By Rob Bageant
All tea comes from the same plant
All true tea is grown from one single species of plant, camellia sinensis. The difference between types of tea is in the processing rather than in the plant itself. The one key trait which differentiates the three major families of tea is oxidation, sometimes mistakenly called fermentation. Put simply, the longer the juices of the tea leaves are exposed to oxygen, the darker the tea gets. You can experience the different levels of oxidization in our tea spectrum sampler.
Green tea is un-oxidized tea. Immediately after
harvest it is heated to prevent its juices from reacting
with the oxygen in the air. The heat neutralizes the
reactants in the leaves preserving green tea’s
green color. In China, green teas are most commonly pan
fried or baked to stop oxidation. In Japan, green tea is
steamed after harvest, giving Japanese teas a very
distinct flavor not commonly found elsewhere in the
world. The best green teas carry a delicate, fresh flavor
and are made from only the youngest, most tender leaves
Black tea is at the other end of the spectrum. Where
green is un-oxidized, black tea is fully or 100%
oxidized. Rather than heating the tea to prevent
oxidation, after harvest black tea is purposely shaken
and stirred to break down cell walls in the leaves and
expose their juices to the air. Like green tea, high
grade black tea is made from the youngest and most tender
leaves and leaf buds. These younger, tenderer leaves
expose their juices more readily than older leaves,
allowing them to oxidize fully and rapidly.
This tea family, little known in the west, is actually the largest and most varied of the major three tea families. The oolong tea family makes up the entire region of the tea spectrum between “fully oxidized” and “un-oxidized.” Oolong teas range from extremely green to extremely dark. Surprisingly though, the flavor does not fade from a green tea taste to a black tea taste. Instead, like the colors of the rainbow, each stop along the spectrum has a unique flavor of its own, as distinct from each other as orange is from blue.
Oolong teas are made from larger, more mature leaves
and buds. These tougher leaves oxidize more slowly
allowing the tea crafter to carefully monitor the level
and rate of oxidation, bringing the process to a halt at
that exact point on the tea spectrum that defines his or
her intended tea. Similarly to green tea, heat is used to
bring oxidation to an end.