Updated: Jun 22, 2020
From a flowering evergreen, called Camellia sinensis, with glossy green leaves tapering to a spearlike point with serrated edge comes the different flavors of tea that you enjoy today. Grouped simply as white, green, yellow, blue (or oolong), black (or red in China) and dark (or black in China), these colors are the major categories of tea that you know today. Each one is processed differently and so named referring either to the color of the tea liquor, the color of its leaves or the meaning of its Chinese name. To a tea lover, the color tells a tale of true artistry from the picking of leaves to the drying. Every step taken by a tea master is meant to develop a certain flavor profile, comparable to an artist picking the right colors and the perfect brush and moving his hand on a canvas with so much grace to create a masterpiece. To a tea lover, the resulting flavor from picking the leaves to drying then brewing is a tea master's masterpiece.
White tea is the least processed among the teas, with the picking of the new buds and young leaves as the most essential step in its processing. The buds are normally covered with a thin layer of downy hair called “trichomes” or “pekoe”, giving the buds a silver-white appearance. Given the very little human interference in processing this tea, white tea is the closest a drinker gets to the tea plant’s natural state. Delicate and light to the taste, this tea is said to contain the most antioxidants.
Made from both buds and young leaves that are either steamed or roasted to halt oxidation, green tea is much softer and lighter than a black tea though more vegetal in aroma and taste. Depending on where it is produced, a green tea may be bitter, intense and astringent, or may be light and almost sweet with subtle notes of cooked vegetables or toasted nuts.
Oolong tea (or blue tea) has been revered for hundreds of years as one of the finest teas available. Partially oxidized, the level of oxidation of an oolong tea is between that of a green tea and a black tea. Its processing is said to be the most complex and is responsible for its equally complex aromatic compounds and flavors. Given the many varieties of oolong, an oolong tea can taste sweet, fruity, floral, earthy, vegetal, roasted, woody all depending on the variety and processing method used.
Black tea (or red tea in China) is made from fully-oxidized leaves that produce a much darker liquor and more intense, robust flavors than other teas. Initially referred to as "burnt tea" when first sold in the United States, black tea is the most popular tea in the West and now being sold scented or flavored. Depending on its variety and origin, a black tea may be bold, smoky, malty, astringent, winey (wine-like), chocolatey, fruity, floral or mellow with different other subtle flavors.
An example of dark tea (or black tea in China) is Puer tea. Named after the town of Pu'erh, the trading post for this tea during imperial China, this tea is known both for its rich history and its curative properties. Puer tea goes through some sort of post-production fermentation process. This tea falls into two distinct categories- Raw (Sheng) Puer and Cooked (Shou) Puer. Raw Puer is naturally aged and matured for several years, and is said to get better if preserved over a long period of time. Cooked Puer, on the other hand, is exposed to an accelerated fermentation speeding up the aging process, and is meant for immediate consumption.
So the next time you drink a cup of tea, make sure you appreciate the artistry of its tea master.
References: Tea Sommelier Handbook, Victoria Bisogno and Jane Pettigrew; The Everything Healthy Tea Book, Babette Donaldson; Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties (Second Edition), Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Descharnais and Hugo Americi