Types of Tea: A Guide to Different Tea Varieties

Tea is one of the most widely consumed drinks in the UK, but how much do you know about your favourite blend?

With so many different varieties available, from bold and rich black teas to floral and fruity herbal blends, there's a tea out there to suit any taste. To help you work out which drink is right for you and teach you more about your favourite go-to brew, we'll be looking at all the different types of tea, including the history, processing, and flavour profiles of each variety.

So, brew a pot of your favourite tea, grab a teacup or mug, and get comfortable, as we answer your questions about the different tea varieties, including:

What is tea?

All tea starts off as the same green plant called Camellia sinensis. Originally, tea was only grown in China, before other countries such as Japan, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya all started growing their own varieties. Today, tea is grown all around the world including in South Korea, Turkey, and the USA.

You might notice that there are different types of tea, including black, oolong , green, white, yellow, and pu-erh tea. But, if they all come from the same tea plant, what is the difference between them?

Once the tea leaves have been picked, they go through four different processes. The way these processes are carried out determines what kind of tea they're going to become:

Withering: Just after being harvested, the leaves are laid out on a tray or wire rack while air is gently passed over them to reduce their water content. This can take up to 17 hours and ensures they will be flexible enough for the next stage.

Rolling: This is when the leaves are rolled horizontally to create long, thin strips. This releases some of the enzymes and oils in the leaves, enhancing their flavour.

Oxidation: The tea is laid back out on a tray where the enzymes in the leaves react with the oxygen in the air. This is the step where the leaves start to darken in colour and determines whether a tea will be black, green, oolong, or white. The longer the tea is left to oxidise, the darker the colour and deeper the flavour.

Drying or firing: Once the leaves reach the perfect colour for each variety, the oxidation process is stopped, and the flavour and colour are 'locked in' as the tea is passed through hot air driers in a process known as drying or firing.

What is black tea?

Black tea is made from leaves that have been fully oxidised to produce a dark drink with a rich, malty flavour. Because black tea is allowed to oxidise for longer, it typically has the highest caffeine content of all the teas, although this is still less than a cup of coffee.

When black leaves are brewed, they produce a deep amber tea that pairs well with milk.

Black tea is the most common type of tea and is available as individual regional varieties as well blends (made from a mixture of tea leaves grown across the world). The most common types of black tea are:

        • Assam: Grown in the Assam region of India, Assam tea has a rich, malty taste. This tea provides the base for most blends due to its strong flavour.
        • Ceylon: Grown in Sri Lanka, Ceylon tea has a medium-bodied, slightly citrusy flavour.
        • Kenyan: After China and India, Kenya is the third largest tea producer, and its tea is hailed as some of the best in the world. Kenyan tea creates a characteristic amber brew that is full-bodied and robust.
        • Darjeeling: This tea is grown in Darjeeling, India, and is often regarded as the 'champagne of teas' due to its soft grape flavour and high quality. The time of year tea plants are harvested is called the flush and takes into account weather patterns and growth rates to determine when the optimum time is for picking. Darjeeling is harvested in four flushes (or four times a year) with each one creating a new flavour of tea.
          • First flush Darjeeling is harvested between February and May and is often the freshest and most fragrant. This is also the most delicate of the flushes and is highly regarded by tea connoisseurs.
          • Second flush Darjeeling is harvested between May and June and has a deeper, richer flavour. This is when the wine-like, muscatel taste comes to the forefront. Some tea connoisseurs prefer the more well-rounded flavour of the second flush.
          • Third flush Darjeeling tea, sometimes called the monsoon flush, is harvested between July and September. The wet weather makes the plants grow quickly, which results in a more subtly flavoured brew.
          • Fourth flush Darjeeling, called the autumn flush, is harvested between October and November. This tea has a deeper flavour with hints of spice and smokiness.
        • Keemun: Grown in the Anhui province of China, this tea is one of the most famous of Chinese teas and has a mellow, fruity flavour.
        • Lapsang Souchong: Produced in the Wuyi Mountains of the Fujian province of China, this tea is dried over a fire, which gives it its characteristic smoky flavour.
        • Yunnan: Grown in the Yunnan province of China, Yunnan tea is known for its unique golden tips, which are leaf buds mixed in with the black tea leaves. This tea has a rich, smooth, and well-balanced flavour.
        • English, Scottish, and Irish Breakfast: These are typical blends created from teas grown around the world. Most breakfast teas contain a combination of Assam, Ceylon, and Kenyan tea leaves. They usually have a mild taste suitable for breakfast-time, with Scottish and Irish teas having a slightly stronger flavour compared to English breakfast tea.
        • Earl Grey: This flavoured tea has a base of Assam or Darjeeling and is infused with bergamot oil. Countries around the world have created their own varieties of Earl Grey, including French Earl Grey (which has the addition of flowers such as rose and hibiscus) and Russian Earl Grey (which includes lemongrass).

