From Oolong to Matcha to Pu-erh, the world of tea can be daunting. Here's how to navigate all the different types of tea out there if you're just starting.

By Max Falkowitz
June 23, 2021
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Black tea in a clear cup with saucer
Credit: Getty Images

Do you like tea? Of course you do. Even if it's not, like, your thing, I refuse to believe you haven't at some point, perhaps in a period of illness or congestion, taken a deep whiff of a fragrant cup of tea someone has made and brought over to you on the couch, and not appreciated its soothing succor.

Tea is a generous drink. With only a third or so the caffeine of coffee, it offers a gentler path to a morning jolt, allowing you to drink more and more often-especially good as most tea leaves can be steeped several times before depleting their flavor. Different types of tea are also rich in a substance called l-theanine, an amino acid that studies have linked with feelings of calm and well being. The science is far from conclusive, but with a minimum of hand-waving, I'll tell you what I tell the people who attend my tea talks and classes: good tea makes you feel good.

That's really all you need to know to get started drinking different types of tea. With hundreds of styles and varieties made across the world, and about as many methods of brewing it, there's no right or wrong way to get your brew. It does, however, help to know some basics when navigating a category this vast. Tea is the world's most popular drink behind water after all, and is grown on every continent, save Antarctica. 

Every type of tea-green, black, oolong, and then some-is a product of the same plant, a shrub called Camellia sinensis that's native to a band of subtropical land stretching from eastern India through northern Laos and Vietnam into southwestern China. The differences in flavor come down to nuances of plant variety, growing conditions, and processing style. (Herbal and grain teas are a separate story-more on those down below.) You can group most "true" teas into a few broad categories based on processing method. Here's how to make sense of it all.

Green Tea

Just like slicing open an apple, plucking a tea leaf starts the clock on a complex set of oxidative and enzymatic reactions that ends with brown plant tissue and distinctly different flavors and aromas from when the leaf was first picked. The goal of making green tea is to halt these reactions as quickly as possible, preserving the leaf's vegetal flavor. Green teas can taste like spring peas, fresh cut grass, gently toasted hazelnut, and even brackish seaweed floating in broth. Quality greens are intensely aromatic and sweet on the tongue.

There's a lot of hubbub about green tea's purported health benefits, thanks to the greater share of antioxidants preserved in the leaf by halting oxidation quickly. As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on this issue. Plus, claims that green tea has less caffeine than other types is pure bunk. Caffeine is present in all teas from Camellia sinensis; the exact amount is determined by a host of factors that hardly touch on processing. So drink green tea because you like how it tastes. I enjoy Japanese styles like sencha and gyokuro, which possess a deep umami sweetness, as well as lighter Chinese styles like bi luo chun and tai ping hou kui, the latter of which is made of large alluring leaves pressed flat as a bookmark.

Black Tea

If you let fresh tea leaves oxidize all the way, then proceed with drying them, you get green tea's opposite: black tea. That oxidation, along with careful rolling and kneading of the leaves, develops malty and tannic compounds along with fruity and chocolate flavors. Because of this full oxidation, many tea drinkers have an easier time sipping black tea on an empty stomach than green tea. Black tea processing also leads to stronger flavors and fuller body across the board, which is why it takes so well to milk (fresh or condensed), sugar, honey, spices, and-my favorite-a spoonful of raspberry jam, Russian style.

Black tea from China was the preferred drink of Britons in the 19th century. It was less likely to mold on long ocean voyages, and when planters in British colonies in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya struggled to figure out how to process all the tea they'd stolen from China and conscripted natives to plant on their home soil, black tea was the style they converted to mass production. To this day, the Indian regions of Assam and Darjeeling produce some of the world's most recognized black tea; the former especially brisk and malty, the latter famously nuanced and delicate. Chinese black tea styles like mao feng and keemun yield baked plum and chocolate flavors. But my ride-or-die black teas come from Taiwan. Cultivars from the Sun Moon Lake region are outrageously aromatic, full of ripe cherry and spice, and a body so rich you'd swear there was sugar mixed in.

Ginseng green tea texture background
Credit: Getty Images

Oolong Tea

If green teas are barely oxidized, and black teas are almost completely oxidized, oolong teas lie in between. They're kind of a cheffy category: oolongs vastly range in flavor and aroma depending on idiosyncratic differences in how they're processed. Like making the perfect omelet, the steps to wither, knead, fire, roll, dry, and roast oolong take a day to learn but a lifetime to master. The category is so complex and poorly understood in the West that there's not even an English word for it; the closest translation of the Mandarin "wu long" is "dark dragon," a reference to the serpentine shape of certain oolong tea styles made in Fujian Province.

