The world of tea is stunningly rich, and it is easy to get
tangled with all the different tea types. Each tea is unique, often
having it’s own distinct tea plant cultivar, history, locality,
style of processing, and sometimes their own brewing style. There
are so many different kinds of tea, that it has been necessary to
develop some models to split tea into categories.
Today, the most common way is to divide tea into six (or seven) genres. These types are usually primarily separated by their processing styles. These genres are green, yellow, oolong, red (known as “black” in the West) and black (sometimes referred to as “dark” in the west). Pu’er tea is sometimes mentioned as it’s own type, sometimes as a part of black tea. Mika Hannola has written a good introduction to them in his blog post.
This way of categorisation is important, as it is being constantly referred to by tea books, shops and blogs such as this one. However, I would remind that this is a model, which is made to simplify reality. As it is primarily based on processing styles, it doesn’t strictly correlate with taste. There are few points of confusion for a new tea lover.
Chinese and Japanese styles of green tea differ greatly. This is partly due to the differences in tea cultivars, but it is also due to the processing style: Japanese tea uses steaming to help tea maintain it’s fresh, green nature, while Chinese style does this by pan-firing. From the tea drinkers point of view, these two types of green tea are almost like night and day. In tea tastings, it is common to notice that some lovers of Chinese green tea can’t stand its Japanese cousins, and vice versa. So, even though both styles are classed as green tea, they are actually very distinct.
Oolong tea is commonly said to be in between red tea and green tea. This statement is true if we look at these teas by their level of oxidation, but not really, if we focus on taste. Oolong can be a really confusing concept for a new tea lover. Some of the oolongs are really green, and they are generally liked by lovers of green tea. These green oolongs are sort of like green tea with a thicker mouthfeel, longer aftertaste and less grassy flavour. Some other oolongs are really dark, due to roasting, oxidation and aging. For example, yancha from Wuyi mountains provides perhaps the most intensive and dark taste in the whole world of tea. Going by taste alone, I’d actually say most red teas are somewhere between yancha and green oolongs!
When organising tea tastings I’ve ended up grouping tea types somewhat differently. I have grouped teas into “taste worlds”. Idea of the taste world is that the teas belonging to the same taste world are similar enough, that they are sort of like songs in a same genre, they speak more or less the same language. Grouping is based on similarities I see in the different teas, and on my observations during tastings. I present this grouping on the second part of the text.