Friday, October 14, 2011

A primer on the varieties of tea

Regular readers of this blog will know that sometimes I choose to write on topics of healthy living, not just medicine or healthcare, and so it’s in continuing in that tradition that I’ve chosen to write yet again on one of my favorite topics: tea.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry on the health benefits of green tea, and recently a friend wrote to me asking to blog further on the topic, focusing instead on the varieties of tea out there. As I’m a regular tea drinker and an avid explorer of the world of tea, I was more than happy to oblige. So here they are, the most common types of tea:

Green tea – The variety of tea best known the West for its health benefits, green tea is made from tea leaves that undergo little to no oxidation during processing. Because it isn’t allowed to oxidize, green tea is generally higher in antioxidants and theanine than other varieties (if any of these words are unfamiliar, check out my older post). China, the original home of tea, produces some excellent green teas, including Dragon Well, Gunpowder, Jade Tip and others. Japan as well produces excellent green teas, and in some ways green tea is the dominant tea of Japan, with varieties and processing having been explored more extensively than they were in China. Well-known Japanese varieties include Sencha, Bancha, Kukicha, Genmaicha, Hojicha, and Matcha. The green teas of Japan are varied, and include some that have light, delicate flavors that are highly dependant on proper brewing, and others which are heartier and more full-bodied. As with wine, the flavors of varietals are complex and hard to cast in simple terms. As a tremendous fan of green tea and its health benefits, I recommend exploring the varieties and finding yourself a trusty reliable that you can drink daily – there are thousands of types of there, so I assure you that you’ll find a perfect fit.

White tea – The difference between white tea and green tea is one of timing. Both are processed soon after picking so that oxidation is minimal, but white tea is picked very early in the season, typically early spring. It is picked so early, in fact, that most white teas are comprised largely of tea buds, the freshly-sprouted tea leaves that have not fully unfurled yet. Like green tea, white tea is also high in antioxidants and theanine, and provides significant health benefits. White teas are also grown almost exclusively in China, and even more specifically in the Fujian province, which is famous for the Silver Needle and White Peony varieties. White tea has a flavor profile similar to green tea, though generally is sweeter. Silver Needle is known for having a sweet but subtle flavor, while White Peony is sweet but stronger, having a nutty, woody flavor. White tea, especially White Peony is a great everyday drinking tea that pairs well with meals.

Oolong tea – Where to start with oolong tea? Oolong tea is not very well-known in the West, although it’s actually consumed quite frequently – if you ask for hot tea at a Chinese restaurant, you’ll most frequently been given a type of oolong. Though I’m sure I’ll hear people raise objections, oolong is more or less the dominant tea type in China and Taiwan. That said, oolong’s diversity makes it almost impossible to classify. Oolong teas are oxidized (‘fermented’) for a period of time longer than green tea but shorter than black tea – this allows for a great variation in preparation type and flavor. Some oolong teas, like the high mountain oolong Alishan and Pouchong teas of Taiwan, are very floral (lilac is a common descriptor) and produce yellow/green teas. Others, like the well-known Ti Kuan Yin (‘Iron Goddess of Mercy’) or Wuyi varieties have a much roastier, nuttier, deeper flavor, and produce a darker cup of tea. And then there are some that defy the simple light-heavy dichotomy, and produce cups that are virtually indistinguishable from a mix of honey and nectar – some Dan cong varieties are well known for their ability to do this. Because of this tremendous variation, each variety of oolong should be approached individually – they are all unique and are truly the connoisseur’s tea.

Black tea – Known in China as ‘red’ tea, black tea is the most common tea type in the West. Despite how ubiquitous it is here in the West, I am continually surprised to find how delicious a cup of high quality black tea is when compared to the average cup of Lipton. Black tea is defined by the amount of oxidation/fermentation that the tea is put through as part of the processing (more than either green tea or oolong) – as a result of this fermentation, the antioxidant content is lower than green tea, and the caffeine content by weight is higher. Here as well, China produces excellent varieties, though India also produces high quality black teas, as black tea is traditionally the most common type of tea in India. A number of varietals are grown in China, but the best known are Keemun, which has a semi-sweet, pine-like flavor, and Yunnan, known for a malty, slightly spicy flavor. India produces varietals in Assam, which tend to be robustly-flavored, as well as Darjeeling, which are more delicate in flavor. Black tea also has a long tradition of flavoring, with well known types such as spiced Masala Chai, bergamot-scented Earl Grey, and smoked Lapsang Souchong. When exploring the world of tea varietals, don’t forget to check out black tea – it may not seem as exotic or interesting as oolong or white tea, but there are some true gems in this category.

Pu-erh tea – Last but not least, Pu-erh. Without a doubt the least-known variety of tea in the West, Pu-erh is probably best described as undergoing a fermentation and aging process after their initial processing. Pu-erh is grown exclusively in China, and mainly in Yunnan province. There are some ‘green’ Pu-erh varieties out there, but the majority are more similar to black tea, producing a cup of tea that is very dark, looking almost like coffee, and having an earthy, molasses-like, smooth but intense flavor. In order to be stored, pu-erh is frequently pressed into blocks of a variety of shapes – most commonly, these are bowls, but pu-erh can be pressed into discs, bricks, melons or mushrooms, and many of the blocks will have text pressed into to identify their origin. To the Western palate, these are wholly unique, almost completely unlike all other types of tea, and need to be tried to be appreciated. Be bold and give them a shot.

So that’s all for today. In the future, I’ll probably write further about the differences within each category, differences dictated by growing region, preparation, etc., but for now, this ought to help you on your way to becoming a true tea connoisseur. As always, health isn’t just about how many healthy things you do, it’s about how you do them, and enjoying them as you do it. Drinking tea is phenomenally healthy from a biochemical point of view, but also an art that enriches the lives of millions the world over.