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Tea Varieties & Styles

White Teas

Declared to be the “culmination of all that is elegant” by the emperors of the ancient Song Dynasty over 1000 years ago, white tea remains a prized favourite among tea lovers. But what makes for an ‘authentic’ white tea? It is the unique combination of geography, tea bush varietal, harvest and production method, complemented with a healthy dose of experience and history.

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white loose leaf tea

While some Indian and Sri Lankan manufacturers claim to make white tea, genuine white tea is made only in the northern areas of Fujian Province, China, from specific tea bush sub-varieties that are indigenous to that region. Named for the silver, downy hair that covers the buds and leaves of these bushes, white tea is harvested once a year in early spring. There are two main types of white tea: Silver Needles, made solely from the bud, and White Peony (also known as Bai Mudan), made from one bud and two adjacent leaves.

Once picked, white tea undergoes just two processes: withering (during which some natural oxidisation occurs) and bake-drying. It is never rolled or shaped. While this may seem simple enough, getting the temperatures, times and humidity levels just right to reveal the tea’s best flavours is a sophisticated artisan skill. White teas have a pale liquor, a delicate aroma and flavour, no bitterness, and a slight nutty undertone, reminiscent of a quality Darjeeling.

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Green Teas

Green tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant, the same plant species from which black teas are made. Unlike with black teas, however, with green teas the process of oxidisation – the natural darkening of the leaf that occurs after picking, also called fermentation – is prevented through the application of heat. The leaves can be ‘fired’ in a pan placed over a flame, baked in a heated revolving drum, or steamed in the Japanese style.

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green tea leaves

The leaves are shaped by curling, pressing, rolling and swirling motions. Manual rolling requires enormous practise and dexterity, and countless shapes have been created, all of them revealing slightly different tasting notes. The liquor of a green tea is typically a green or yellow colour, and flavours range from toasty, to more grassy, to fresh and mild.

While many westerners believe they do not like the taste of green tea, this is often because they have only experienced poor quality leaves, brewed too long and at too high a temperature. In fact, green tea can be a truly remarkable drink, full of delicate flavours, complex aromas and endless variety. In the Chinese provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Anhui – the home of some of the best green teas – over a thousand different types of green tea are made, rivalling wine in diversity. Here, ancestral techniques vary from region to region, or even from village to village. Introduced to Japan in the eighth century by Buddhist monks, green tea has more recently spread to other tea-producing countries such as Vietnam and northern India.

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Oolong Teas

Highly revered in Asia, oolongs constitute one of the great Chinese tea families. Also known as Wu Long – which literally means ‘Black Dragon’, referring to the dark colour of the dried leaves – oolong teas are semi-oxidised. Stylistically, this places them somewhere in between green teas, which are not oxidised at all, and black teas, which are fully oxidised. Their taste is typically soft, smooth and fragrant, with a long, sweet finish.

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oolong tea leaves

Oolongs are considered one of the most complicated teas to manufacture. The craft lies in carefully controlling the oxidisation process. The tea master repeatedly stirs, tosses, rattles and gently bruises the leaves, using his senses of smell, touch and sight to monitor the operation. Once the ‘sweated’ tea begins to release the desired flavours and aromas and the master believes the optimal level of oxidisation has been reached, the process is stopped by the swift application of heat. The warm leaves are then rolled or twisted into the desired shape and dried.

Because of differences in tea bush varietal, pluck and regional styles, Oolongs come in many forms, shapes and colours. However, many make a general distinction between the lighter, more floral Chinese Oolongs, which are less oxidised, and the darker, more spicy Taiwanese oolongs, which are more heavily oxidised. Interestingly, naturally caffeine free rooibos tea, which is made in South Africa, uses techniques heavily inspired by the oolong tradition.

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Black Teas

Black teas, which the Chinese sometimes call red teas because of the amber colour of the infusion (not to be confused with rooibos red tea), are fully oxidised teas. While the history of this style of tea making is a little blurry, most evidence indicates that its origins are rooted in the Chinese tea trade with the West. Most probably a derivative of the more traditional and complicated oolong styles, the stronger and darker black teas were favoured by the British and Dutch traders of the 18th century.

