A Tea Sommelier’s quick and easy guide to the different types of tea. See what makes black tea different from green tea and why yellow tea is so rare and hard to find.
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6 Types of Tea
All real tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, which is a bush with small leaves that are plucked, then processed to make the 6 different types of tea:
- Black tea
- Oolong tea
- Green tea
- Yellow tea
- White tea
- Puerh tea
If all tea comes from the same plant, what makes them different? It’s all in how the tea leaves are oxidized and processed.
Oxidation is the process in which tea leaves are exposed to air after they’ve been picked from the plant. Lighter teas, like green or white, are less oxidized but black teas are fully oxidized.
Aside from oxidation, what makes green tea different from a black tea is how it is processed. After oxidation, tea processing can include drying, roasting, fermenting, and steaming. Each type of tea goes through a different process.
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- Black tea is fully oxidized (left exposed to air), which results in tea leaves that are dark red, brown, or black.
- The process involved in making black tea include withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying.
- In China, where tea originated, black tea is known as red tea because of its reddish color.
- It’s produced mostly in China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.
- Black tea is known to be full-bodied and robust, with hints of malt, depending on the processing.
- Black tea is used to make Milk Tea, Bubble Tea, and Chai Lattes.
- Popular black teas: Assam, Ceylon, English breakfast (a blend of black teas), and Earl Grey (bergamot flavored black tea)
- Caffeine: 60-90 mg per cup
- Oolong tea is partially oxidized, anywhere from 10-80% oxidized. Oolong is between black tea (fully oxidized) and green tea (not oxidized).
- The process involved in making oolong tea include withering, bruising/rolling, oxidizing, shaping, and drying.
- It’s mostly produced in Fujian, China or Taiwan.
- Chinese oolongs tend to be woodsy while Taiwanese styles are usually lighter and more floral.
- There is a wide range when it comes to oolongs and aside from oxidation levels, the roasts go from light, medium, and dark.
- Popular oolong teas: Tie Guan Yin, Bao Zhong, and Oriental Beauty
- Caffeine: 50-70 mg per cup
- Green tea is completely unoxidized, which is why green tea leaves are green in color.
- The process involved in making green tea include steaming or pan-firing, rolling, and drying.
- Matcha is a green tea that goes through a longer process and is finely milled into a powder.
- It’s mostly produced in China, Japan, and South Korea.
- Green tea is usually bright, vegetal, and can get astringent or bitter if oversteeped.
- Popular green teas: Matcha, Jasmine tea, Genmaicha, Sencha, and Hojicha
- Caffeine: 30-50 mg per cup
- Yellow tea is rare outside of China and it’s so rare that I don’t have photos of it.
- Yellow tea is partially oxidized (10-20%).
- The processing is similar to green tea but with the extra step of slowly oxidizing the tea over several days, which results in the leaves turning yellow in color.
- It’s mostly produced in Hunan and Sichuan provinces of China and very little of it is exported to the US.
- It takes a lot of extra work to make yellow tea and with fewer tea masters specializing in this labor-intensive process, there is less yellow tea produced.
- Yellow teas have a mild, smooth taste, somewhere between white and green tea and without any bitterness you may find in green tea. The special slow oxidation process removes the grassy, bitter notes.
- Popular yellow teas: There aren’t any popular ones in the US. It’s not an easy tea to find.
- Caffeine: 30-35 mg per cup.
- White tea is gently oxidized, letting the tea leaves gently dry after they’re picked, which can take 2-3 days.
- White tea is the least processed out of all 6 types of tea and the process involved include just withering and drying. Very little is done to the tea after it has been picked.
- It’s mostly produced in Fujian, China.
- White teas tend to have a delicate, subtle flavor that is floral or fruity.
- Popular white teas: Silver Needle and White Peony tea
- Caffeine: 30-55 mg per cup, about the same amount as green tea
- Puerh tea is a unique type of tea that has been fermented and aged. Puerh can be extremely expensive, as it is often collected and aged by connoisseurs like wine.
- Puerh is not oxidized, like green tea.
- The process involved in making puerh is similar to green tea (frying, rolling, drying) but with the fermentation and aging process added after the tea has dried. Puerh is pressed into cakes, which you have to chip pieces from with a puerh pick.
- There are two types of puerh: raw (also called sheng), which is aged slowly, and cooked (also called shu) in which the fermentation process is expedited.
- Puerh tea is produced exclusively in Yunnan province.
- The flavor of puerh changes over time and becomes more complex, but generally it has a robust taste with notes of wood and chocolate.
- Popular puerh teas: It’s hard to say which puerh is the most popular since there are so many different kinds. It’s the trickiest to buy since there are fakes out there. Go to a trusted tea source to purchase.
- Caffeine in raw puerh: 30-45 mg per cup
Caffeine in cooked puerh: 60-70 mg per cup
Questions You May Have
In Pursuit of Tea sells a yellow tea called Anhui Yellow. It’s not an easy tea to find.
Herbal tea isn’t a real tea the same way black tea and green tea are. Herbals don’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant, also known as the tea plant. Herbals like lavender come from the lavender plant and chamomile comes from the chamomile plant, with neither coming from the tea plant.
- Quick Start Tea Guide
- How to Make Tea Properly
- Difference Between Loose Tea, Tea Sachets, and Tea Bags
- Best Tea Canisters
- Becoming a Certified Tea Sommelier
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