All the Colors of the Rainbow

Tea can be a very confusing subject for those who are new to it; there’s a lot of specialized terminology that one can have a hard time grasping as a beginner, and it can make one’s initial foray into the world of Tea troubling, confusing, and oh so incredibly frustrating. The purpose of this article is to hopefully break it down into more digestible bits in order to help the newbies who are just getting their feet wet.

The first thing you should know is that- White, Black, Pu-Erh, or Oolong [sic]- all correct Teas come from the same plant: Camellia SinensisC. Sinensis is an evergreen shrub that is native to the Southern, South Eastern, and Eastern areas of the Asian continent.

While there are 4 recognized varieties of this plant which are used to produce Tea, the varieties do not impact the classification or “color” of the Tea. The variant of C. Sinensis used to produce Tea only impacts the inherent and basic quality and flavor- not much else.

Instead, the general way that Teas are classified is actually according to the way in which the leaves of the plant are processed during and after picking. Most of that process includes a combination of heating the Tea leaves, and rolling or “cracking” them in order to oxidize them. Depending on the type of Tea, the leaves will be subjected to various levels of heat, or rolled for Oxidation at different times, and for different lengths of time- which also greatly impacts the final flavor of the Tea.

This process is what lends the tea its colored name- such as White, Green, and Black. Others exist, too, with names that reference the processing used to produce the Tea. These include Oolong and Pu-Erh. We’ll get to those later, however. For now, I want to focus on the basic classifications of Tea by color.

White Tea

To create White Teas, the leaves are hand picked as buds and baby leaves in the early days of Spring. These leaves are primarily sun dried before sometimes being baked at low temperatures in order to complete the drying process and prevent further oxidation of the leaves. Oxidation still occurs, but it’s minimal with this process. and lends itself to a full bodied but light Tea.

The delicate nature of the leaves, however, means that they’re best brewed at low temperatures for 1 to 3 minutes- and then taken with minimal additives (if any). The resulting brew is usually a very pale, light yellow-green color, with a mellow scent.

White Tea is one of the lowest in Caffeine content. They contain an average of 30 mg to 55 mg per 8 oz serving- though it’s still important to note that some blends can average as low as 10 mg, and as high as 60 mg.

Yellow Tea

Yellow Teas are rarely talked about- and hard to get your hands on. This is for two main reasons: First is that they’re often lumped in with White or Green Teas despite using a different manufacturing process. And second is because there are one three types left- all of which are only manufactured in 3 Chinese Provinces (Hunan, Zhejiang, and Sichuan respectively).

As a result, they’re often more expensive and harder to get ahold of. So much so that some companies have even been caught selling poor quality Green Teas as Yellows, because producing a genuine Yellow has such a poor production time to market value ratio to be genuinely profitable in a global market that largely prefers Greens. This has, sadly, led to the complete loss of several traditional varieties of Yellow Teas in China.

In regards to their manufacturing process, these Teas are made in a similar manner to Greens but with an additional step: Steaming; early spring buds or tips are usually fired, then wrapped in special cloth- a process which allows the heat of the firing process to slowly steam the leaves. This is repeated over a period of several days before they’re finally dried over charcoal; the intent here is to oxidize the Tea at a much slower and more controlled rate, and it also gives it the unique Yellow color it’s named for.

If you do manage to get ahold of a genuine yellow (of which only 3 varieties exist)? Prepare it by steeping for 1 to 3 minutes at a low temperature. What you’ll be met with is a slightly sweet, slightly fruity tea with none of the grassiness that greens are known for- and a much deeper flavor than Whites are capable of.

Green Tea

For those who like variety, Green Teas certainly offer it. It accounts for an estimated 70% of the Tea produced worldwide, with each country producing specialties that are largely unique to their regions. That being said, most varieties are made by picking the leaves when they’re already partially withered, then heating them at high temperatures almost immediately afterwards in order to prevent the oxidation process. After that, the leaves are rolled and shaped to partially oxidize the leaf before being reheated a second time. Occasionally the leaves might be picked a bit earlier, then steamed to wither them during processing.

Still, because of the various ways in which Green Tea is processed in different countries, they can vary drastically in flavor, scent, and color from one type to the next; some are very floral and sweet, and others are Earthy and Nutty- while more (especially, in my experience, some Traditional Chinese Blends) are grassy in both scent and taste. Initially they’re also often more bitter with the taste deepening and becoming sweeter as it builds.

Similar to Whites, they’re best brewed at medium-low temperatures for 3 to 5 minutes due to their more delicate nature. They tend to have a light green and sometimes yellow color. They’re also more acidic than White Teas and some can be upsetting for those with sensitive stomachs. If this is the case for you, have a go at a White Tea Instead of a Green.

Caffeine wise, the average cup of Green Tea contains 35 mg to 70 mg of Caffeine, with some averaging as low as 20 mg and others as high as 80 mg.

Black Tea

Unlike White and Green Teas, which are often heated first to prevent oxidation, Black Tea’s process is almost flip flopped; the Leaves are first picked, and then rolled to encourage oxidation before being laid out and then later applied to heat to stop the oxidation process.

These Teas often need a bit more “coaxing” to brew, and do better when brewed at higher temperatures for periods up to 5 minutes. Unlike Green and White Teas which are delicate, the flavor of most Black Teas is Earthy, slightly Fermented, and sometimes Nutty, with a full body and rich, strong scent and flavor. Because of this, Black Teas do better with additives like Milk, Sugar, and Honey, where Green and White Teas would become muddy and lose their lighter flavors.

Caffeine wise, Black Teas also contain the most compared to other types- averaging in at about 60 mg to 90 mg of Caffeine, with some averaging as low as 40 mg, and others as high as a cup of Coffee (low average of 100 mg).

For the most part, the less oxidation that occurs during the Tea’s processing, the lighter the taste and smell of the final product. Heavily oxidized Teas like Black Tea will usually produce a dark, rich, reddish-brown infusion with Earthier qualities, while less oxidized Teas like White and Green tend to be on the lighter yellow-green side with grassier tones and flavors. Depending on your taste preferences, you will want to pick a Tea from one of these groups- however there can still be a large variety within each group, and from region to region.

Whatever you choose, I hope that this will make it easier to get your bearings. Happy Brewing!


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The Banner Image for this post was provided by StockSnap; the Banner Image for the main site is my own work.

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