There are fifteen major tea-producing provinces in mainland China, and Taiwan also produces tea. Chinese teas are generally divided into six major types, mainly according to the method of production. These types are: green tea, black tea, Oolong tea, white tea, yellow tea and dark tea.
Besides these, there are processed sorts such as jasmine tea and compressed tea. Each type has its representative “celebrity tea”, each with its unique appearance and aroma, and some are even associated with beautiful legends.
The best teas, renowned for their top quality in colour, fragrance and taste, are mostly the result of excellent natural conditions, a top class variety of tea tree, refined picking methods, and exquisite processing techniques.
Green tea is the oldest type of tea in China, and it is also produced there in the greatest quantities. Many provinces and cities are renowned for their production of green tea, the most eminent provinces being Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Anhui.
In green tea the leaves are not fermented, so they largely retain the original flavour of tea, which is simple, elegant and enduring. At first sip, green tea may taste a little thin, but after a while it gains a fragrance in the mouth that lingers.
To make green tea, the methods used are mainly (green) steaming, (green) frying and (green) sun-drying, to remove the moisture in the fresh tea leaves and to bring out their fragrance.
West Lake Longjing Tea
As early as the Tang Dynasty, Tianzhu Temple and Lingyin Temple in the West Lake were already growing tea. Longjing tea quickly became famous as a special tea, with qualities of freshness and tenderness.
The best Longjing tea leaves should be picked and processed before Pure Brightness Festival (a day around April 5 or 6), and was called “before-brightness tea”. Leaves picked and processed after Pure Brightness and before Grain Rain were a little inferior in quality, and were known as “before-rain tea”.
West Lake Longjing has always been known for four typical characteristics – green colour, strong fragrance, sweet taste, and the beautiful shapes of its leaves. The tea is clear and clean, and leaves a pleasant, lingering aftertaste.
Longjing tea mainly comes from five districts near the West Lake. These were formerly classified into five types according to the area of production – lion, dragon, cloud, tiger and plum. Now they are combined into three – lion, plum and dragon, of which the most precious are the leaves named “Royal Tea” from the eighteen tea trees in front of Longjing Temple that had been offered by Emperor Qianlong.
Maojian Tea of Mount Huangshan
Mont Huangshan is situated in Anhui Province, and is one of China’s most famous mountains, revered from ancient times. The tea from Mont Huangshan, known as Maojian, has a light yellow sheen.
The leaf is covered with white hairs, and the shoot tip is shaped like a mountain peak, giving rise to its name (meaning soft tip). After brewing, the water is clear and bright, with a touch of apricot yellow. It tastes strong and fresh and pure. The best Maojian tea leaves an aftertaste even after being brewed five or six times.
Pilochun comes from Mount Dongting of Wu County in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, so it is also called “Dongting Pilochun”. Its special feature is its luscious fragrance, so the tea was once known by the locals as “frightening fragrance”.
In the Qing Dynasty when Emperor Qianlong visited south China, the local officers treated him with this kind of tea. When Qianlong lifted the tea cup, a strong fragrance entered his nose even before he drank the tea. After drinking it, Qianlong said that it certainly deserved its reputation. But finding its name not elegant enough, Qianlong personally gave it the beautiful name of Pilochun, meaning “green snail spring”.
Pilochun looks verdant and like a trumpet shell, with fine and dense flosses around the circumference. It is best to use glasses when drinking Pilochun, because the tea leaves slowly unfold after absorbing water. When they sink and float in the water, their white hairs can be clearly seen, like snow flying in the wind. Pilochun not only has a pleasant aroma and taste, it also gives people visual enjoyment.
Sweet Dew of Mengding
Sichuan province is one region where tea culture is at its height. Many well-known teas originate there, one famous sort being Sweet Dew of Mengding.
“Mengding” means “the top of Mengshan” a mountain found in the counties of Mingshan and Ya’an in Sichuan Province. The central peak, which is the highest, has a piece of flat ground at its top, and Sweet Dew of Mengding originates there.
As the legend goes, an eminent Western Han monk called Ganlu (meaning sweet dew), planted tea trees on the mountain top with his own hands for the benefit of all, and this explains the origin of the name Sweet Dew of Mengding.
It is one of the most time-honoured and best-known teas in China, and was offered as the main tribute tea as early as the Tang Dynasty. As the tea is associated with Buddhism, it has also been regarded as a holy, celestial tea.
Sweet Dew of Mengding is tender, green and moist, tasting better at the second brew. It is recommended and loved by a great many people.
Black tea is a type of fermented tea; originating from green tea after it is mixed, kneaded, fermented, dried, and otherwise processed. Tea made from green tea leaves is a fresh green while that made using black tea is orange-red. But this difference is superficial.
What is more important is that black tea does not undergo the processes of green steaming or green frying, but is fermented, during which time the tea leaves go through chemical reactions – tea phenol is reduced over 90% and yellow and red elements are produced. If these two elements are in the right proportion, the colour of the tea will be red and bright.
While green tea retains the thin and refreshing flavour of the leaves, the fermented black tea gives a stronger and thicker flavour. Black tea first appeared in Qing Dynasty, and so is much younger than green tea. But it occupied an important position in China’s foreign trade at the end of Qing Dynasty, and was the main type of tea exported to Europe and America.
Black tea originated in Fujian and its vicinities, and later spread to other provinces in the south. At present, black tea is the most widely produced and drunk tea. It can be divided into three groups”: Gongfu (Kungfu) black tea, small piece black tea, and broken black tea.
