Tea Time Part 1: What’s the difference?
Tea (or it's technical name, Camellia sinensis) is a plant that gets around. It’s use is thought to pre-date historical records and it has somehow weaseled it’s way into becoming the most consumed beverage worldwide, apart from water (give it time, it hasn’t been around as long).
So what’s the difference between black, green or white teas? I’m inclined to say there is none. It’s all the same species, carted from one early civilization to another with every attempt made to preserve it’s original flavor. Fortunately, that is not the case.
The two major factors that differentiate one boiling pile of leaves from another are Terroir ([tɛʁwaʁ] or tɛːˈwɑ) and how it is prepared. In part two of this two-part series, I will go over terroir, which is the impact of the soil, altitude, watering routine, harvest time, etc. I will also discuss how different varieties of tea affect Kombucha, based on my testing, and give recommendations of what tea to use when going for a specific flavor of Kombucha. This post, I will briefly describe the six main categories of tea and explain what flavors one can expect in each, based on my personal tasting experience.
Approximately 85% of all tea consumed is black tea. Black tea is the most oxidized and typically has the boldest flavor. It is heavily favored in the making of Kombucha because it can hold up to the strongest fruits and spices while still contributing an earthy bitterness. Black tea gets it’s color from being heavily oxidized (the same way a peach changes color when it is bruised). All tea starts as the shoot or top few leaves of each bush. It is then picked, dried slightly and from there the paths diverge. In the instance of black tea, the leaves are either crushed or flattened, causing heavy bruising which leads to heavy oxidation. Oxidation produces tannins and other polyphenols, which contribute mouthfeel and bitterness. Once the desired amount of oxidation takes place, the leaves are heat treated to prevent any further change.
Because of it’s high tannin content, black tea could be described as rich, bold, or hearty. Black tea runs the gamut from exhibiting soft floral and fruity qualities to being earthy, leathery, and tobacco-like. Popular varietals from China include Yunnan and Keemun. From India one can find Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiri, just to name a few.
The main difference between black tea and green tea is that green tea is not allowed to oxidize for nearly as long. Additionally, Chinese and Japanese green teas are prepared in different ways. Chinese green tea is heat treated by pan frying. This imparts a kettle corn (without the sweetness) or lightly roasted quality. Japanese green tea on the other hand is steam treated, which brings out a slight umami flavor.
Green tea is typically more subtle in flavor than black tea and in general has a grassy, earthly, and sometimes savory quality to it. It is said that one cannot make Kombucha with green tea, but with a healthy starter and SCOBY I have had not trouble fermenting several green tea batches.
Blue Tea or Oolong
Oolong seems to fall somewhere between green and black in terms of oxidation. As far as I have found, Oolong is cultivated in a way as to produce a very strong aromatic quality.
Oolong screams floral in all the varietals I have sampled. It tends to be less tannic than black tea, but favors heavy fruit and floral notes. For those that have trouble telling the difference between dark teas, I would recommend trying an Oolong, as it is fairly unique.
White tea has little to no oxidation. Because of this, the flavor tends to be very subtle with little to no mouthfeel.
White tea seems to trend toward grassy and light floral notes. Some varietals can be piney and citrusy, but all are light and a bit hard to distinguish from each other, for those that have not yet developed a pallet.
The least known preparation of tea is also the most majestic, though I haven’t been impressed by it’s flavor quality. Yellow tea was created as a tribute to the Chinese Emperor. This tea has an extra step after being oxidized where it is piled up, under a damp cloth and allowed to be fermented for a while before it is heat treated.
As I have only had one cup of yellow tea, I cannot generalize it’s flavor profile. However, the Golden Dragon Yellow Tea I did have had an interesting honeysuckle flavor I haven’t found in any other tea.
Dark Tea or Pu-Erh
Pu-Erh is very different from most other teas. It can be green, black, or white tea that is moistened and allowed to ferment. This “aged tea” is said to improve over time and many people tend to agree because they believe it can’t get much worse. Pu-Erh originated from East China shipping tea to West China. By the time it arrived in West China, it had fermented over a number of weeks, due to travel. West China had grown custom to this fermented flavor and didn't seem to know any better, or so the story goes...
Pu-Erh can exhibit many different and unique flavors. From the teas I have tried, I have found earthy, horsey, leathery, tobacco, clove, citrus, vanilla, and sherry notes (just to name a few). Pu-Erh is not for everyone, but when done well, it can be as complex as a fine wine.
These categories of tea are just the tip of the iceberg. Next post I will explain how the environment plays a major role in tea diversity and give suggestions for different teas to try when making Kombucha. If you have any questions or just want to teas me for my terrible pun, feel free to comment.
- Prat, James Norwood and Shah, Devan. (2012) Tea Sommelier: Introduction to Tea. Devan Shah.