What is green tea?

Green tea undergoes a short oxidation process and is heated not long after harvesting to keep its green colour. As this tea is allowed to oxidise slightly, it still contains caffeine, although not as much as black tea. When brewed, green tea is usually green, yellow, or a very light brown. The flavour profile of green tea can depend on how it is processed.

Fired green tea is a Chinese method where the leaves are heated in a pan or basket. This can give the tea a roasted, grassy taste.

Steamed green tea is a Japanese method of heating where the leaves are treated with steam. This can give the tea more of a sweet seaweed flavour.

When green tea is made with boiled water, it can cause an astringent bitter taste. To avoid this and get the best flavour from green tea, you should use water that's just below boiling point (around 80°C).

Just like black tea, green tea comes in different varieties depending on how the leaves are shaped and prepared, with the most common types being sencha (where the leaves are formed into long strands), gunpowder (where the leaves are fired and tossed in a figure of eight formation before being shaped into pellets), and matcha (where the green tea leaves are ground into a fine powder).

Some green teas are mixed with different herbs, flowers, and fruits to create unique flavours. However, some flavoured green teas are made with artificial flavourings.

What is oolong tea?

Oolong tea is partially oxidised and can be anywhere from a dark oolong tea (which is closer to black tea) or a light oolong (which is similar to green tea) depending on how long it is oxidised for. Anything from 8–85% oxidation can be considered oolong. Because the oxidation times for oolong vary, the flavour profile can range from deep and full-bodied to light and floral.

Oolong begins its process the same way as black tea but, once the tea maker has decided when to finish the oxidation process, the leaves are fired then rolled and dried a second time to give the leaves their characteristically twisted or balled-up shape. This is a precise process that can take up to several days to carry out.

Oolong teas usually contain various levels of caffeine according to how long the tea has been oxidised for. Darker teas with longer oxidisation times generally have a higher caffeine content than lighter oolong teas with a shorter oxidisation time.

What is white tea?

White tea is made from the young buds and leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant that are covered in small white hairs. Straight after harvesting, the young, unfurled leaves aren't rolled but are immediately fired to minimise oxidation, giving white tea one of the most light and delicate flavours out of all the tea varieties. When brewed, white tea produces a light-yellow drink.

Because it's the least processed tea with the shortest oxidation time, white tea has the lowest caffeine content of all the teas.

What is yellow tea?

Yellow tea undergoes a similar process to green tea but has an additional step to lock in its distinctive yellow colour. After being withered, rolled, and going through a quick oxidation process, the leaves are dried using steam instead of hot air. This turns the tea yellow and gives it a slightly lighter, more mellow taste than green tea.

What is pu-erh tea?

Pu-erh (also called pu'er) is a type of fermented tea that's mainly grown and produced in the Yunnan Province of China, either from cultivated or wild tea plants. The most highly prized pu-erh teas are made from the leaves of old, wild trees of the Camellia sinensis grown without any human intervention. These trees can range from 500 to 1,000 years old.

Once processed, the leaves are either pressed into small, cake-like rounds or left loose. They're then placed in an area of high humidity for several years to age and develop a more mature flavour.

Herbal teas

The term herbal tea (often called tisane) describes any tea that is not made from Camellia sinensis.  This includes drinks made from various herbs, fruits, flowers, roots, and spices. These drinks are not 'true teas' as they're not made from the tea plant. Most herbal teas are naturally caffeine-free.

Some herbal teas are made from a mixture of different herbs, flowers, fruits, roots, and spices to create unique blends. Black tea can also be combined with herbs and spices to make flavoured teas.

Leaf tea

Leaf teas are drinks made from the dried leaves of various non-tea plants. The most common types of leaf tea include peppermint, lemongrass, Yerba Mate (made from the leaves of holly trees), and rooibos (made from the rooibos plant grown only in South Africa).

Although leaf teas aren’t made from tea plants, some varieties can still contain caffeine, such as Yerba Mate. Because of this, it's always wise to check with the manufacturer if you're looking for a decaf tea.

