Know your Chinese Tea – The Types, Growing Regions, Brewing, Culture & more

Let’s take a deep dive into the world of Chinese tea and explore types of tea with popular varieties and their names, growing regions, selecting, hot to brew Chinese tea, and wrap up with a little bit of culture.
 

Tea Types and Varieties

There are four classes of tea being Green, Black, White, Yellow, Oolong, and Fermented tea which all originate from the Camellia plant (茶花), sinensis or assamica variety. I will cover a few extra types and styles of tea as well.

Lu cha – Green Tea (绿茶)

Green tea is made from Camellia sinensis as is black tea and oolong with the difference being that green tea is less oxidized during the tea making process.

Varieties: Anji bai cha (安吉白茶), Baimao Hou (白毛猴 literally: ‘white-haired monkey’), Biluochun (碧螺春), Chun Mee (珍眉 literally: ‘precious eyebrows’), Cloud tea (云雾茶), Da Fang (顶谷大方), Huangshan Maofeng (黄山毛峰), Longjing tea (龙井茶), Lu’an Melon Seed tea (六安瓜片, Mengding Ganlu (蒙顶甘露), Taiping houkui (太平猴魁), Zhuyeqing (竹叶青)

Bai Cha (白茶 literally: White Tea)

White tea, like black and green tea, is made from the Camellia sinensis plant and in spite of its name, brewed white tea is pale yellow. Its name derives from the fine silvery-white hairs on the unopened buds of the tea plant, which give the plant a whitish appearance.

Varieties: Baihao Yinzhen (白毫银针), Bai Mudan (白牡丹 literally: ‘white peony’), Shoumei (寿眉)

Huang Cha (黄茶 literally: Yellow Tea)

The process for making yellow tea is similar to that of green but with an added step of encasing and steaming the tea. This allows the tea to oxidize at a slow rate for a brief period before the tea is heated fully to denature the oxidizing enzymes, producing a far more mellow taste than is found in most green teas; this also gives the leaves a slightly yellow coloring during the drying process.

Varieties: Junshan Yinzhen (君山銀針), Huoshan Huangya (霍山黃芽), Meng Ding Huangya (蒙頂黃芽), Mogan Huangya (莫干黃芽), Beigang Maojian (北港毛尖), Weishan Maojian (溈山毛尖), Haimagong Cha (海馬宮茶), Da Ye Qing (大葉青), Pingyang Huangtang (平陽黃湯), Yuan’an Luyuan (遠安鹿苑)

Hei Cha (黑茶 or Huo fajiao cha 后发酵茶 literally: post-fermented tea)

Fermented tea (also known as dark tea) is a class of tea that has undergone microbial fermentation, from several months to many years.  The most famous fermented tea is puer, produced in Yunnan Province, and the Anhua dark tea produced in Anhua County of Hunan Province.

Varieties: Pu-erh cha (雲南普洱茶), Fu Zhuan cha (湖南茯磚茶 (黑茶), Liu Bao cha (廣西六堡茶), Lu Bian cha (四川路边茶), Qing Zhuan cha (湖北青砖茶), Zang cha (藏茶)

Hong cha – Black tea (红茶 literally: ‘red tea’)

Black tea is simply more oxidized than oolong, green, and white teas and in turn, offering stronger flavor. All four types are made from leaves of the shrub, Camellia sinensis.

Varieties: Congou (工夫红茶), Dianhong (滇紅茶 literally: ‘Yunnan red tea’), Jin Hou Cha (金猴茶 literally: ‘Golden Monkey tea’), Jin Jun Mei (金骏眉 literally: ‘Golden Horse Eyebrow’), Keemun (祁门红茶 literally: ‘Qimen red tea’), Lapsang souchong (正山小種), Yingdehong (英德红茶)

Wulong Cha – Oolong (乌龙茶 literally: ‘black dragon tea’)

Is a semi-oxidized tea that sits somewhere between green and black tea. Many varieties of Oolong are formed not only by variation in the process but also from varieties of the Camellia sinensis tea plant specific to certain regions.

