WildChina > WildChina > Tea: A Brief Introduction by Andrew Stein of Project Releaf

This is the second post by guest blogger Andrew Stein.

“Not for all the tea in China,” once uttered an anonymous soul eons ago. What this person meant was, “I wouldn’t do that for all the money in the world.” At that time, likely between the 18th and 19th centuries, tea translated directly into money and the quantity of tea that China—the world’s leading producer—contained within its large borders was as unfathomable as all the word’s money. So, how do we begin to understand an entity as diverse, massive, and unimaginable as China’s tea?

tea in China
Dark Green Longjing Tea Bushes

All Chinese tea, in the traditional sense of the word, comes from the same plant species: camellia sinensis. This plant grows in tropical and subtropical climates, requires a significant amount of rainfall, and often thrives in high elevations. Although all tea belongs to the camellia sinensis species, this does not mean that all tea plants are identical. Tea plants vary as much as apples; they often produce dissimilar flavors like a “granny smith” and a “golden delicious.” A tea plant’s climate and setting strongly affect its tea leaves. This sensitive plant responds differently to various soils, elevations, weather conditions, and air qualities.

The methods used to process different teas vary considerably and influence the final product as much as the plant itself. Once tea leaves are picked, they begin to oxidize. Oxidization is the process by which tea leaves are exposed to oxygen after being picked, stimulating the release of certain enzymes and tannins and turning the leaf brown or black. Oxidization also occurs when we bite into an apple and it turns brown.

Different types of tea oxidize for varying lengths of time during what is often referred to as the “withering stage.” In order to stop the oxidation process, the leaves must be subjected to heat, either roasting (Chinese style) or steaming (Japanese style). After the leaves are fired, they may pass through any number of shaping, drying, and curing methods.

In China there are six primary types of tea: white tea (白茶-báichá), green tea (绿茶-lǜchá), yellow tea (黄茶-huángchá), oolong tea (乌龙茶-wūlóngchá), black tea (红茶-hóngchá), and pu’er tea (普洱茶-pǔ’ěrchá).

White tea and green tea are the least oxidized of all teas and are frequently processed in the same way. Many tea producing operations that manufacture green tea also manufacture white, and they often employ the same techniques for both teas. The only difference between many white and green teas is the plant that they come from.
Yellow tea is also processed in an almost identical fashion to green tea. It is generally subjected to a slower drying process, which produces a different fragrance and flavor than green tea.

Oolong tea is created by a time-heavy process that is widely believed to require the highest skill of all Chinese teas. It is a cross between green and black tea; it isn’t fully oxidized like black tea, but it’s not under-oxidized like white, green, and yellow teas either. Oolong teas vary in color, shape, fragrance, and flavor.

Black tea is fully oxidized and is frequently blended with different herbs and flowers.

Pu’er tea is a heavily fermented tea that comes in many different shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. Pu’er tea grows better with age, just like fine wine. At one point, several years ago, some cakes of pu’er tea were valued at six times that of gold!

In addition to the six main types of tea derived from camellia sinensis, China is home to a wide range of flower teas such as: jasmine, chrysanthemum, and rose petal. Within each type of tea exists a world of mysterious intricacies; the only way to unravel them is to explore these different teas yourself!


Project Releaf was founded and is run by Andrew Stein. Funded by a J William Fulbright Research Grant, Andrew will take us on a journey through some of China’s most remote and ancient tea localities. Seeking to better understand the balance between China’s massive economic growth and its rapid environmental deterioration, he will analyze these effects of China’s swift modernization through the lens of China’s deeply-rooted tea industry.

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