Flower teas

Flower teas are drinks that are made from brewing dried flowers in hot water. These teas are known for their calming properties and soothing aromas. The most common flower teas include chamomile, lavender, jasmine, and hibiscus.

On their own, these teas have a soft floral flavour that is neither sweet nor bitter. Some think that flower teas have a slightly fruity taste. For example, chamomile tea is described as having a light apple flavour with notes of honey. Because of this, many people choose to add small amounts of fruit and honey to their floral teas to bring out the flavours.

Fruit teas

Fruit teas are made from small pieces of dried fruit and are naturally sweet without being overpowering. This makes them great for iced teas although they can also be prepared hot.

Because they're made from fruit, these teas are rich in antioxidants and vitamins such as vitamin C. They're also naturally caffeine-free.

Often, fruit teas are made from a mixture of different fruits, or a blend of fruits, spices, flowers, or leaves. The most common fruit teas include lemon and ginger, strawberry and raspberry, and rosehip.

Spice and root teas

Some teas include various spices and roots, such as ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, liquorice, or cloves. These spices are usually blended together to make warming brews such as chai tea (which is a combination of cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and ginger), but can also be brewed into a tea on their own. 

In some cases, these spices can also be blended with other leafy, floral, or fruity teas, as well as some black tea.

Blends and flavoured teas

Different teas are often combined with other types of tea to create unique tastes. This will create either a blend or a flavoured tea, but the two are very different.

Tea blends: The growing region of each tea can affect its flavour due to factors such as water, sunlight, and soil quality. Tea blends are created when tea leaves from different regions are combined together, often to extract the very best flavour from each variety. This is usually only done with black tea and the most common examples are breakfast teas (such as English, Scottish, and Irish breakfast tea).

Flavoured teas: Flavoured teas are created by adding extra flavourings such as essential oils and artificial flavourings, as well as dried flowers, herbs, fruits, and spices. For example, Earl Grey is made by combining black tea with oil from the rind of bergamot. Jasmine tea usually has green, white, or black tea as a base, mixed with the small flowers of the jasmine plant.

Loose leaf tea vs teabags

Most types of tea usually come in loose leaf or tea bag form and they both produce a different flavour and quality of drink.

Loose leaf

Usually, loose leaf produces a better tea experience as the tea leaves are often larger, fresher, and more whole than those used in tea bags. This means they can also withstand multiple infusions, and the taste could improve after each brew as the different flavours and aromas are released.

Loose leaves also allow for a much more special tea experience, as they're often brewed in a teapot before being strained and served in a teacup and saucer.

Our Burleigh teapots have been designed for the perfect pour. Each one contains a small piece of clay, called a grid, in the spout. This will allow your tea to pass more evenly through the spout, which stops it from dripping and prevents your teapot from becoming blocked up with tea leaves.

Tea bags

Tea bags first came about in 1904, but became popular in 1908 when Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant from New York, would deliver his tea across the world in small porous silk pouches. It was intended for the tea to be removed from the bag before brewing, but many consumers noticed that it was much more convenient to leave the tea in the bag and let it infuse.

Today, tea bags are made from filter paper or plastic and contain smaller tea leaves (called fannings) left over after the large leaves are collected for loose leaf varieties. The smaller, broken leaves used for tea bags often result in a milder flavour as the leaves have lost some of their oils.

Some manufacturers have started adding larger, higher-quality leaves to their tea bags. These bags are often made to be bigger than traditional versions, which allows the leaves space to expand as they infuse. This provides a much deeper and more flavoursome brew than the taste usually achieved by traditional tea bags.

Tea bags can be brewed directly into your teacup, mug, or teapot, reducing the need for a strainer or tea infuser. Compared to loose leaf teas, tea bags are the most convenient method of making tea and are ideal for your everyday cup.

With so many different varieties and flavour profiles, there's a tea out there for any taste. Whether you're trying to decide which tea would be right for you, or you just want to know more about your favourite blend, this guide should have given you everything you need to know about the types of tea available.

If you're looking for beautiful teaware to enjoy your favourite blend in, you might be interested in our teacups and saucers, mugs, teapots, and tea sets that will make every brew feel special. We also have a range of sugar bowls and milk jugs and cake stands that would make a lovely addition to your afternoon tea table.

All Burleigh pottery has been handcrafted and printed at our home in Middleport, Stoke-on-Trent, England. It takes many pairs of hands to create a single piece of Burleighware which is designed to last and be treasured.

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