All about tea

All About Tea

If you've ever wondered why some tea is black and some green, read on...

There are six main types of tea – white, yellow, green, black, oolong and puerh. While they look and taste quite different, they all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, of which there are two key subspecies: Camellia sinensis sinensis, the kind originally grown in China; and Camellia sinensis assamica, which is native to the province of Assam in north-east India. While that might seem limited, these two subspecies produce more than 400 varieties of tea.

So what makes the teas different, if they all come from the same plant? The answer lies in the way they are processed. It is how they are picked, withered, dried, rolled and so on that determines whether they end up as white, yellow, green, black, oolong or puerh tea. The flavour of tea is also influenced by other factors, such as the conditions in which it is grown – location, altitude, soil – as well as the way it is brewed. So there is an enormous variety of flavours to be had from this one species.

The following describes the basic differences for each kind of tea:

White Tea

This consists of the topmost bud and leaves of the tea bush, or sometimes just the bud alone, which is picked before it unfurls. They are handled and processed as little as possible – they are just withered in the sunshine, or indoors in a warm room if the weather is poor. They are believed to have the highest antioxidant content of any tea. The curled-up buds are referred to as Silver Tip, because of their silvery colour.

Green Tea

Green tea can be described as ‘unoxidised’, unlike black teas, which undergo some degree of oxidisation (chemical changes that occur as a result of exposure to the air). They are usually allowed to wither, which reduces the water content of each leaf, then are steamed or fired (dried). When tea is fired in this way, the heat kills enzymes in the leaf, which prevents oxidisation. The leaves are then rolled and dried.

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Yellow Tea

Yellow tea is processed in a very similar way to green tea, and the exact process varies, but in general, after it is withered, the leaves are pan-fried in small quantities, then wrapped in ‘ cow skin paper’, an old paper with a yellow tinge, and allowed to dry naturally. This helps to remove the grassy flavour typical of green teas.

Black Tea

In the ‘orthodox’ method, the leaves are spread out to wilt in warm air then rolled, which bruises them and starts the oxidisation process. It also breaks them up into pieces of a different size (see ‘Leaf Grades’ below). Then they are spread out in cool, humid air and left for a short time to oxidise further before being fired, at which point it turns dark brown or black.

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Oolong is a large-leaf, semi-green tea that is partially oxidised. The leaves are withered and then tossed in bamboo drums, which starts the oxidisation process. When oxidisation reaches about 70%, they are fired to stop the oxidisation. They are then fired and rolled repeatedly to shape and dry the leaf, and given a final drying to complete the flavour. Some oolongs, known as ‘green oolongs’, are only 30% oxidised. After drying, they are wrapped up in cloths and repeatedly machine-rolled until the tea forms into small pellets and is finally dried in a large oven.


Puerh tea traditionally comes from Yunnan Province in China and is becoming increasingly popular across the world, as it is said to have many health benefits. After processing, the tea is compressed into cakes and left for several (sometimes up to 50) years to mature and develop its flavour, becoming sweeter and less bitter as time passes. Needless to say, such puerh teas, known as ‘raw puerh’, can be very expensive. Modern methods can produce puerh tea in much less time, using a bacterial culture to speed up the process. This is known as ‘cooked puerh’.

First and Second Flush

Fine teas are also divided into First Flush and Second Flush, which describe when the leaves were picked. A ‘flush’ refers to a period of growth – tea bushes and trees grow constantly throughout the growing season, pushing out new buds and top leaves at regular intervals, which are then picked. First flush are usually the most delicate in flavour, although many favour the second flush, picked about a month later, as it offers the same flavour, but with more body. Tea continues to grow and be plucked after the second flush, but these pluckings are not given a special name.

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Teas can also be classified further in three ways

By origin (Assam, China, Darjeeling)

By leaf size (such as ‘Orange Pekoe’, which describes a large-leaved tea)

By added flavouring (such as Earl Grey)

Flavoured teas are ordinary teas (white, black, green, yellow or oolong) that are scented or flavoured with other ingredients such as flowers and spices. The flavourings are added at the end of the processing. Popular flavoured teas include Earl Grey (flavoured with bergamot), jasmine and mint. The variety of flavoured teas is enormous, as almost anything can be added to a plain tea base, from a single ingredient to a combination of fruit, flowers, herbs and spices.

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Tea leaves in Darjeeling.

All of your questions about tea, answered

We recently held a live question and answer session on Twitter with our Tea & Coffee Buyer. We invited our fans to ask our expert any questions they may have about tea, from 'why is our Royal Blend so Royal?' to 'should I pour milk first or last?'. These are your questions about tea:

Should I add milk to my tea first or last?

This thorny question has divided tea drinkers for quite some time. In the early days of tea-drinking, poor-quality cups were inclined to crack when hot tea was poured into them, and putting the milk in first helped to prevent this. Also, if you are drinking an unfamiliar tea, it is easier to judge the correct amount of milk to add once you have seen the strength and colour of the tea, giving reason to add the milk last.

Read more about how to make the perfect cup of tea here.

Which tea blend makes the best iced tea?

Of all our blends, our Afternoon Blend makes the best iced tea, as it stays perfectly clear when chilled. Serve with lemon for a refreshing summer drink.

Why is your Royal Blend tea so 'Royal'?

Our Royal Blend is a mix of low-grown Flowery Pekoe from Ceylon and maltier Assam. This honey-like tea was first created in the summer of 1902 for King Edward VII. It proved so popular; it has become one of our classic, most cherished blends.

Which of your tea blends is the strongest?

Our Irish Breakfast tea makes for a truly strong cup. A bracing blend of expertly selected Assam and Kenyan teas, a cup of this tea with a splash of milk will give an uplifting start to any morning.

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For details of our next live Twitter Q&A, simply follow us to be the first to know.

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