Varieties: Bai Jiguan (白鸡冠), Ban Tian Yao Ban Tian Yao (半天腰), Bu Zhi Chun (不知春), Da Hong Pao (大红袍 literally: ‘Big Red Robe’), Fo Shou (佛手 literally: ‘Buddhas Hand’), Huang Guanyin (黄观音茶), Huang Meigui (黃玫瑰), Jin Fo (金佛茶 literally: ‘Gold Buddha tea’), Jin Suo Chi (金锁匙 literally: ‘Golden Key, Qilan (奇兰), Rougui (肉桂茶), Shui Hsien tea (水仙茶), Shui jin gui (水金龟 literally: ‘Golden Water Turtle’) , Tieluohan (铁罗汉), Tieguanyin (铁观音)

Wuyi tea (武夷岩茶)

Wuyi teas are generally classified as black or oolong, but I will give it it’s own category here as Wuyi teas are distinct in origin, cost and flavor. Wuyi teas are grown in the Wuyi Mountains of northern Fujian, and are highly prized due to the mineral-rich soil they are grown in. Whilst being high quality, the yield is low and these Wuyi teas are expensive. Da Hong Pao, as one example, is more expensive than gold due it being made from the oldest original plants from the Wuyi region.

Varieties: Bai Jiguan (白鸡冠), Da Hong Pao (大红袍 literally: ‘Big Red Robe’), Jin Jun Mei (金骏眉 literally: ‘Golden Horse Eyebrow’), Lapsang souchong (正山小種), Qilan (奇兰), Rougui (肉桂茶), Shui jin gui (水金龟 literally: ‘Golden Water Turtle’), Tieluohan (铁罗汉)

Zhu Cha – Gunpowder tea (珠茶 literally: ‘pearl tea’)

Tea leaves that are been rolled into a ball which has a resemblance to gunpowder thus the English naming. It is made usually using green or oolong tea. The rolling is believed to help the tea maintain flavor and aroma.

Lei cha (擂茶 literally: ‘Thunder tea)

Possible more of a soup than a tea, using either oolong or a green tea together with roasted nuts, roasted grains such as rice, spices such as ginger which are all ground in a mortar and pestle/food processor. Hot water is added and it is eaten/drank with a spoon. Modern versions of Lei Cha can include lost of vegetables as well.

Hua Cha – Scented Teas (花茶)

Hua Cha, aka Scented teas (also called flower teas), can be either green or white teas that are been infused with certain flowers, which impart a delicate and interesting taste, and of course a wonderful aroma. Flowers used for blending include Jasmine, Osmanthus, Rose, and Chrysanthemum. The most famous is Moli Hua Cha (茉莉花茶) aka Jasmine tea.

Flowering tea or blooming tea (香片, 工艺茶, or 开花茶)

Tea leaves and flowers are specially bound together into a bulb which, when steeped, grows and unfurls as it were a live flower blooming.

Herbal Tea 草药茶)

Technically not tea, as there are no tea leaves involved, herbal teas are an infusion of plant flora and plant roots etc. that offer health benefit or medicinal properties.

Popular herbal teas include: Leung Cha (涼茶), Twenty-Four Flavours (Ya Sei Mei 廿四味), Chrysanthemum Tea (Ju Hua Cha 菊花茶), Xia Sang Ju (夏桑菊), Eight Treasures Tea (Ba Bao Cha 八宝茶), Gingko (Yinxing 银杏), Osmanthus (Guihua 桂花), Honeysuckle (Jin Yin Hua 金银花), Amaranth Flower (Qian Ri Hong 千日红花), Lavender (Xun Yi Cao 薰衣草)

Growing Regions

All of China’s tea producing regions are located in Southern China due to the favorable warmer humid climate. The most famed provinces are Fujian, Anhui, and Zhejiang while typically tea production in China is classified into four key areas being

  • Jiangbei – North of the Yangtze River inc. northern Anhui, Henan, Gansu, northern Jiangsu, Shaanxi, Shandong and known for green teas.
  • Jiangnan – South of the Yangtze River inc. southern Anhui, Hubei, Hunan, southern Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and is the major tea producing region known for oolong, green, black, and scented teas.
  • Southwest China – inc. Sichuan, Guizhou, Tibet and known for Pu Erh teas, black tea, and some green and yellow tea.
  • Southern China – inc. Guangdong, Fujian, Hainan, Guangxi and known for white tea, black, and oolong.