Broken black tea is a relatively recent type developed in India, and also produced in Sri Lanka. China started trial production of this type in the 1950’s. Small piece black tea is the earliest black tea of China, produced near Fujian (on the southwest coast) and Chong’an.
Gongfu black tea is a Chinese specialty developed from small piece black tea, and is also China’s most representative black tea. Chinese Gongfu teas are divided by region of origin into, for example, Qimen Gongfu of Anhui, Dianhong Gongfu of Yunnan, Ninghong Gongfu of Jiangxi, and Minhong Gongfu of Fujian.
Qimen (Keemun) Gongfu tea has been made for over 100 years. Qimen Gongfu black tea should be picked around Pure brightness Festival and requires a very particular process – it is baked in a sealed room and heated at a low temperature to bring out the fragrance of the leaves. The colour is jet black with a bit of gray, referred to “precious light”.
Oolong tea is somewhat intermediate between green and black tea. The finishing technique is that of green tea, but the preparation involves fermentation like black tea – it is a semi-fermented tea.
It therefore has characteristics of both green and black tea: the fresh and clear flavour of green tea and the thick and luscious fragrance of black tea.
Chinese Oolong tea comes mainly from Fujian, and Guangdong, and is also grown in Taiwan. Fujian has been the hometown of tea since early times. Most tribute tea in the Song Dynasty came from Fujian, including the famous Dragon & Phoenix Cake tea, which many people believe to be the ancestor of Oolong tea.
Tie Guanyin is produced in Anxi County of Fujian province, and is therefore often known as “Anxi Tie Guanyin”. Anxi is located in the southeast side of the hill, where over 50 kinds of tea are grown, of which Tie Guanyin is the finest.
Connoisseurs drink Tie Guanyin carefully, paying careful attention to six steps – observing, listening, viewing, smelling, tasting and appreciating.
Wuyi Rock Tea is a general name for Oolong tea produced in the Wuyi Mountain region of Fujian, and is the best-known Oolong tea. Its production is highly delicate, especially the famous reputed technique of “shaking green”.
Red Robe is the best type of Wuyi Rock tea and has had a history of over 300 years. Now there are only three Red Robe tea trees. They are over 1,000 years old and grow on cliffs Wuyi Mountain.
Fenghuang Dancong (Phoenix Mountain Select) tea is one of the three great varieties of Oolong tea, all equally famous, the other two being the tea from the slopes of Wuyi Mountain, and Tieguanyin tea from Anxi.
In terms of their distinct flavours, Wuyi tea has a rich and mellow fragrance and a long aftertaste; Anxi Tieguanyin is sweetly aromatic and has a sweet, clean flavour; Fenghuang Dancong has a strong aroma and a pronounced, rich taste.
Fenghuang Dancong comes from Phoenix Mountain, near Chaozhou City in the eastern part of Guangdong province. Some of the cultivated tea brushes there are as old as 600 years, and there are many brushes more than 200 years old.
Dark tea was invented by accident. Long ago, in order to supply tea to the ethnic groups of the northwest, tea produced in Yunnan, Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, and other places had to be transported to the north by sea, and then to the northwest via the Silk Road.
In ship cabins and on horseback, the tea travelled far and was affected by the weather, and alternating damp and dry conditions caused major changes to the chemical composition of the leaves, and also turned them blackish-brown.
In spite of this, they still give off a rare fragrance, and this type of tea quickly came to be appreciated by the locals.
Dark tea is a type of fermented tea. Pu’er tea and Six Castle tea are notable types of dark tea.
Pu’er tea is a special kind of dark tea that has been produced in Yunnan Province for more than 2,000 years.
Pu’er tea can be roughly divided into two types. The first type is made through simple sun-drying, and is usually known as “Raw Pu’er”. The other kind is made with the technique of “heating pile” (sprinkling water over a pile of leaves to induce fermentation), and is usually known as “Ripe Pu’er”.
The greatest fascination of Pu’er tea is that the longer it is preserved, the better it tastes. Generally speaking, raw Pu’er tastes best after about ten years of preservation, while ripe Pu’er develops its best fragrance after two or three years. Pu’er teas of different age differ markedly in price.
Like dark tea, yellow tea was also a chance discovery when making green tea. People found that if leaves were not dried promptly after being finished, kneaded and twisted, they would turn yellow in colour, forming yellow tea.
At first, people regarded yellow tea simply as bad-quality green tea. But some came to prefer the flavour of yellow tea, which gradually became one of the six major tea types.
Yellow tea is a type of fermented tea, the fermentation process here being known as “annealing yellow”. Junshan Silver Needle of Hunan and Mengdi Yellow Shoot of Sichuan are two representatives of yellow tea. Being one of the ten top teas of China, Silver Needle tea is both beautiful and delicious.
White tea is slightly fermented. In the Tang and Song Dynasties, people regarded white tea as very valuable, but at that time white tea was just a rare kind of tea tree whose leaves were white, not the same as the white tea we know today.
White Hair Silver Needle and White Peony produced in Fujian are representatives of white tea.
In addition to the above six major types of tea, there are also tight-pressed teas and scented teas produced by re-processing the leaves. Tight-pressed tea comes from tight pressing crude tea leaves after steaming at a high temperature.
This kind of tea can be divided into cake tea, brick tea, roll tea and other groups according to their shape. Tuo tea of Yunnan is an outstanding example of this type.
Scented tea, with a history of over 1,000 years, it is made from a mixture of edible flowers and tea leaves. Scented teas were popular in the Qing Dynasty. The most common scented tea –jasmine tea- is very popular in Beijing and Tianjin.