Understanding True Tea: A Guide to Camellia Sinensis and the Six Categories of Tea

Understanding True Tea: A Guide to Camellia Sinensis and the Six Categories of Tea

What is Tea, exactly? There is a lot of popular misinformation regarding what tea is and how it is categorized. Many recognize “tea” as a category synonymous with “hot, soothing beverage.” However, the term “tea” has specific and well-defined parameters. Here, we’re going to talk about what sets tea apart from other beveragesthe six categories of tea, and the criteria for distinguishing those categories.

True Tea vs. Herbal Tea

In the west, the term "tea" is used to describe many hot beverages, including  ones made from chamomile, ginger, peppermint, rooibos, yerba mate, and yaupon, among many others. However, in the eastern tradition, tea refers specifically to the beverage made using leaves from the plant Camellia sinensis. To distinguish this kind of tea, it can be helpful--and more precise--to call the beverages made from other plants "herbal infusions" or "tisanes". For more on teas, tisanes, and how wine can help us understand the relationship between the two, check out our blog post on the subject.

Tea trees can grow quite large!

Here at Tea Drunk, we are focused on the tradition of historically famous Chinese teas, all of which come from Camellia sinensis.

Some people are surprised to learn that all teas, from a robust black tea to a floral white tea, are made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. **Of course, this doesn’t mean that all tea is the same. There are many factors that give a tea its particular characteristics. These factors can be grouped into three basic categories—varietal, terroir, and processing. You can read more about the role of varietal, terroir, and processing on our tea fundamentals page.

What is Jasmine Tea?

Jasmine tea is a type of post-processed tea. Post-processed tea—like jasmine or earl grey—takes processed (i.e., dried) tea leaves and adds flavoring. In other words, these are teas that are processed, and then have an extra flavoring added (hence the name, post-processed). Jasmine tea, for instance, takes processed green tea and adds scent from jasmine flowers. While post-processed teas fall outside the purview of the kinds of teas that Tea Drunk focuses on, they can have culturally significant historical traditions in their own rights. Such is the case for jasmine tea.

Flavored teas (i.e., teas with added flavors like sugar, cocoa, flower petals, etc.) are a kind of post-processed tea. Like sangria is made up of grape-based wine and non-wine flavorings (e.g.m chopped fruit), flavored tea is made up of Camellia sinensis-based leaves and non-tea flavorings. When a tea is flavored, it also tells you something about the quality of the tea. Just as you wouldn’t make sangria with a fine wine, you wouldn’t make flavored tea using a fine tea.

The Six Categories of Tea

There are six categories of tea: green, yellow, white, wu longred, and black. The basic criterion for distinguishing the different categories of tea is processing method, especially primary processing. Processing method is essentially the things that a tea maker does to the tea leaves from picking until packaging. The chart below summarizes the signature step in producing each category of tea:

There are two parts of processing: primary processing and fining. Primary processing is everything that happens to turn a fresh leaf into a dried leaf, and at the end of primary processing the result is a "rough tea," or mao cha. At this stage, a tea's category is set. Fining consists of the final steps that refine a mao cha into a finished tea (like ti xiang and roasting).

The tea plant is rich in enzymes and compounds (scientists have identified over 750 compounds so far). A tea maker can manipulate these compounds by controlling moisture and heat in the tea leaves during processing. Each of the six categories of tea gets its unique character from the different ways tea makers manipulating these compounds.

Finally, before we discuss each of the kinds of tea, a word on the term 'fermentation'. In the west, we're accustomed to using the term 'fermentation' to mean a process involving microbial metabolism. In the tea world, however, 'fermentation' is a term that describes the enzymatic metabolism of tea.


Green tea’s signature Sha Qing step, making Gua Pian (a famous green tea).

Green Tea

As soon as tea leaves are picked, oxygen kicks off a chain of chemical reactions in which compounds synthesize and form a different flavor profile from fresh leaves. Green tea's processing aims to prevent this process from happening by applying high heat to the leaves in a step known as Sha Qing—the so-called “kill green” step.

Sha Qing uses heat and moisture to facilitate a synthesis of compounds that achieves a flavor profile most similar to the fresh leaves (but with improved complexity and balance). In this sense, green tea is the freshest of all the categories of tea. Flavors in green tea can vary, but a typical flavor profile for green tea can consist of freshness, umami, nuttiness, and vegetal, tannic, or floral notes.