Tea production by Province

  • Anhui – Varieties: Chun Mee, Huangshan Maofeng, Huoshan Huangya tea, Hyson, Keemun, Lu’an Melon Seed tea, Taiping houkui
  • Fujian – Varieties: Baihao Yinzhen, Bai Jiguan tea, Bai Mudan, Ban Tian Yao tea, Baozhong tea, Bu Zhi Chun tea, Fo Shou tea, Huang Guanyin tea, Huang Meigui tea, Huangjin Gui, Jin Fo tea, Jin Suo Chi tea, Lapsang souchong, Qilan tea, Rougui tea, Ruanzhi tea, Shoumei tea, Shui Hsien tea, Shui Jin Gui tea, Tieguanyin, Tieluohan tea, Wuyi tea
  • Guanxi – Varieties: Liu Bao
  • Guangdong – Varieties: Yingdehong tea
  • Henan – Varieties: Xinyang Maojian tea
  • Hubei – Varieties: Yu Lu
  • Hunan – Varieties: Junshan Yinzhen
  • Jiangsu – Varieties: Biluochun, Dafang tea, Shanjuan Chunyue
  • Jiangxi – Varieties: Yun Wu
  • Shaanxi – Varieties: Mao Jian
  • Sichuan – Varieties: Mengding Ganlu tea, Panda tea
  • Yunnan – Varieties: Baihao Yinzhen, Dianhong, Pu’er tea
  • Zhejiang – Varieties: Gunpowder tea, Longjing tea, Dragon Pearl Jasmine

The Ten Famous Chinese Teas

The most famous teas in China are noted as the Ten Great Chinese Teas (中國十大名茶) which is derived from the teas chosen and taken by China to the 1915 Panama World Expo.

Chinese name – English name – City Province origin – Tea Type

  • 西湖龙井 – Longjing tea – Hangzhou, Zhejiang – Green tea
  • 洞庭碧螺春 – Biluochun tea – Suzhou, Jiangsu – Green tea
  • 安溪铁观音 – Anxi Tieguanyin tea – Anxi, Fujian – Oolong tea
  • 黄山毛峰 – Huangshan Maofeng tea – Huangshan, Anhui – Green tea
  • 武夷岩茶/大红袍 – Da Hong Pao – Wuyi, Fujian – Oolong tea
  • 君山银针 – Junshan Yinzhen – Yueyang, Hunan – Yellow tea
  • 祁门红茶 – Keemun Black tea – Qimen, Anhui – Black tea
  • 六安瓜片 – Lu’an Melon Seed tea – Jinzhai, Anhui – Green tea
  • 云南普洱 – Yunnan Puer – Puer (Simao), Yunnan – Post-fermented tea Puer
  • 白毫银针 – Baihao Yinzhen – Fuding, Fujian – White tea

Grading and Selecting Quality Tea

There are five methods for choosing tea. The five methods are referred to as Xin, Gau, Jun, Xiang, and Jing.

Xin – The Xin method is to choose fresh tea, never using bitter or dull-fragranced teas. Green tea, for example, starts losing flavor and aroma after 2 months depending on type and storage method.

Gan – means that the tea leaves need to have low moisture content (less than 6%). High moisture can lead to poor shelf life and mold growth.

Jun – The thickness of the leaves should be consistent along with the color also being free from burn marks.

Xiang – noting the fragrance it should be a soft scent without any burnt or sour aroma.

Jing – there should not be any foreign substances.

Brewing Methods

Choosing the right equipment for the type of tea

The choice of teaware is mostly a cultural one, with different regions of China each having there own favored style. That said, it is very favorable to use glassware for high-quality green teas as the colors and “dancing” of the leaves as they brew is all part of the tea experience. The white porcelain gai wan (盖碗 literally: lidded bowl) is also suitable in this case and also suitable for white tea and scented teas. For black, oolong, and puer you may like to use a Yixing clay teapot (宜兴) to brew the tea.

For drinking, it is often preferred to use small cups so as to appreciate the range of flavors throughout the brewing process, especially in traditional gong-fu style.

Water to Tea Ratio

As a rule of thumb, for oolong, black and green tea you can use 3g tea per 200 ml of water. 3g of tea is roughly one teaspoon depending on the density of the tea with two tablespoons used for large open style leaf teas. For Puer tea use a little more and about 5-10g per 200 ml of water.

Water Temperature

For low-cost teas, the water temperature does not matter too much although for high-quality teas using the incorrect temperature will destroy the qualities of the particular tea.

