A complete Guide to Types of Chinese Teas, from the origin, processing, taste and even leaf shape! We will look at the 6 major categories of Chinese Tea plus one more: Herbal or Scented Tea.
Did you know that, not counting water, tea is the world's favorite drink?
What is Chinese Tea?
Tea started as a beverage made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant, also known as the tea plant or tea trees. The leaves are soaked in hot water, usually 60–100 °C, depending on the type of tea being brewed.
Tea originated in China, so Chinese Tea, which this article will focus on, is the OG of tea. (OG = Original Guard.)
After tea spread all around the world, different countries developed their own ways of processing the leaves (e.g. Japanese matcha vs Chinese green tea.) Chinese Tea refers to Camellia Sinensis leaves that have been processed with traditional Chinese methods.
Traditional Chinese tea typically comes as a loose leaf tea (and not a tea bag.) However, China is so large that there are many other styles such as:
- Hakka Ground Tea 擂茶: also known as Lei Cha or Thunder Tea, the tea is ground with other ingredients, such as herbs and nuts, before being consumed as a drink or as part of a dish.
- Gunpowder Tea 珠茶: this is a type of tea that dates back to the Tang dynasty. Each leaf is tightly rolled into a small round ball, similar to a gun's pellet. You usually find green tea or oolong tea presented in this way. Although it's mostly done by machines now, the highest quality Gunpowder Tea is still rolled by hand.
- Flowering Tea 开花茶: dried tea leaves are wrapped around a dried flower, such as hibiscus and chrysanthemum. When hot water is poured over the leaves, the leaves will unfurl and the ball will "bloom."
Note: today, there are many drinks made from soaking the leaves, flowers or other parts of non-Camellia Sinensis plants, that are also called tea. Examples would be Longan Tea, Goji berry Tea, Jujube Tea, Ginger Tea, Barley Da Mai Cha and Osmanthus Tea. We will discuss this in the "Flower/ Scented Tea" section below.
When to Drink?
Chinese people drink tea throughout the day, usually before, during or after a meal to wash down oily food.
Apart from their taste, Chinese teas are also consumed for their taste and their numerous health benefits, which range from aiding digestion to promoting mental clarity.
Over time, Chinese tea culture has extended beyond just the consumption and appreciation of the drink. Tea ceremonies and performances have become popular ways to connect with others, as well as express hospitality and respect.
Chinese tea has a rich and fascinating history that dates back thousands of years.
It is believed to have been serendipitiously invented by Emperor Shennong, a legendary figure who lived around 5,000 years ago.
According to legend, Shennong was a skilled herbalist and the father of Chinese agriculture and Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is said that he accidentally discovered tea while boiling water to drink when a leaf from a Camellia Sinensis tree fell into his pot.
This accidental infusion led to the birth of tea in China. Chinese people initially valued it for its medicinal qualities. As time passed, tea started to be consumed for its taste and enjoyed as a social and cultural activity.
Preparing and drinking tea became a refined art form, elevating tea's status from a mere drink to a symbol of Chinese civilization and tradition. Tea houses also emerged as social gathering places, where people could relax, discuss, and appreciate the art of tea together, further ingraining tea into Chinese cultural heritage.
Chinese Tea Art
Chinese Tea Art can be traced back to ancient times in China, where tea drinking was considered a sophisticated and spiritual experience.
The importance of tea in Chinese culture gave rise to the development of the Chinese tea ceremony, a ritualized way of preparing and serving tea. The tea ceremony emphasizes aesthetics, harmony, and mindfulness, creating an atmosphere of tranquility and respect.
Different regions in China have distinct tea cultures, reflecting their local customs and traditions. For example, the Gongfu tea ceremony is popular in Fujian and Guangdong provinces, focusing on the skill and artistry involved in brewing tea.
3 Fun facts about Chinese tea ceremonies
- The person to the left of the guest is the VIP! The person to the right is the least important...
- If invited to take the first sip of tea, stand up to show your appreciation. Men should hold the left hand over the right fist, whilst women should put their palm together, then bow, sit, smell and sip. If you see someone tapping their fingers on the table, they're not being impatient!
- Finger tapping, or finger kowtow, is a way of expressing thanks to the person serving you tea (or food.) This practice dates back to Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty: when he was wandering around China incognito, his entourage couldn't kowtow to him, so they woul tap their fingers instead.
Chinese teas are usually classified into 6 main categories.