Green tea is the oldest style of tea, and there are four sub-categories of green tea, distinguished by the ways heat is applied to the leaves. These categories are Chao Qing (stir-fry green), Hong Qing (baked green), Shai Qing (sun-dried green), and Zheng Qing (steamed green).

Some famous examples of Chinese green tea include Long JingGua Pian, and Sheng Pu. Learn more about Green Tea with our Green Tea Fundamentals.


tea growing in Huo Shan, a famous yellow tea-producing region

Yellow Tea

Yellow tea is the rarest category of tea, and it takes incredible skill (and very labor-intensive work) to create. Yellow tea is similar to green tea in processing in the beginning—it also has the Sha Qing (kill green) step. However, after the Sha Qing step (but before the leaves are baked dry), yellow tea undergoes a unique type of micro-fermentation, culturally known as "yellowing". This is the signature step that sets yellow tea apart from all other teas.

Yellowing consists of depriving the tea leaves of oxygen and encouraging the moisture inside the tea leaves to kickstart a different kind of fermentation than oxygen would. A yellow tea’s typical flavor profile is warm with deepened floral notes, rounded tannins, and notes of grains. On the higher end, the tea usually has notes of sweet corn and corn silk.

There are three subcategories of yellow tea, determined by picking grade: Huang Ya Cha (yellow bud tea) Huang Xiao Cha (yellow small tea) and Huang Da Cha (yellow big tea). Each subcategory also employs a slightly different technique for yellowing.

A famous example of Chinese yellow tea is Huo Shan Huang Ya. Learn more about Yellow Tea with our Yellow Tea Fundamentals.


White tea sun drying

White Tea

A common misunderstanding about white tea is that it is delicate. In fact, white tea is quite hearty!

White tea’s signature processing step is Wei Diao, a long wilting process that allows light fermentation in the leaves. Traditionally, white tea is sun dried. During sun drying, a tea maker periodically moves and angles the drying tea to control the tea’s exposure to sunlight and wind. In strategically re-positioning the tea, the tea maker controls the rate at which the leaves dry and the thoroughness of the tea’s fermentation.

White tea involves the fewest processing steps of all the categories of tea. In this sense, it is the least processed. However, that doesn't mean that nothing happens to white tea between picking and packaging. Nor does it mean that white tea-making consists of picking leaves and then just letting them sit; there is great skill involved in making a high-quality white tea.

A white tea’s typical flavor profile consists of a warm, sun-dried cotton quality, with smooth tannins, a sweet undertone, and upfront floral notes.

There are four picking grades of white tea: Bai Hao Yin Zhen (or Silver Needles; buds only, the highest picking grade), Bai Mu Dan (or White Peony; one bud and two leaves, the second-highest picking grade), Gong Mei (a skinny bud and leaves, lower quality than Bai Mu Dan), and Shou Mei (mostly leaves and skinny or no buds; the lowest picking grade for white tea).

Some famous examples of Chinese white teas include Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan. Learn more about White Tea with our White Tea Fundamentals.


Tea growing in the dramatic landscape of Wu Yi Shan, famous for its Yan Cha (cliff tea) Wu Long.

Wu Long Tea

First, a note on the name of this category of tea. In Chinese, the name 'Wu Long' means “black dragon,” and comes from a myth from the She people (you can read more about that myth in this blog post). Wu Long tea denotes the same thing as “oolong” tea. The term ‘oolong’ developed in commerce as a kind of transliteration of wu long to be easier for westerners. However, we prefer "Wu Long" because it is the standard spelling according to the pin yin system and how Chinese people understand it.

The world of Wu Longs is diverse and vast. It is the most dynamic category of tea, and also the most aromatic. Wu Longs are the divas of the tea world. In its processing, a Wu Long’s leaves undergo some degree of fermentation (different amounts depending on the specific regional tradition of wu long) before a kill green step, and eventually roasting. While certain more modern trends in Wu Longs forego roasting (i.e., so-called “jade” Wu Longs, like modern trends in processing Tie Guan Yin), all traditional Wu Longs are roasted.

