What's Healthy About Tea? - Basic Types of True Tea

Even though there are thousands of kinds of tea grown and produced in more than 60 countries around the world, the international tea community uses some basic definitions to help talk about our favorite subject. Six basic types of tea created from the same Camellia sinensis tea plant. White … Green … Yellow … Oolong … Black … Dark.  We tend to explain the unique features of each tea by referring to these categories. In this way, I believe that you can quickly and easily understand something essential about every tea you meet. And I sincerely hope that you find this helpful.

We offer these simple, standardized definitions as a guide to new Sippers. A kind of welcome mat to the World of Tea.

This section was not included in the original “Everything Healthy Tea Book”. But I feel strongly that it’s an important beginning for this new exploration of tea. Of course, later in the book we focus on each kind of tea in much greater depth. For now, let’s just start with a few simple distinctions. Six basic types of tea based on the way in which the freshly plucked tea leaves, Camellia sinensis, are processed at the farm and factory.

  • White Tea

  • Green Tea

  • Yellow Tea

  • Oolong Tea

  • Black Tea

  • Dark Tea

White Tea

White tea is the least processed tea. In other words, we humans exert the least amount of control and the leaves dry as closely as possible to the way they would if they fell naturally from the tree. We frequently see this tea as a bud-only. And the buds dry far more “white” than the whole leaf. Young buds (unopened leaves) plucked with a downy fuzz still attached are even lighter in color, the fuzz giving off a silvery sheen. But white teas can also be a combination of leaves and buds. These older leaves usually turn brown as they dry slowly and curl.


Green Tea

Global Tea Blend Leaf Close-upGreen tea is processed very quickly after being harvested with focused skill and effort to preserve the green color and flavor. When the leaves are plucked, they are allowed to soften and whither. The next step in the process is often referred to as “kill green”. This refers to the enzyme in the fresh leaf that would oxidize and turn brown without human intervention. Using heat with either steaming, roasting or baking, the green is preserved. Even after the tea is dried, the green color remains – in the dry leaf, in the wet leaf and in the liquor. This also preserves some of the flavor elements that can make a green tea taste astringent or bitter. For this reason, it is usually recommended that green teas be brewed with cooler water – never boiling water – and for shorter time than for most other kinds of tea.


Yellow Tea

Yellow Tea is first processed as a green tea. But, after the tea is green but before it is completely dried, there is an additional stop. It is “sweltered”. This means that the tea is warmed slightly and then wrapped in a cloth or paper and allowed to rest for a short period of time. It is during this stage that the green color becomes an earthy yellow and the associated flavors are changed as well. This is a rather rare kind of tea because production is less than any other kind of tea and very little is exported from China.


Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is usually said to be the most complex because of the lengthy processing time, the number of steps to processing, the various flavors that can be produced from the processing and because of the nuanced flavors that can be achieved for the Sipper to enjoy. The defining part of the process for this category of teas is the way in which the leaves are gently bruised so that only some of the leaf’s cell walls are broken. So, a portion of each leaf is allowed to oxidize while the remaining “green” is preserved. Each factory’s tea master selects the amount of bruising and the amount of subsequent oxidation (browning). So you will meet oolong teas that can look and taste almost like a green tea. Or, you can meet some that are nearly as dark in leaf color and liquor as a black tea.


Black Tea

Black tea is fully oxidized. This means that, during processing, the leaves are crushed so that the juices within the cells of the leaves are broken, exposing its unique chemistry to air and then encouraging this to darken. There are two confusing names for black tea in the international markets. One is that black tea is sometimes called red tea. And this is because of the beautiful color of the liquor in the cup. But, because one of the herbal teas is now sold as “red tea” new tea sippers are understandably confused. Another issue is that black tea is sometimes referred to as being “fermented”. But this can be confusing, so I tend to use the distinction to explain the difference between black and dark tea.


Dark Tea

Dark Tea - Rose HeartsOne reasons for reserving the term “fermented” for this tea is because the processes used to create dark teas really do encourage the chemical change – fermentation. In other words, while there is still some “green” in the leaf, it is aged in a highly controlled environment. Healthy microbes are encouraged, giving dark tea unique flavor and health benefits. These teas are most often sold as compressed teas but can be found loose. And there are also variations created by a more traditional slow aging vs. an accelerated faster aging. And a case can be made that these should be appreciated as two completely different teas.

In the past we had a tendency to incorrectly label all dark teas as Pu’er. The problem with this is that dark, fermented and compressed teas are created in areas other than the Pu’er region of Yunnan Province, China. This is one of the translations from the Mandarin Chinese word, Hei Cha.


What’s Healthy About Tea – INDEX


  • Babette’s Personal Welcome
  • Book Introduction
  • Busting Ten Top Tea Myths


  • A 5000 Year Old Medicine
  • The Second Most Popular Beverage
  • Camellia sinensis – True Tea
  • Six Kinds of Tea – Only One Plant
  • From The Leaf To The Cup
  • Harvesting Tea


Controversy In Tea Land

As I said at the beginning of this article, we can understand all tea when we have familiarity with the classic styles. But they by no means tell the whole story. In fact, the World of Tea is changing, blooming with innovation. We currently face controversies with some of the new hybrid tea plants. There is some question about whether or not the tradition of categorizing tea by method of processing should still be followed. Or, could a new leaf style be considered its own category of tea?

The international world of tea is currently challenged by the development of these two kinds of tea leaves. They are both being researched and developed extensively for their health benefits and unique flavors. But how will they fit into the classic traditions?

Purple Leaf & Yellow Leaf

These are two of the beautiful new leaves that are just now becoming available.

Image coming soon!