However, I've taken the libery of adding an 7th category (Flower and Scented Tea) to account for teas such as Chrysanthemum and Osmanthus.
- Green Tea
- Black Tea
- Oolong Tea
- White Tea
- Yellow Tea
- Dark Tea
- Flower/ Scented Tea
From green tea to black tea, and oolong to pu-erh, each type of tea offers distinct flavors, aromas, and health benefits, which we will explore below. Depending on the type of tea, the brewing method will vary, with different temperatures, tea wares and amount of teas used.
Note: Pu-Er is one of China's most famous teas. Despite it being a type of dark tea, some people classify it under its own, 7th, category. I have included it in the section on "Dark Tea."
Green tea 綠茶 is the oldest and most popular type of tea in China.
The leaves are usually pan-fried on the same day they're plucked to halt the oxidation process. This keeps the leaves green and creates a fresh flavor with light grassy notes.
It also has a wealth of health benefits, including antioxidants. (Out of all the categories of tea, green tea has the most tannins and antioxidants.) Some famous Chinese green teas include:
- Long Jing tea or Dragon Well Tea: one of China's most well-known teas, valued for its delicate aroma and flat, smooth, leaves that look like jade green swords. The taste is fresh, crisp, and almost vegetal. This renowned green tea from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province has a smooth, almost buttery and nutty taste. The tea is often pan-fired, which gives it a gentle, roasted flavor and reduces its astringency.
- Biluochun tea: This famous green tea from Jiangsu province is particularly known for its strong fragrance and coiled, snail-like shape. The tea has a floral, fruity aroma and a pleasant, slightly sweet taste. Often harvested in the early spring, Biluochun is highly valued for its meticulously hand-rolled leaves that unfurl when steeped, offering a beautiful visual experience.
- Chun Mee: this is one of the sweeter green teas and is sometimes called "precious eyebrow" tea because of the leaf shape.
- Jasmine Green Tea: this is green tea scented with the fragrance of jasmine leaves. Tastes delicious hot, as an ice tea, or as a boba tea!
Oolong tea, or Wulong tea, is a partially oxidized tea that occupies a flavor profile between green and black teas.
Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan are 3 of the best known Oolong growers today. This type of tea is usually used in the Chinese Gongfu Cha ceremony, a traditional Chinese tea ceremony in which tea leaves are steeped several times to draw out layers of flavor.
Renowned oolong teas include:
- Tieguanyin or Iron Goddess of Mercy tea: this highly-prized oolong tea from Anxi county, Fujian province is characterized by its tightly rolled leaves and robust, floral aroma. The leaves unfurl as they steep and can be infused several times. Tieguanyin offers a complex, layered taste with hints of creaminess and slight astringency. The tea is often roasted, which adds a depth of flavor and a rich, toasty finish..
- Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe: recognized for its bold, complex, oasted aroma and unique rock mineral taste. This is a premium oolong tea from the Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province. The tea leaves are tightly rolled and have a dark, reddish-brown color. It has a complex flavor profile, with a fruity, floral aroma and a rich, toasty taste. The tea is famous for its long-lasting aftertaste and lingering sweetness.
- Bai Jiguan: a lightly roasted tea with floral notes and a sweet aftertaste.
- Milk Oolong: not to be confused with oolong milk tea, a type of Taiwanese boba tea, this is a tea from Fujian with a milky, mellow flavor.
White tea 白茶 is the least processed of all Chinese teas and is withered and dried only when abour to be used. Known for its delicate, subtle flavors and high levels of antioxidants, it forms a pale yellow brew.
One of the most expensive Chinese teas, it was greatly valued by the imperial Chinese court. The leaves and young buds are gathered only once a year, at the dawn of spring, whilst the tea leaves still have their silvery hairs.
Popular examples of Chinese white tea include:
- Baihao Yinzhen, or White Hair Silver Needles: prized for its needle-like, silvery-white leaves and a light, fresh, slightly sweet, mellow flavor. This is a high-quality white tea from Fujian province (where my ancestors were from!) The tea is comprised of tender, unopened tea buds covered in fine white hairs. It has a delicate floral aroma and a pale, golden-amber color when steeped.
- Bai Mudan, or White Peony: usually consists of both the leaves and the buds, it has a slightly stronger flavor compared to Baihao Yinzhen. It is a little vegetal, a little sweet, high in antioxidants and low in caffine.
