It will only take 14 minutes to read this post!
Sipping a glass of tea as I type this blog post today. Personally I have switched over to tea from coffee over a year ago and I am not looking back. I was just drinking too much coffee per day and it was giving me headaches – since living in China people have been trying to convert me since the beginning (doctors included). With the wide range of tea styles, I have been experimenting with different Chinese teas (both purposely and because I have no other choice of teas in a given situation) in a rather informal process and thought it would be a suitable topic to discuss here on the Written Chinese blog.
One of our amazing Chinese team members, Chamcen Liu, who I also need to give a shoutout to, dug a lot online to build up the research and tips for this article today, thanks so much la!
Overview of Chinese Tea
Tea is probably the most common liquid consumed in the world after water! There are so many styles and to avoid this from becoming a book, we will go through just those most commonly found in China.
It is known to be very healthy, and has been ingrained in the Chinese culture as tea originated from China. The habit and lifestyle of drinking tea in China began in the era of Shennong, back 4,700 years ago. The scientific name of the tea plant is Camellia sinensis (L.) O.Kuntze. The latin word “Sinensis” here means China – so even in the official scientific name it has China in it.
One of the most famous and the earliest Chinese pharmaceutical and medicine books, 神农本草经 (shén nóng běn cǎo jīng) , records “神农尝百草，日遇七十二毒，得荼而解之.” This describes the Emperor Shennong, who is famously known for his teachings on agriculture and herbal drugs, tasting hundreds of varieties of herbs, and was poisoned (but luckily didn’t die) by 72 of them. He drank tea to help detoxify his body. The character, 荼 (chá) was created to represent Chinese tea.
Here is the evolution of the character tea, an image of 荼 becoming 茶:
The character 荼 (tú) was the main name (character) representing tea before the Tang dynasty. But besides tea, this character has many other meanings and pronunciations, including thistle and flowering grass. As drinking tea became more and more popular and widespread, the usage of the character of tea became more and more frequent. People removed one of the 一 strokes in the character 荼 to form a new character 茶, (chá) and began to use 茶 instead of 荼.
Six Styles Of Chinese Tea
Back when I was living in America, I think I only knew about green tea and red tea – and yes, it was normally those packets of instant Lipton tea. Yikes! Here in China I have learned about six main styles of tea:
- Green Tea 绿茶 (lǜ chá)
- Oolong Tea 青茶 (qīng chá)/ 乌龙茶 (wū lóng chá)
- Black Tea 黑茶 (hēi chá)
- Yellow Tea 黄茶 (huáng chá)
- Red Tea 红茶 (hóng chá)
- White Tea 白茶 (bái chá)
– What we in the West called Black tea!
In today’s article we will go through each of them on a high level as well as highlighting some of the most important species within these groups.
How Do You Classify These Styles?
Sure, you wonder, why is green tea called green tea and red tea called red tea? I was thinking it was determined by the color they make when “brewed” with hot water. But Chamcen corrected me and explained that it was due to fermentation percentage. Pretty amazing, Chinese people definitely know their tea!
Here is a chart of the degree of fermentation each style of tea has been through:
- Green tea: 0%
- Yellow tea: 10 – 20%
- White tea: 20 – 30%
- Oolong tea: 30 – 60%
- Red tea: 80 – 90%
- Black tea: 100%
What is fermentation? Yes, I had the same question when typing up today’s article. From what I have researched, it is the process of putting the freshly picked tea leaves and putting them through an oxidation process.
How We Ranked These Teas
So as mentioned before, we are focusing on the top ten teas in this article, else this post would turn into a book! So naturally you may wonder how we selected these top ten. As sales data is not so easily aggregated here for tea sales, we cross referenced a few Chinese sources as well as using our own best judgement within the Written Chinese office.
We will work to updating this article in the future, and your input and comments at the end of this post will help us in understanding the general publics idea as well. Don’t be heartbroken if your favorite tea isn’t here. After reading it, share with us your favorite and let’s have some fun.
Green Tea 绿茶
Green tea, looking at the fermentation chart above, has 0% fermentation, so it is in its pure form. It is also known to be a very healthy tea to drink and has become the most categorized tea from our experience and research. Therefore, being the most popular style of tea, it takes up the top five in our category of top teas in China, here is the quick list:
- Longjing Tea 西湖龙井 (xī hú lóng jǐng)
- Biluochun 洞庭碧螺春 (dòng tíng bì luó chūn)
- Maojian Tea 信阳毛尖 (xìn yáng máo jiān)
- Lu’an Melon Seed Tea 六安瓜片 (lù ān guā piàn)
- Huangshan Maofeng 黄山毛峰 (huáng shān máo fēng)
Now let’s dig into each one.
Longjing Tea 西湖龙井
Origin Location: Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou city, Xihu Longjing village area
Color: green, emerald
Taste: fragrant, pure taste
Preparation: soak in a cup
Full details: Check out the full history of Longjing tea
Biluochun Tea 洞庭碧螺春
Origin Location: Jiangsu Province, Suzhou City, Wuxian Taihu East Dongting mountain and West Dongting mountain area
Shape: slender, curly, with spiral hairs all over the body
Color: silvery, emerald green
Bud tenderness: complete, no yellow leaves and old leaves.
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page of Biluochun Tea
Maojian Tea 信阳毛尖
Origin Location: Henan Province Xinyang City, Xin County, Shangcheng County and Dabie Mountain area.
Shape: thin, round, light, straight, more pekoe
Smell: fragrantly strong bubbles
Taste: mellow taste, sweet fluid, bright and clear soup.
