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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.
Tea buyer in Darjeeling

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.

There are also flavoured teas of course, such as Earl Grey, but we will treat them a little differently to the main types of tea, as the flavourings are added at the end of the processing.

The following describes the basic differences in processing methods for each kind of tea, although the exact method will depend on the experience and preference of the ‘tea master’ in charge. Each will interpret the process in his or her own way, further altering the taste of each 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.

Shop Green Tea

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. There is a second method, ‘unorthodox’ or Cut, Tear and Curl (CTC), in which the process is largely the same, but the leaves are torn and broken by a machine rather than being rolled. The leaf pieces are smaller than those made by the orthodox method.


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.

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.

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.

tea leaves

Growing Conditions

As mentioned above, the growing conditions of a tea bush will affect its character and flavour. Tea is grown in around 45 countries across the globe from Bangladesh to Zimbabwe, and it grows best between the two tropics, nearest the equator, as this area offers the right temperature and rainfall. Even small differences in growing conditions can change the flavour – so bushes from neighbouring estates, or even on the same estate, can produce tea of a different flavour.

Moist but well-drained soil is also crucial, so the roots don’t become either too dry or too waterlogged. Also, tea needs to grow at a certain height above sea level - between 300 and 2,100m to be precise. Teas that grow near the upper end of this scale are the best, as the naturally occurring mist and cloud protect the bushes from too much direct sunlight and the cooler air helps the buds to grow slowly, which allows the flavour to develop. Teas are therefore referred to as ‘high-grown’, ‘mid-grown’ and ‘low-grown’, which is another clue when assessing their quality – high-grown is generally the finest.

High-grown: Above 1,200m

Mid-grown: 600-1,200m

Low-grown: below 600m

Picking the leaves

tea leaves

Picking, or plucking, is done when the bush or tree ‘flushes’, or pushes out new leaf shoots. In some places, such as in northern India and China, picking takes place in the growing season, between spring and autumn, as the weather varies throughout the year. But in places where the weather is more constant, such as in Kenya, picking can take place all year round.

The quality of tea is related to the number of buds and leaves picked; so for a fine black or green tea, the pickers will take the first two leaves and one new bud; for oolong teas, they take the bud and three or four leaves. The fewer the leaves, and the smaller and more delicate those leaves are, the more plants need to be plucked to produce a kilo of tea – so smaller and fewer leaves means a more expensive tea. Picking can generally be categorised as follows:

Fine: two leaves and a bud (and sometimes just the bud, for very fine teas)

Medium: three leaves and a bud

Coarse: four leaves and a bud – but often mixed in with shoots that have two or three leaves and a bud. In other words, the picking is less selective, faster and more productive.

Some tea is harvested mechanically, but this invariably contains more large leaves and stalk, so the tea is of a poorer quality.

Leaf grades

Once the tea is processed by drying and rolling, there is a further stage – grading the leaves. When the tea is ‘finished’, it consists of a mixture of leaf pieces of different sizes. A small piece of tea leaf brews at a different speed to a large piece, so they must be sorted into different sizes, if they are to produce an evenly brewed cup of tea. The different leaf sizes are then graded and classified, and are divided into ‘leaf grades’ (the larger pieces) and ‘broken leaf grades’ (the smaller pieces). The system by which these are named differs from country to country, but understanding the following leaf grades will prove useful when choosing your tea:

OP – orange pekoe

Contains larger leaves than FOP, and rarely contains ‘tip’, the delicate ends of the buds that are considered necessary for a fine tea.

FOP – flowery orange pekoe

Tea made with the bud and first two leaves of a shoot. Made with tender young leaves and the right amount of ‘tip’.

GFOP – golden flowery orange pekoe

The same as FOP, but made with the very tips of the golden yellow buds

TGFOP – tippy golden flowery orange pekoe

The same as GFOP, but comprising a higher proportion of tips

FTGFOP – finest tippy golden flowery orange pekoe

The same as TGFOP, but of an even higher quality.

The use of the word ‘orange’ here can be confusing, until you learn that it has nothing to do with the colour of the leaf. It is thought to come from the House of Orange, Holland’s historic royal family, who imported and exported tea – so it now simply denotes a high-quality tea. So a tea described as Flowery Orange Pekoe will be of a better quality than plain Flowery Pekoe.

Broken leaf grades follow the same pattern, so you will find ‘Broken Orange Pekoe’, ‘Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe’, ‘Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe’ and so on.

Finally, ‘fannings’ refer to the very smallest pieces of leaf; being small, they brew very quickly, so are mostly used in teabags. They are sometimes called ‘fines’ or ‘dust’.

Many tea experts will warn that, even if you memorise and apply these terms to your tea-buying, it won’t always guarantee a good cup of tea. A tea may well say that it contains a high proportion of tips, but if the weather was unfavourable, or the tips bruised by careless handling, the tea won’t taste as good as it should. The only way to know if it is good is to taste it – which is why the best tea merchants, Fortnum’s included, will always taste the teas they buy, rather than take them on trust.

To experience the full range of Fortnum's teas, please browse through the Tea section of our website, or visit the Tea Counter at our Piccadilly store, where our tea experts will be happy to guide you through our huge range and help you to find the perfect tea for your needs.