- Huangshan Maofeng: this green tea comes from the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan) in Anhui province. It has a fresh, floral fragrance and a mellow flavor profile. The tea leaves are slender, slightly curved, and covered in fine white hairs, resembling the peaks of Huangshan. The tea has a bright, yellow-green color when steeped and is highly valued for its delicate taste.
- Shoumei: this white tea is made from naturally withered top leaves and tips. Usually grown in Fujian or Guangxi, it has a stronger flavor similar to a light Oolong tea.
Yellow tea 黃茶 is a rare and unique variety of Chinese tea that undergoes a longer oxidation process than green tea. (It's rarer because the production process is more complicated, involving one more step: sealed yellowing. This involves encasing and steaming the tea leaves to increase oxidation and remove any vegetal flavor.)
This results in its characteristic yellow color and mellow, rich flavor.
A notable example of yellow tea is:
- Beigang Maojian
- Junshan Yinzhen or Silver Needle Yellow tea: this is a tea highly valued for its rarity and complex flavors. It is a rare and high-quality tea from Hunan province. The tea buds are covered in silvery-white hairs, giving it its Silver Needle name. Junshan Yinzhen has a gentle, sweet taste and a soft, golden-yellow color when steeped.
- Mogan Huangya
- Meng Ding Huangya
- Pingyang Huangtang
Black or Red
Black tea, actually written as red tea 紅茶 in Chinese, is fully oxidized which turns the leaves black. Known for its robust, bold flavor, it's still usually lighter in flavor than black teas from other countries.
It is the most popular type of tea in the West. Made from the new shoots of the Camellia Sinensis plant, the leaves undergo several processes: withering, rolling, crushing and full oxidisation before being fire in the oven to stop further oxidation.
It creates a dark colored brew, usually reddish-brown or dark, with a more complex flavor that can range from mild to very deep.
Some well-known black teas are:
- Lapsang Souchong 立山小種: also known as Zhengshan xiaozhong 正山小種, this is one of the most well-known black teas in the West. The leaves are usually smoke-dried over a pinewood fire. It's not my favorites tea to drink, as the taste is super strong- you'll feel like you're drinking in the smoke of a campfire or smoking a cigar- but that's also why it works very well in braising eggs (e.g. Taiwanese tea eggs.)
- Dianhong: originates from Yunnan province and is characterized by its malty, sweet taste
- Golden Monkey tea: a high-quality tea with a rich, smooth flavor.
- Keemun: this black tea from Anhui province is well-known for its unique aroma and layered complexity of flavor. Often described as having a slight sweetness, the taste of Keemun is often accompanied by earthy and fruity notes. Some may even taste a bit like smoky wine. The tea leaves are small, with a twisted shape and a dark, rich color. It is a popular base for breakfast teas and blends, such as English Breakfast. When brewed, it turns into an amber red infusion.
Note: somewhat confusingly, when written in Chinese, Black Tea refers to aged, fermented teas, which we call "Dark Tea" in English, such as Pu-erh. See below for more on this type of tea.
Dark tea 黑茶, also known as fermented tea, is a category that includes teas processed through microbial fermentation. (The leaves are fermented after being oxidised and aged.)
This type of tea is derived from the post-fermentation of leaves. In standard processing, leaves are dried or fired to reduce moisture level and halt oxidation. That’s where the first process stops, and the second fermentation starts for dark tea production. The second fermentation entails sprinkling the tea leaves with water and piling them to ferment.
The action of natural bacteria on the leaves during the fermentation process influences its color and taste. Unlike the other teas, dark tea’s flavor improves with age. It takes on a deep reddish hue and has a mild yet full-bodied flavor.
Pu erh tea is the most famous dark tea and the price can go up to 1000s of dollars.
It is named after the city Pu-erh, in Yunnan province, where it is produced.
There are both raw and ripe varieties. The taste of Pu'er tea varies depending on its aging and fermentation process but often exudes earthy, rich flavors.
- Sticky rice pu'er
- Bamboo roasted pu'er
Chinese flower and scented teas are a unique and aromatic category of tea. They can involve:
- adding dried flowers or infusing floral scents into tea leaves
- brewing dreid fruits or dried flowers in hot water, in place of tea leaves.
Jasmine tea, a popular Chinese flower tea, is traditionally made by infusing green tea leaves with the fragrance of jasmine flowers.
The tea leaves are harvested in early spring and then stored until jasmine flowers bloom in late summer. The jasmine flowers are picked during the day and mixed with the tea leaves at night, when the flowers release their scent. This process is repeated multiple times until the desired level of jasmine aroma is achieved.