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black tea leaves

By the 1850’s most Chinese tea regions were making fully oxidised teas, predominantly for export. As Western demand for tea grew, this production process, as well as the related tea bush varietals, were later transposed by the British and Dutch to newly created plantations in India, Ceylon, Indonesia and East Africa.

Black teas undergo all the basic tea making steps – the harvested tea bush leaves are withered, rolled or bruised, allowed to fully oxidise, and then dried and sorted. While nowadays much of this is done using modern technology on vast tea estates, there are still a number of high-quality black teas produced in China and India using traditional artisan methods. From the rich and malty Assam teas, to the refined and honeyed Darjeelings, to the more floral and earthy Chinese Keemuns, there are many superb and seductively delicious black teas to enjoy. Earl Grey tea, which is black tea scented with Bergamot oil, and Lapsang Souchong, which is a smoked black tea, have also become household favourites, adding to the incredible range of this style of tea’s flavours and aromas.

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Pu'er Tea

Pu’er is a dark, earthy tea made from large tea bush leaves indigenous to China’s mountainous province of Yunnan. Fascinating, complex, and prized for its reputed health benefits, it is quite different in taste, colour and aroma to all other teas. This is primarily because it is the only tea that undergoes true fermentation (as opposed to oxidisation), a secretive process that involves allowing the natural yeast-like micro-organisms in and on the leaves to develop and flourish.

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Pu'er tea leaves

Traditionally, the fermentation process continues naturally over a period of many years, giving pu’er the unique property of increasing in quality and value as it ages. Very old, well-stored classical pu’er teas are highly sought after, and in 2010 two kilos were auctioned off for over £500,000! A more recent, and less time-intensive method of making pu’er (shou pu’er) has also been developed, in which the fermentation process is speeded up by exposing the leaves to optimal heat and humidity. Rather than years, this style of pu’er requires ‘only’ a few months to make.

Pu’er can be sold as loose-leaf or compressed into the traditional disc-like cakes, as well as other interesting shapes such as cubes, mushrooms and pyramids. Quality pu’er cakes are traditionally wrapped in paper, which often marks the place and date of manufacture.

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Rooibos & Honeybush Teas

Rooibos tea, also known as redbush tea, is made from the South African shrub Aspalathus linearis which grows only in the remote Cedarberg Mountains several hours north of Cape Town. Naturally caffeine free, full bodied, and with a sweet nutty finish, rooibos has become popular around the world for its unique flavour, traditionally appreciated health benefits, and variety of flavours.

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rooibos tea leaves

Rooibos, which is not made from the traditional tea bush (Camellia sinensis), was first documented in 1772 by the acclaimed Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg, who noted that "the country people made tea" from a plant related to wild rooibos. By the 1900s settlers in the Cape, most notably Benjamin Ginsberg – a young Russian from a Moscow tea merchant family – refined the oxidisation and production process, employing similar methodologies to oolong tea processing. Once harvested, the needle-like tips of the bushes are heavily bruised, chopped and left to oxidise under the sun.

Honeybush (Cyclopia) tea is a related shrub, which grows in the rugged south-western Cape. Similar to rooibos, it was pioneered by Dutch settlers who built their homesteads in this wild and isolated region, and had to learn how to make tea substitutes from the indigenous plants. Today honeybush is becoming increasingly popular for its clear, fresh taste and delicious natural honey scent.

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Herbal Teas

Herbal teas, also known as herbal infusions or tisanes, are not made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis tea bush like white, green, oolong and black teas. Nor do they undergo oxidisation or any of the other complex tea making steps of traditional teas. Rather, they are simply herbs, flowers or fruits that have been laid out to dry.

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Herbal tea

They are naturally caffeine free and do not contain tannins, and can be brewed as tea leaves. Some of the more popular herbs can even be blended with traditional teas to create wonderfully aromatic brews – in Morocco, for example, the national drink is green tea blended with spearmint leaves.

Herbal teas have been used for many thousands of years, and because of their purported health benefits, they have a strong rooting in the ancient medicinal traditions of all the great European, Middle Eastern and Asian civilisations. Besides relieving certain ailments, some herbs were also considered to open the mind for spiritual insights.

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