There are six main types of tea – white, green, oolong, black, scented, and compressed. Black tea as it is known in the West is called hong cha or “red tea” in China. All come from the same tea plant but each is processed differently.
White tea comes from the downy buds and young leaves of the tea plant. The buds are plucked shortly before they have fully opened and are steamed and dried almost immediately after harvesting. Sometimes they are allowed to wither for a short period of time. The fuzz covering the buds turn silvery when dried, hence the name “silver needles” for the top grade of white teas.
Green tea is considered as a non-fermented tea. The freshly picked leaves may or may not be withered. They are steamed or roasted to stop any fermentation. The softened leaves are then rolled and dried (roasted) alternately until the leaves turn a dull yellow-green color. No further processing is required.
Oolong is a semi-fermented tea. Leaves are picked when they reach their peak and are immediately wilted in direct sunlight. They are then shaken in bamboo baskets to lightly bruise the edges of the leaves and spread out to oxidize or ferment. This may be done alternately until the leaves turn slightly yellow and the edges turn a reddish color. The fermentation is then halted by firing and drying.
The leaves are spread out for several hours to be wilted until they are limp enough to be rolled without breaking. The next step is rolling to bruise the leaves and to release the chemicals within for oxidation. After rolling, the lump of leaves are separated and spread out in a cool place to ferment. During this process the leaves turn reddish. Finally, the leaves are fired and dried to stop them from decomposing.
Scented teas can be green, oolong, or black teas. Flavorings like flower petals and essential oils are mixed with the processed leaves before packing.
Compressed tea may be made using whole or ground tea leaves. The tea leaves are first steamed and then compressed into cakes, bricks, or other shapes (usually balls or nest shape) using hydraulic presses. They are then left to dry in storage.