Jasmine tea is known for its soothing and calming properties and is often consumed during and after meals to aid digestion.
Goji Berry Tea
This is a good non-caffeinated Chinese tea to drink at night.
Rose tea, made from dried rose petals or rosebuds, is a fragrant and flavorful Chinese flower tea.
It not only has a pleasant aroma but also offers various health benefits. High in antioxidants, vitamin C, and polyphenols, rose tea is known to improve digestion, alleviate stress, and promote healthy skin.
When preparing rose tea, it is essential to use organic or pesticide-free petals to ensure a pure and natural taste.
Osmanthus tea, also known as Gui Hua Cha, is a scented tea made from dried osmanthus flowers. These can be soaked on their own or combined with green, black, or oolong tea leaves. They're usually brewed for a few minutes before straining and consuming.
The resulting tea is floral, fruity, and naturally sweet, with a hint of very ripe peach or apricot flavor.
It is known to contain anti-inflammatory properties and aid in digestion. Thus, it it is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to improve skin complexion and support lung health. You can find osmanthus in everything from tea to osmanthus jelly!
Typically, a green tea base is used to complement the floral lychee flavor.
Chrysanthemum tea is another popular Chinese flower tea made from dried chrysanthemum flowers.
It is a caffeine-free herbal tea, known for its refreshing taste and numerous health benefits. Chrysanthemum tea is often used in Traditional Chinese medicine to reduce inflammation, soothe sore throats, and improve eye health. (It is believed to be "cooling.")
The tea can be prepared by steeping dried chrysanthemum flowers in hot water. You can also sweeten it with honey or rock sugar.
Tea Production in China
Zhejiang Province is well-known for producing a variety of high-quality Chinese teas, including the famous Longjing (Dragonwell) green tea.
In addition to Longjing tea, Zhejiang Province produces other notable teas such as Gunpowder green tea and Anji Bai Cha.
Jiangsu Province is known for its production of Biluochun green tea, also known as "Green Snail Spring" due to the snail-like shape of its tightly rolled leaves.
Other popular teas from Jiangsu Province include Junshan Yin Zhen, a high-quality yellow tea, and various fragrant green teas.
Anhui Province is home to a wide variety of Chinese teas, including the famous Huangshan Maofeng green tea, which is recognizable by its fine, curled leaves and pleasant aroma.
Anhui is also known for its production of Liu An Gua Pian, a large-leaf green tea, and the highly regarded Keemun black tea.
Fujian Province is one of the most famous Chinese tea producing regions, known for its diverse range of teas such as Wuyi rock teas and Tieguanyin, a popular oolong tea.
Fujian's unique climate and fertile soil contribute to the high quality and distinct flavors of its teas. The province also produces the highly-prized white tea, Bai Hao Yin Zhen, or Silver Needle Tea.
Hunan Province is renowned for its dark teas, particularly Anhua dark tea, which is characterized by its unique fermentation process and aged flavor.
Hunan dark teas are highly sought after for their reputed health benefits. The province also produces Junshan Yinzhen yellow tea and several types of green tea, such as Xiangxi Green Tips.
Yunnan Province is synonymous with the production of Pu-erh tea, a distinctive type of fermented dark tea known for its earthy flavor and potential health benefits. (Pu-erh is actually the name of a place in Yunnan, after which the famous tea is named.)
Yunnan is also believed to be the birthplace of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, which is used in the production of many Chinese black teas. (We still lack concrete proof of this though.) However, the diverse climate and rich biodiversity of the region contribute to the unique taste and characteristics of Yunnan teas.
Health Benefits and Considerations
Chinese teas have been revered for their numerous health benefits and their rich cultural history, such as antioxidants, weight loss, and caffeine content.
Chinese teas, like green and white varieties, are rich in antioxidants that help protect the body from the harmful effects of free radicals.
These antioxidants, primarily polyphenols and catechins, are known to provide a wide range of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and cardiovascular-protective properties. Consuming antioxidant-rich teas can help boost the immune system, improve overall health, and potentially reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
Another notable benefit of Chinese tea is its potential to aid in weight loss.
Some studies have suggested that the regular consumption of tea, particularly green and oolong varieties, can help increase metabolism and fat oxidation, leading to weight loss. However, green tea can be high in lead content so only drink tea from reputable brands.
