Six Types of Tea: Flavors, Processing, and Examples

Reading time: 6 minutes 

One of the frequently asked questions I get as a tea sommelier is around the type of teas. 

Colloquially, we refer to most hot beverages with herbal and/or fruit infusions as tea (i.e. honey lemon tea, ginger tea), when in fact these infusions should be called tisanes. 

So many tea drinkers are surprised during our tea tastings when I reveal the fact that all teas come from the same plant. 

Then, what differentiates different types of teas? Let's dive-in.

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What is Tea? What about Tisanes?

All teas come from the same tea plant called Camellia sinensis. And it's the processing of the tea leaves, not the type of plant, that determines the six types of teas:

  • White tea
  • Green tea
  • Yellow tea
  • Oolong tea
  • Black tea
  • Dark tea (or post-fermented tea)

Then, what about rooibos, yerba mate, chamomiles, and other "teas"? They certainly look like they are from different plants.

Indeed, they are from different plants. But they are technically tisanes, a French word for herbal infusion, not "tea.”

The difference between tea vs. tisane is that simple. In fact, in Europe and many other countries, the word "tea" is legally regulated to only apply to tea made from Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.

Now that we clarified the definition of tea, let's learn about what makes the six types of teas different from another.

Six types of teas from Camellia sinensis

Given that all teas come from the same tea plant, it's how farmers and producers process the tea leaves that differentiate the types of teas.

Different processing methods lead to different levels of oxidation and fermentation, and hence different types of tea

This means that one tea garden, no matter where it is located around the world, can produce all six types of teas if the makers have the craftsmanship and the skill to do so.

So let's look at the different processing methods that impact different flavor profiles of tea and a few examples of each type of tea.

Mansa Handcrafted Aged Tea | Pearl White - aged white tea collection

1. White Tea

White tea is the least processed of all teas. Most white teas are simply plucked and withered (indoors and outdoors) for days although some white teas go through an additional drying phase at low temperatures. 

This is why many companies market white tea as having high levels of antioxidants, present in fresh tea leaves.

Although the process seems so simple, it is difficult to make because it is simple. The leaves have to be handled with additional care to ensure they are not bruised throughout the whole process. 

Based on the type of tea leaves used for the tea, the white teas are named as follows:

White teas range from fruity to floral to sweet honey notes.  

2. Green Tea

Green tea is an incredibly popular choice amongst both casual and more enthusiastic tea drinkers in the United States, likely due to numerous media outlets touting its health benefits.

As green tea is heated after a short withering step to prevent oxidation, it contains high levels of antioxidants, polyphenols, and chlorophyll.

Afterward, the leaves are rolled or pressed to develop the flavor.

Depending on the specific processing techniques and the location of harvest, the flavors can range from marine and vegetal to more toasty and smoky.

Different regions have their tradition of shaping their tea, and the names of the green teas reflect the shape. A few examples are

  • Taiping Monkey King (Taiping Houkui): leaves rolled between wire meshes to create flat leaves
  • Dragon Well (Long Jing): buds pressed into flat needles
  • Green Snail Spring (Bi Lo Chun): leaves rolled between the palms

The famous raw pu-erh also starts as green tea as it's initially processed as green tea. If you are curious about exactly how green tea is different from raw pu-erh tea, you can read more here.

Mansa Handcrafted Aged Tea | Is raw pu-erh the same as green tea? If not, how are they different?

3. Yellow Tea

While less common than other teas, the manufacturing process used to develop yellow tea is incredibly similar to the steps taken for green tea.

In addition to most of the processing steps used to make green tea, yellow tea undergoes wrapping (also called heaping or yellowing), which causes non-enzymatic oxidation (previously thought of as microbial fermentation).

This wrapping step brings out more mellow flavor in tea and less astringent and vegetal notes associated with green tea.

4. Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is frequently known as the partially oxidized tea, sitting between green tea and black tea in terms of oxidation.

That is because it goes through a bit of bruising of the leaves to promote oxidation before heat is applied. 

This is also why oolong is much darker in color than green tea. More oxidation means darker in color. This is also why oolong teas higher in oxidation are darker in color than those lower in oxidation. 

Oolong tea is typically categorized by its oxidation and roasting levels as follows:

  • Bao Zhong10-18% oxidized
  • Jade or Balled Oolongs: 20-30% oxidized
  • Dark Oolongs: 40-60%+ oxidized

Some oolongs, such as Baked Oolongs, are also roasted at the end for an additional layer of flavor, such as fruity, floral, or toasty notes.

Mansa Handcrafted Aged Tea | Is raw pu-erh the same as green tea? If not, how are they different?

5. Black Tea

Black tea is the most consumed tea across the world; in the U.S., 86% of the tea enjoyed throughout 2017 was black tea.

Unlike partially oxidized oolong tea, black tea is fully oxidized after a long period of withering. Tea leaves are rolled or cut to expedite the oxidation process. 

Because black tea is fully oxidized, it does not go through a separate heating stage to stop the oxidation and it goes straight to the drying step.

Also, the oxidation process reduces the bitterness and increase the sweetness in tea.

A few examples of black teas are:

  • Assam Black: malty black tea from Assam, India
  • Darjeeling Black: more delicate black tea from Darjeeling, India
  • Keemun Black: sweet and fruity black tea from Anhui, China
  • Lapsang Souchong: smoky black tea from Fujian, China

6. Dark Tea (or Post-Fermented Tea)

Many assume that “dark” tea and “black” tea are the same, but there is a world of difference separating these two categories.

Darks teas are actually closer to green teas in that they are processed similar to green teas in the beginning. Then, they go through a microbial fermentation process and are aged for years to come.

A few examples of dark teas can be categorized based on their location and type of processing the tea leaves go through:

  • Raw Pu-erh: Naturally fermented tea from Yunnan Province, China
  • Ripe Pu-erh: Fully fermented tea from Yunnan Province, China
  • Golden Flower Brick Tea (Jin Hua Fu Cha): Fully fermented tea from Hunan Province, China

Fermentation is sometimes stopped after only a few months, but many teas benefit from years and years of microbial activity.

If you'd like to learn more about the different types of pu-erh tea, you can read more here.  

This post is part of our Aged Tea 101 series. Sign up to get the full series!

Raw Pu-erh is a naturally aged green tea

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