In Taiwan, high mountain oolongs may look almost as green as green tea, but tiny nudges of oxidation have transformed crisp and grassy flavors into creamy, buttery ones with a strong floral lilt. Delicate bao zhong from the north of the island is intensely redolent of jasmine, while older styles like dong ding and tieguanyin are more oxidized and consequently nutty, trading the high aromatics of their less oxidized peers for richer body and a long lasting finish. In China, roasting oolong is as important a skill as making it. Heavily roasted oolongs from the Wuyi cliffs smolder with whisky-like flavors of caramel, leather, and a touch of mineral brine. 

White Tea

Where oolongs are all about intensive processing, white teas emphasize letting nature take its course. Plucked tea leaves are air dried with minimal processing, either in the sun or with powerful air vents. As they dry, the leaves undergo a slight oxidation, developing a rich, creamy body and subtle floral flavors. With the exception of coarser leaf grades like gong mei and shou mei, white teas are pretty delicate. Silver needle is made exclusively from unopened buds and is the most delicate of all, with a marshmallowy sweetness and aroma of fresh linens. Bai mu dan, also called white peony, is more overtly floral.

Fermented and Aged Tea

A number of traditional teas are aged for months, years, or even decades before drinking. While green teas and lighter oolongs are best enjoyed fresh, a number of white, black, and oolong styles can develop new depths with age. There are also teas that undergo bacterial and fungal activity during aging, thanks to processing methods that don't completely kill off the microscopic organisms naturally present in tea leaves. These teas don't yield alcohol or lactic acid like fermenting beer or pickles, but they're fermented nonetheless, and some celebrated vintages sell for tens of thousands of dollars a pound at auction.

The most famous of these fermented teas is pu-erh, which is made in China's Yunnan Province and nearby regions of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. This tea begins its life as more or less a green tea, but through aging it sheds its grassy flavors for the rich depth of varnished wood, old leather, and mellow earthiness. My personal favorite, liu an, goes through a similar process, and is aged in small bamboo baskets lined with bamboo leaves that you can brew with the tea. Note that this is a different thing from Burmese fermented tea leaves, which are lactofermented before mixing into salads, and not used for tea.

Fringe Tea Styles

The categories above are generally considered the five major types of tea, but like any human-made taxonomy, they don't account for every possible kind of tea out there. Yellow tea is a niche but traditional style in China, with processing similar to green tea but with some extra steps to smother and sweat the leaves, yielding a less sharp, more rounded tea that's neither a green tea nor a white. Meanwhile, a Korean tea called hwangcha, aka yellow tea, is processed entirely differently from Chinese yellow tea, and can actually taste more like an oolong or black tea. (The Korean tea-making tradition, while intertwined with China's and Japan's, is very much its own thing, and Korean styles don't fit neatly into Chinese or British categories.)

In the Darjeeling hills, the first flush, or harvest of the year, is processed into a tea that's sold as "black tea" but is really nothing of the sort-it's heavily withered but barely rolled or oxidized, so the leaves retain spots of green and it brews up a pale amber, with fresh piney flavors not quite like anything else. Some people try to call it a white tea or an oolong, but it's really neither. And don't get me started on awabancha, a Japanese tea that is actually pickled and meant to be brewed. Point being, tea is a vast, intricate aspect of the human endeavor and doesn't always fit into neat boxes!

Herbal and Grain Tea

Often called tisanes or herbal infusions to distinguish themselves from Camellia sinensis teas, brews made from herbs, flowers, and grains are likely as old as "proper" tea itself. Tea leaves were consumed as a medicine long before they were a beverage, and many popular herbal teas were originally made for medicinal purposes. You probably already know the common types like chamomile, mint, and rose hip, but you may also want to seek out elderflower, Greek mountain herb tea, and chrysanthemum, all of which have strong fans around the world.

There are also a number of teas made from roasted grains that are especially popular in Korea and Japan. Barley, tartary buckwheat, Job's tears, and even corn silk all make soothing, naturally rich brews. Even better, these teas are fantastically refreshing when cold brewed or ice, making them the perfect caffeine free drink to make by the pitcher and gulp all through the sweatiest days of summer.