Incorporating Chinese tea into a healthy and balanced diet can provide an additional tool for individuals seeking to manage their weight.
Chinese teas can vary in caffeine content, depending on the type of tea and how it's processed.
Generally, green and white teas tend to have lower caffeine content when compared to black and oolong teas. For people who are sensitive to caffeine or looking to reduce their caffeine intake, go for a green, white or flower tea.
It's important to note that while Chinese teas are known for their potential health benefits, individual experiences and reactions may vary. As with any food or beverage, it is best to enjoy Chinese teas in moderation and as part of a well-balanced diet. Please consult a doctor or qualified health professional before making any changes to your diet.
Frequently Asked Questions
Chinese tea boasts a wide variety of types. Which ones are popular depends on the country. For example, Oolong and Pu-erh are popular in the West. In Asia, Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea, Silver Needle Tea, Da Hong Pao, Bi Luo Chun green tea and Tie Guan Yin are also very in-demand.
Chinese green tea is unique for its processing techniques, which involve minimal oxidation compared to other varieties like yellow tea. This results in a refreshing, vegetal taste that is distinct from other Chinese tea categories. Moreover, over 50% of the chlorophyll and most of the vitamins are retained. To learn specifically about how Chinese green tea and matcha differ, click here.
Chinese teas offer many health benefits due to their antioxidants and essential nutrients. Some of the reported benefits include boosting metabolism, aiding digestion, improving mental focus, and promoting relaxation. (But not if you drink it too late at night, as the caffeine can lead to insomnia.) However, it is important to note that these benefits can vary based on the specific tea type and brewing methods used. It will also vary from person to person. Some people have gastrointestinal issues from drinking tea.
Chinese tea can be divided into 7 main categories: green tea, black tea, oolong tea, white tea, yellow tea, pu-erh tea and dark tea. These differ in taste, fragrance, color, appearance, growing areas, processing method, and health benefits. For more information on each type of tea, scroll up to the post!
Everyone has a different opinion on this but most lists consist of 10 of the folllowing: Anxi Tie Guan Yin 溪鐵觀音, Dongting Biluochun 洞庭碧螺春, Duyun Maojian 都匀毛尖, Huangshan Maofeng 黄山毛峰, Junshan Yinzhen 君山銀針, Lu'an Melon Seed Tea/ Lu'an Leaf 六安瓜片, Lushan Cloud Tea 庐山雲雾, Peaceful Monkey Leader 太平猴魁, Qimen Hong Cha/ Red Tea 祁門紅茶, West Lake Longjing 西湖龍井茶, Wuyi Tea 武夷岩茶, and Xinyang Maojian 信阳毛尖.
The origin. The climate in China is heterogeneous and in different regions tea growing conditions vary. It grows on diverse soils, at different altitudes, in diverging temperature ranges therefore its leaf accumulates versatile substances affecting the taste and aroma of the tea. For instance in Yunnan the large leaf trees are in abundance while in Fujian small leaf tea bushes prevail.
Cultivation environment. There are certain tea types that are grown under specific conditions. For example, the Emerald spirals of spring are planted among the fruit trees to tincture the tea leaf fragrance with fruity notes which tenderly unveil themselves at brewing. On the same mountain - at its foot, in the middle and at the top - the taste of the growing tea will differ and its value will differ as well.
Tea cultivars. China has both tea trees reaching over 20 meters in height and tea bushes. Tea leafs are also distinguished as wide, narrow, round and small. There are special bushes for white tea with thick white hairs. The bush of Tie Guan Yin has given the name to the whole range of Oolongs distinguished by heavy, harsh textured leaf. These are a few examples illustrating that each type of tea requires the specific tea plant cultivar. Please, do not get confused. Green tea can be produced from any tea bush as «green» implies the technology of leaf processing. However the Dragon Well from Xi Hu lake can be made only from specific bushes growing in the specific location. Harvest time. Each tea type has the respective harvest time. Sometimes different teas can be produced from the same plant: white tea of buds in February, red tea of tips in March and green tea of leaves in April. Yet only one type of tea is produced after all distinguished by quality grades, which depend on the period of its harvesting.
Leaves for processing. Each type of tea requires the specific leaf of the tea plant. There are teas produced exceptionally of buds, others - of tips (the bud and one-two leaves), some are made of large leaves, while production of others uses whole offshoots with several leaves. Technologists give clear instructions to the gatherers what leaves should be flushed today for tea production.
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