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Your Complete Guide to Different Types of Chinese Tea

For several people, nothing beats a great cup of tea in the morning. Its pleasant, pure flavor instills a sense of peace and concentration. But maybe only a few of us know that this graceful beverage originates from China. Chinese tea has a long history from ancient times, keeps a central place in Chinese traditional culture, and attaches great importance to spiritual enjoyment and ethics. 

As China is the hometown of tea, there are various types of Chinese tea. Each comes with a different level of fermentation and manufacturing. This article will walk you through the history of Chinese tea and introduce the most common types of this elegant beverage. 

A brief history of Chinese tea

Tea has a history that extends back nearly 5,000 years to Chinese history. According to history, Emperor Shen Nung found tea in 2732 B.C. after seeing leaves from a wild plant dropped into a bowl of hot water. He was instantly attracted to the delightful aroma of the emerging drink and tasted some of it. When sipping the drink, the emperor felt a warm sensation as if the drink was exploring every portion of the body. Shen Nung called the drink “ch’a,” a Chinese character that means “to check or investigate.” 

Tea was not only appreciated for its medicinal uses; but also admired for its daily joy and relaxation. Farms expanded across China, and tea sellers got wealthy and costly. Magnificent tea products had become a symbol of their owners’ riches and position.

The Chinese emperor strictly supervised the crop’s processing and growth. Only young women are allowed to pick the tea leaves due to their virginity. These young female workers are never to have garlic, onions, or solid spices for fear that the smell on their hands would infect the valuable tea leaves.

In the following parts, let’s take a closer look into the most common types of Chinese tea and explore their significant differences and uniqueness.

Six common types of Chinese tea

绿茶 (lǜ chá) – Green tea 

Chinese green tea is the most ancient and prominent form of tea, primarily consumed in China for thousands of years. Green tea is manufactured from the tea plant’s fresh shoots, and the ingredients are left to dry and prepared as per the flavored teas required.

Green tea contains the most antioxidants and inhibitors in comparison to other teas. The key is in its processing: green tea is usually harvested and dried on the same day. This allows for minimum oxidation, preserving its natural deep green coloring, vitamin C, nutrients, and enzymes, among other things. As a result, green tea is the perfect choice for a detoxifying and even dieting beverage.

The Chinese green tea
The Chinese green tea

So, how does it taste? Green tea has a sweet, mild, soft, and toasted flavor. It can also carry a nutty, flowery, or fruity taste, depending on where it is cultivated. However, one thing is sure: green tea tastes lighter than black or oolong tea due to the low oxidation level. 

Here are some popular types of Chinese green tea:

  • Longjing Chun Mee (Dragon Well) 
  • Biluochun green tea 
  • Lu’an Melon Seed 
  • Gunpowder tea

红茶 (hóng chá) – Black tea 

Black tea, also called red tea, is the second most popular type of Chinese tea. This tea is harvested from the fresh, young branches of tea plants. The leaves then go through a variety of processing procedures. It is wilted, rolled, and crushed before being entirely oxidized. As a last phase in the process, the leaves are dried in an oven, preventing additional oxidation.

The final brew has a scarlet to dark brown color. Black tea usually has a beautiful and complicated smell, ranging from light and essential to malty and even savory. While diverse plantation areas produce distinct varieties of black tea – malty, smokey, earthy, spicy, citrusy, sweet, and fruity – many black teas have something in common: they taste robust, powerful, and deep.

The Chinese tea
The Chinese black tea

Because of the extensive oxidation process, black tea feels heavier and darker than green or oolong tea. One interesting note is black tea contains more caffeine than almost any other tea. Only pu-erh tea outperforms it because of the extended oxidation process. 

An 8 oz (240 mL) portion of black tea provides 40-70 mg of caffeine, but the same amount of coffee delivers 95-200 milligrams. Yes, black tea contains less caffeine, but it’s still enough to disrupt your sleep pattern. Avoid drinking black tea before bedtime! If you’re craving a cup of tea, try herbal tea or camomile tea instead.  

Some common examples of black tea are following: 

  • Yunnan’s Dianhong black tea
  • Yichang black tea 
  • Keemun black tea 
  • Nanchong black tea

白茶 (bái chá) – White tea 

White tea is one of the rarest and most expensive since the leaves and buds for white tea are collected only once a year, at the beginning of spring. The farmers harvest young tea blossoms when the leaves are still firmly packed to make white tea. 

