blurring the classification boundaries a bit gives a better grasp of the skills involved in processing teas.  For the Oolong group especially, the extent of oxidation is not fixed or determined strictly by a clock; in fact, the variability truly highlights and demonstrates the experience of tea makers as they uses their senses of sight, smell, and touch to control the oxidation process.  The leeway permitted to those who craft Oolongs is the very feature that allows Oolongs to show their wonderful, glorious complexity.

The gently oxidized Alishan teas from Taiwan will likley break the mold of conceptions about Oolong teas garnered from many sips of tea at Chinese restaurants.   Oxidized to only about 20%, the edges of the leaves barely show any fraying. Yet this briefest of oxidation allows this small group of teas to show their exquisite floral character.  The brew is pale green, as are the leaves, but there is something more at work here than a just a Green.

Lightly oxidized Oolong

Lightly oxidized Oolong

The arbitrary classification of all semi-oxidized teas into one slot might make you miss delving a bit more deeply into the amazing variation that Oolong teas offer.  It is no surprise that once discovered, Oolong teas easily become favorites.

We are also able to find a more accurate place for Jasmine tea along a continuum based on extent of oxidation.  The waiting Green tea, prepared in the spring, is carefully stored until the Jasmine is ready to bloom in summer.  The heat generated by the plucked blossoms as they are piled onto the Green tea leaves and the repeated scenting produce a very slight oxidation in the tea.  This is why most Jasmine teas brew a cup with a slight orange tinge.

*In a similar way, the spectrum permits us to find a suitable place for “New White” tea, a fairly recent development in terms of tea’s long history, and a White that does undergo some slight degree of oxidation.  This feature made for a very lively discussion during one tea seminar devoted to defining White teas.

Taking in the continuum from one end to the other, one can use not only oxidation as one defining feature but also the extent of manipulation on the part of the tea makers.  White teas are minimally processed – withering and drying.  Green teas require a step or two more; rolling is important.  Leaves destined to become Black teas are withered, bruised to release their juices, rolled, oxidized, then dried a couple of times more.  Making Ti Kuan Yin Oolong is an 18-step process.  And further down the continuum, we find teas that are aged, and some of those are steamed then molded into cakes and bricks.  At the very far end on this scale based on how much these leaves are “worked,” would be the “flower” teas — where flowers are tied by hand to all manner of tea leaves, so that each piece blooms into a winsome combination of leaves and flowers.  Here, perhaps the very contrivance may be the point.

White Peony (Bai Mudan)

White Peony (Bai Mudan)

As you drink your way through various teas, try to keep such a continuum in mind.  If you are surprised to find that most White teas have green-tan flat leaves, remember that these leaves were only withered and dried.  If you encounter a golden-green tea that is labeled Oolong, bear in mind it could be a very lightly oxidized one, as its attributes (brew color, taste, the color of the wet leaves) will show.  Then enjoy a middle range Oolong; the leaves are still curled but have lost their greenish hue.  And as you sample a hearty Shui Hsien or Rock Oolong, you will be aware that these leaves came very close to becoming Black teas, but that oxidation was halted at a judicious moment to permit the wonderful character inherent in the leaves to shine through.  If you are fortunate to come across a Green or “raw” (qing) Puer cake, you’ll know to appreciate the natural oxidation that developed as the tea was being aged.

Oolong, medium oxidation

Oolong (dry leaves), medium oxidation

SeChung Oolong wet leaves, medium oxidation

SeChung Oolong wet leaves, medium oxidation

If all of this seems to be too much and unwarranted technical information, I would argue instead that a bit of knowledge about the processing adds to the pleasures of tea drinking.  More than becoming an educated consumer, each cup tastes better when you can visualize the transformation of leaves from one plant, Camellia sinensis, into such a delectable array of shapes and flavors.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung