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A Kaleidoscope of Tea Colors; The Differences Between Tea Types

Black, green, white…

The world of tea is one colorful and diverse place! Black tea, green tea, yellow tea, white tea, the list goes on and on. But many a tea newbie and, even some tea masters, may have wondered or be wondering, “what do all these colorful names mean?” well, you have come to the right place! Today we are going to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for tea colors, or rather find out what the colors all represent. Keep reading to find out more and don’t forget to check out some of our awesome color palette of teas at IV Tea!

Camellia sinensis

That is the fancy scientific name for the tea plant. This plant comes from China, the northern highlands of Southeast Asia, and even a special northeastern part of India known as Assam. This plant, the camellia sinensis comes in two variants, the camellia sinensis var. Sinensis, and that Indian variety the camellia sinensis var. Assamica. There are a few other variants here and there, but these are the main two.

So without sounding too much like one of Harry Potter’s herbology professors, the point to be made is that any tea made from this plant or its variants is considered a “true tea”. This is in contrast to herbal teas or fruit teas, also known as tisanes. More on them a bit later.

It's important to note that Camellia sinensis is naturally caffeinated and so all true teas contain caffeine as well as the incredible L-theanine amino acid. This is the thing in tea that gives it its calming effect and keeps caffeine crashes at bay. But if all true teas come from the camellia sinensis plant, then how do some turn out green and others turn out black or even oolong? The main factor for the different tea colors has to do with how long the leaves are allowed to oxidize. But what is oxidization?

Oxidization and leaf colors

When tea leaves are picked, they will be left for a certain duration of time to oxidize before they are exposed to a heat source of some sort. These sources of heat can vary, there is steaming, there is pan firing, there are more modern methods using ovens and heat-controlled rooms. But the heat exposure ceases the oxidization process from further occurring. But what is this enigmatic process?

Oxidization is a natural chemical process that takes place in the leaves as they are allowed to sit and soak up oxygen. It is similar to fermentation and often it is said tea leaves are fermented. This is usually not the case unless one is talking about the dark tea variety which includes Yunnan provinces’ famous and prized Pu-erh tea.

The longer leaves are allowed to oxidize the darker their leaves and tea liquor become. Their flavor, aroma, hints, notes, and mouthfeel are also altered based on how long they are allowed to oxidize. Leaves that are meant to be oxidized for longer may also be allowed to wither and dry. This gets out some of the excess moisture in the leaves. Next, they will be twisted and rolled which helps the leaves soak in more oxygen. Then, they will be allowed to oxidize before being exposed to heat.

The scale of oxidization and the different leaf colors

We will look at each of the tea colors from least to most oxidized. To be clear lots of other factors can contribute to a tea’s final flavor and aroma palette, but today we will mainly focus on just the oxidization.

This leads us first to white tea. White teas are usually picked earlier in the season and so white teas may comprise lots of young buds which will be covered in soft, silvery down, hence the name “white”. Once picked these leaves pretty much go straight into being fired and processed.

Next on the scale of colors is green tea. When green teas are picked they will be allowed to dry and wither just a little bit but are soon exposed to heat to cut the oxidization process very short. That is why they retain their verdant, grassy, and vegetal flavor and aroma palettes.

After green is a somewhat rare tea variety outside of China and Korea. Yellow teas are hard to place because they are just so like green teas in appearance, flavor, aroma, and even their oxidization levels. But yellow teas are slightly more oxidized than the average green. Though a subtle difference between greens and yellows, yellows can display an astonishing character.

Next is a perhaps better-known leaf, the Oolong variety. Oolong teas are allowed to semi-oxidize. This means they take on a bit of that fermentation-like transformation which leads to oolong tea's unique mouthfeel and flavor palettes. Some of which can come out malty and akin to bread while others are fruity and tropical. The tea liquor color of oolong is telling because the color is usually a deep yellow to a light mahogany color.

Now on to the truly fermented, the powerhouse of the tea family; black tea. While oolong leaves may still retain some of their green coloration, black is just that; black. Black teas are allowed to fully oxidize, unlike oolong resulting in strong cups of tea.

Now on for some truly magnificent tea, the dark tea family. These teas include the legendary Pu-erh and will undergo a full oxidization process that will at times include some fermentation. These tea leaves are dark and so is their liquor. The flavor and aroma palettes are stupendous with earthy, musty, vegetal, grassy, and savory all making appearances in this mysterious and intriguing group of tea leaves.

But what was that about herbal teas earlier?

Ah! Before we mentioned herbal teas and tisanes. These teas are different from the true tea family because they comprise of other non-camellia sinensis ingredients like ginseng, lemon, rooibos, or mint. Though delicious and healthy these teas do not contain caffeine unless they are prepared as a blend with one of the aforementioned true teas.

A rainbow of tea leaves

From white all the way to dark, the true tea family is truly spectacular. But to really get to know the differences between these amazing teas one should try them firsthand. Check out our excellent selection of teas and blends to find which color is your favorite. Happy brewing, and Happy Thanksgiving! Remember, as Uncle Iroh once said, "Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights."

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After reading "Kalaedescope of tea colors" I realized that I need to try some different teas.

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