The signature processing method in Wu Long making is Yao Qing (shaking green) or Zou Shui (water traveling). This step facilitates the movement of water from the stems into the leaves, carrying extra compounds and improving the flavor profile of the Wu Long. Different Wu Long-producing regions accomplish this step with different techniques, each with various terms (for example, Zuo Qing (making green), Zhuang Qing (bumping green), and Lang Qing (waving green)).

Although Wu Longs vary greatly from one to the next, a typical Wu Long flavor profile is roasted with pronounced floral notes, a high aroma, targeted tannins, and a long aftertaste.

Chinese Wu Longs can be split into three basic categories: Min Bei (i.e., Yan Cha), Min Nan (i.e., Tie Guan Yin, aka Iron Goddess of Mercy), and Chao Shan (i.e., Dan Cong). Generally speaking, Min Bei Wu Longs have moderate fermentation and a heavy roast. Min Nan Wu Longs have moderate fermentation and a medium roast. Chao Shan Wu Longs have heavy fermentation and a medium roast.

Wu Longs are traditionally made with a single varietal of tea, and are named after that varietal. Some popular varietals of Chinese Wu Longs include Bai YeRou Gui, and Huang Guan Yin. Learn more about Wu Long teas at our Tea Fundamentals pages for Min BeiMin Nan, and Chao Shan Wu Longs, respectively.


Qi Men Hong Cha, a famous red tea


Sweet, smooth, and the most commonly produced tea in the world--In the west, it’s commonly called black tea, but in China this category is called red tea (Hong Cha). In China, "black" tea denotes an entirely different category of teas, which we’ll discuss below.

By definition, red teas are fully fermented. Fa Jiao, or fermentation, is its signature processing step. With fully fermented leaves, red teas produce natural sugars in their leaves. A red tea’s flavor profile consists of a smooth body, with notes of flowers and honey. Red teas are also fully oxidized, resulting in their dark-colored dried leaves and crimson-colored liquor.

Red tea has a fascinating and tumultuous geopolitical past, which you can read more about at our Red Tea Fundamentals page. Some famous examples of chinese red tea include Qi Men Hong Cha (aka "Keemun"), Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (aka "Lapsang Souchong"), and Dian Hong (Yun Nan Red/Yun Nan Black).

Dried leaves of Shou Pu, a black tea


Finally, black tea. And we’re not talking about English Breakfast. Unlike the other five categories of tea, Chinese black tea undergoes microbial metabolism. As a reminder, while in the west we often associate fermentation with microbial metabolism, in the tea world fermentation means enzymatic metabolism. As a result, we call black tea is a ”post-fermented” tea.

Dry leaves from any of the other five categories of tea can become raw material for making black tea. In making black tea, we add heat and moisture to already dried leaves to encourage the development of microbes in the tea to facilitate fermentation. The leaves are often piled to keep heat and moisture in.

This piling step, Wo Dui, is the signature step in making black tea, and gives black tea its earthy flavor. Once this fermentation has been achieved, the tea is most often pressed into a shape (like a cake, bowl, tuo, brick, basket, or cylinder).

Black tea is China's leading tea for exportation. Historically, the tradition of pressing tea arose from a practical need for transport; people were carrying tea in large quantities on horseback (or even humans’ backs) over treacherous terrain, and pressed tea is much easier to transport than bulky (and fragile) loose dried tea leaves.

A popular example of Chinese black tea is Shou Pu.

What About Pu Er?!

No tea has received as much attention or controversy as Pu Er since the last decade. Saying "I drink Pu Er" is the "rite of passage" tagline to tea snobbery. Pu Er, a historical tea that even few Chinese have heard of before the 1990s, is on its way to becoming one of China's finest teas. There are two types: Sheng Pu (Raw Pu Er) and Shou Pu (Cooked Pu Er).

There is a common misconception that Pu Er is its own category of tea. Technically, Sheng Pu is a sun dried green tea, and Shou Pu is a black tea. Nevertheless, Pu Er is a vast and significant world of tea, and you can learn more about it at our Pu Er Fundamentals page.

Ready to Learn More?

This has been a cursory introduction to the categories of Chinese teas, and we have barely scratched the surface! To dive deeper, visit our collection of educational resources, our tea term glossary, or enroll in one of our Tea Drunk Academy courses.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.