White tea is the most minimally processed tea. The buds and leaves are simply dried, bringing a delicate, light golden color. The smell and flavor vary by area, however, white tea typically smells floral, sweet, or lemony. White tea has a light, floral, and delightfully sweet taste, which is gentle and smoother than any other tea. 

chinese white tea
The Chinese white tea (Source: teavivre.com)

Although white tea is the lightest and softest type of Chinese tea, it does contain caffeine. An 8 oz (240 mL) cup of white tea contains 6-55 mg of caffeine. This wide range is due to the white tea variety and size of the buds and leaves and the boiling heat and rehydrating duration. 

If you’d like to try this graceful tea, go for the most popular ones: 

  • Moonlight white tea 
  • Shou Mein 
  • Bai Mudan 
  • Bai Yao Hin 

乌龙茶 (wū lóng chá) – Oolong tea 

Oolong tea, also known as Black Dragon tea, is a Chinese tea that combines the attributes of two separate teams: green and black tea. The dark color is the result of oxidation and burning. 

Because of the various processing methods and the tea master’s skill, the color and flavor of oolong tea vary. Tea masters can even use activated carbon fire to give it a dark, unpleasant taste. Because oolong tea is semi-oxidized, its flavor characteristic extends from light flowery to rich and delicious. 

The Chinese tea oolong
The Chinese oolong tea

Light oolong tea can taste fresh, bright, sweet, and flowery. On the other hand, the more oxidized variants are warmer, darker, grassy, and mellow. Other flavors include fruity, nutty, and woody notes. Oolong tea usually comes in the following varieties:

  • Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea
  • Da Hong Pao
  • Phoenix Oolong
  • Pouchong
  • Shui Jin Gui

黄茶 (huáng chá) – Yellow tea 

This tea has a distinctive light golden color, a gently sweet flavor and scent, and a soft texture. Yellow tea is produced in the same way as green tea, with the bonus of a stage known as controlled yellowing. This method entails wrapping and heating the leaves to enhance oxidation and eliminate the grassy odor and flavor.

The Chinese yellow tea (Source: Sencha Tea Bar)

Some popular yellow teas include:

  • Junshan Yinzhen
  • Beigang Maojian
  • Mogan Huangyan
  • Meng Ding Huangyan
  • Pingyang Huangtang

黑茶 (hēi chá) – Dark tea 

Dark tea, also known as fermented tea, is possibly the least well-known tea. This tea is made from the post-fermentation of plants. After the first procedure is finished, the second fermentation begins to manufacture dark tea. The second fermentation involves pouring water on the tea leaves and piling them to ferment.

During the fermenting process, indigenous microorganisms on the leaves affect the color and flavor. Unlike many other teas, the taste of dark tea develops with age. It has a rich ruby color and a moderate yet filled texture.

Chinese dark tea (Source: Serious Eats)

If you’re interested in exploring this unique type of tea, try out these varieties:

  • Hunan dark tea
  • Liu Bao dark tea
  • Sichuan dark tea
  • Pu-erh tea

Pu-erh tea is a variety of dark tea produced in Yunnan, China. It is unique because, like wine, it improves with age. Once pu-erh tea grows, it enters a brewing process, resulting in a fuller flavor in each cup.

The flavor of Pu-erh tea varies depending on its age and processing method.

  • Sheng (raw) pu-erh tea may taste bitter and astringent initially, but it finishes with a genuine and refreshing smoothness. As pu-erh ages, the bitterness fades, resulting in a softer, more pleasant tea to complement your pleasurable time.
  • Shou (ripe) pu-erh tea has a somewhat more distinct flavor than raw (Sheng) pu-erh tea due to the hastened fermentation process. It has a delicate and fresh texture with a herbal taste complemented with fresh honey aromas. Ripe Pu-erh also improves in flavor as it ages.

Finding excellent Shou can indeed be difficult – bad quality pu-erh could feel moldy and smell fishy. That’s not how pu-erh tea should taste or smell. Nevertheless, ripe pu-erh is sometimes more unpleasant than Sheng, so choose your favorite!

Bonus: Scented tea

Outside of these six common types of tea, there is one more that you may be familiar with: scented tea, which includes favorites like jasmine and Earl Grey.

Scented teas are made by combining flowers or oil with already processed leaves. Tea leaves will then naturally absorb the aromas of surrounding plants.

The Chinese jasmine tea

For example, jasmine tea results from laying jasmine blossoms among dried green tea leaves overnight. Similarly, osmanthus oolong is made by infusing oolong leaves with the aroma of osmanthus flowers, and Earl Grey is a blend of black tea and bergamot oil, giving it that slight orange peel flavor.

The bottom line

For Chinese people, tea is not only a popular beverage brewed with boiled water over cured leaves. Chinese tea, in fact, brings a lot of health benefits and plays an important part in this country’s rich culture. 

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