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page of Maojian tea
Lu’an Melon Seed Tea 六安瓜片
Origin Location: Anhui Province, Lu’an City , Dabie Mountain area
Shape: oval shaped like a monolithic, naturally flat, margin slightly at uniform size, without bud tip, tea stems
Color: navy green
Taste: fresh, dense sweet.
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page on Lu’an Melon Seed tea
Huangshan Maofeng Tea 黄山毛峰
Origin Location: Anhui Province Huangshan (Huizhou) area
Overall: slightly curled, green with yellow with golden leaves
After brewing: clean green and yellowish brown
Taste: taste of alcohol sweet aroma such as orchids, deep flavor.
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page of Huangshan Maofeng
Oolong Tea 青茶 (乌龙茶)
After green tea, we have Oolong as the next most popular category of Chinese tea. There are two style of Oolong tea we’ll focus on – Da Hong Pao 大红袍 (dà hóng páo) which is a variety of Wu Yi Yan Tea 武夷岩茶 (wǔ yí yán chá) and Tieguangyin 安溪铁观音 (ān xī tiě guān yīn).
Also, when looking at the fermentation chart, this style tea sits in the middle with a 30 – 60% range.
Da Hong Pao Tea 大红袍茶
Origin Location: Fujian Province Wuyi Mountain area
Shape: curved bar
Color: black with brown or dark green, with sand or green, or brown with green
Preparation: After brewing, brown will become orange to golden, clear and bright
Bouquet: flowers, fruit flavor, like peaches or fragrant orchid fragrance, fragrance, frankincense and so on.
Taste: smooth mellow and cool, with a unique "rock rhyme”.
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page of Da Hong Pao
Tieguanyin Tea 安溪铁观音
This is a popular tea in the West, or at least I have heard many of my English speaking friends mentioning it on various podcasts and blogs I follow.
Origin Location: Fujian Province Anxi area
Overall: curly, fat round knot, heavy Leveling, shape like a dragonfly, spirochetes, frog legs
Color: green sand.
After brewing: golden brown like amber
Smell: a natural fragrance of orchid fragrance
Taste: mellow taste sweet and fresh, commonly known as the “Rhyme.”
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page on Tieguanyin
Black Tea 黑茶
The third of the most popular tea categories is black tea. This has the highest level of fermentation, with a 100% level according to the chart earlier in our post. It contains a very famous style of tea Pu Erh, which we’ll cover below.
Pu Erh Tea 普洱茶
This is a tea I have heard Tim Ferris mention is in his morning launch series, with a mix of green tea. It is known to be a great health tea and a very bold and sweet taste.
Origin Location: Yunnan Province
Color: dark green
Aroma: pure persistence
Taste: full-bodied sweet
After brewing: brown: Green and yellow, crystal.
If ‘cooked’ tea
Aroma: Unique aroma; taste: sweet and mellow.
After brewing brown: thick bright red.
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page of Pu-erh_tea
Yellow Tea 黄茶
The fourth most popular category of tea is yellow tea. This is the second lowest fermentation tea just behind green tea, with a 10 to 20 percent range. There is one style of yellow tea we will focus on today, called Junshan Yinzhen tea.
Junshan Yinzhen Tea 君山银针
Origin Location: Hunan Province, Yueyang City, Dongting Lake, Junshan Mountain
Shape: Wholly made of bud. Tea body covered with hairs, bright color.
Color: orange-yellow inside, wrapped in a layer of pekoe.
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page of Junshan Yinzhen
Red Tea 红茶
Honestly, before today’s article I thought red and black tea were the same! People told me they were interchangeable, but I have discovered that red tea has a slight lower amount of fermentation than black tea, with a 80 to 90% range. We will focus on one of them today, Keemun tea is below.
Keemun Tea 祁门红茶
Origin Location Anhui Province, Qimen County
Shape: tight knot
Color: black bloom
Aroma: fragrance lasting, yet also seemed like a fruity fragrance of orchids, the international specialist Chashi put this fragrance is called "“Keemun fragrance.”"
After brewing: brown: bright flush
Taste: fresh, dense intoxicated thick.
Full details: Check out the Wikipedia page of Keemun
White Tea 白茶.
White tea didn’t make it in our top ten! But we need to give it an honorable mention, Hollie heard it is good for your skin!
Not so famous as the others, it is the third highest level of fermentation of the six, with a 20 – 30% range, and we picked the Bai Hao Yin Zhen Tea 白毫银针 (bái háo yín zhēn chá) style which we’ll cover below.
Bai Hao Yin Zhen Tea 白毫银针
Origin Location: Fujian Province, Fuding city and Nanping city
Shape: needle-like, dense;
color: white as silver.
After brewing Fragrance: fresh; taste: mellow and soft.
The Topic of Chinese Tea Is Massive – Hope This Helps!
Hope you feel more confident on your tea choices – I know I do. Many Chinese people like to discuss this history and background of certain teas – maybe now you can teach them a thing or two when you’re visiting China – or when you meet someone in your hometown.
I have fully embraced this tea culture, I personally feel more healthy and energetic after giving up coffee. What do you think? Tea or coffee? Which is your favorite tea?
A Tip For When Buying Tea!
Now you’ve finished this post, you can go out and buy some tea that sounds good to you! If you live in China, there are often rows upon rows of different teas in the supermarket or specialized tea shop. Now, you can use WCC Dictionary‘s OCR tool that you can use to scan the different teas and translate their names! If you want an extra challenge, you can also hand write the characters into the dictionary. Not sure how to do that? Read Nora’s article on handwriting characters!
Share Your Pictures!
You probably saw our cheesy tea pictures throughout the post, so if you have any tea pictures you’d like to share you can share them with us at WrittenChinese or by using #wcctea!