  • Pu’er: 93–100°C (200–212°F)
  • Black: 88–93°C (190–200°F)
  • Oolong: 82–93°C (180–200°F)
  • Yellow: 79°C (175°F)
  • White: 71–85°C  (160–185°F)
  • Green: 60–88°C (140–190°F)

Brewing Time

For low-cost teas with small particles such as that in tea bags or Hong Sui Cha (红碎茶) add water and let sit to brew for 3-5 minutes and serve. After, throw away the leaves as they have nothing left to offer.

For high-quality teas, you can put the amount of tea in your cup and pour just enough hot water to cover the tea. Let it brew for 3 minutes, then fill your cup and drink leaving one third. When ready pour in the hot water again and drink leaving one third. After three times the leaves can be thrown away.

For Oolong using a Yixing teapot,  brew briefly and throw away the water. Add water again and brew for one minute. Add 15 seconds to the brewing time with each refill up to four times.

Specific Brewing Time by Tea Type 

Pu’Erh

  • Water temperature: 93–100°C (200–212°F)
  • Use about six to eight grams of tea per 200ml
  • Add water and throw away, twice.
  • Fill the cup with water allow to steep for ten seconds. Drink and repeat.
  • It can be used this way for ten times at least depending on tea quality and your taste.

Oolong

  • Water temperature: 82–93°C (180–200°F)
  • Use six to eight grams of tea per 200ml
  • Wash leaves once
  • Fill the cup with water allow to steep for ten seconds. Drink and repeat.
  • It can be used this way for six times depending on tea quality and your taste.

Long Leaf Green Tea 

  • Water temperature: 60–88°C (140–190°F)
  • Use three grams of tea per 200ml
  • Add water and steep for ten seconds. Drink and repeat.
  • Put hot water to the top of the leaves in the glass
  • It can be used this way for five times depending on tea quality and your taste.

Green Tea and Yellow Tea

  • Water temperature: 60–88°C (140–190°F)
  • Use three grams of tea per 200ml
  • Cover leaves with water and stir
  • Fill the glass and steep for 30 seconds. Drink and repeat.
  • It can be used this way for five times depending on tea quality and your taste.

White tea 

  • Water temperature: White: 71–85°C  (160–185°F)
  • Use six grams of tea per 200ml
  • Fill the glass and steep for 15 seconds.
  • Drink and repeat
  • It can be used this way for five times depending on tea quality and your taste

Black tea

  • Water temperature: White: 71–85°C  (160–185°F)
  • Use three grams of tea per 200ml
  • Fill the glass and steep for 3-5 seconds.
  • Drink and repeat
  • It can be used this way for five times depending on tea quality and your taste

Milk Teas

Milk teas are popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan spreading to mainland China especially Bubble Tea.

Xiang Gang Nai Cha – Hong Kong Milk Tea (香港奶茶)

Hong Kong-style milk tea is made from black tea and evaporated milk. In Hong Kong, tea masters are revered for their creations with each having their own secret recipes which may include several types of teas and their own unique brewing styles.

Zhenzu Naicha – Bubble Tea (珍珠奶茶)

Hailing from Taiwan, bubble tea has become a global craze. “Pearls” that are made from tapioca flour are added to a rich sweet milk tea to make the popular street stall beverage. There are endless varieties.

Tea culture

Going way back to the Warring States period (475–221 BC), tea was made from freshly picked tea leaves, perhaps picked fresh from the tree, steeped and drank right there on the spot. It wasn’t until the around the Sui or at least prior to the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) that processing of tea developed tea to produce a product that could be stored, transported, and drank as needed.

During the Tang Dynasty, tea leaves were steamed and molded into solid cakes of tea, then in the later Song Dynasty (960–1279) they were steamed, pressed, and rolled and the later Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) tea leaves were heated by hot pan, rolled and dried similar to how green tea is produced today. Later developments would see the creation of Oolong teas and much later black teas.

Tea art (茶艺), described as “the beautiful artistic conception including the appreciation of tea techniques and the means of artistic manipulation, and the appreciation of the beautiful environment. The process of embodiment and the spirit are unified, which is the cultural phenomenon formed during the tea drinking process” sprouted in the Tang Dynasty, carried forward in the Song Dynasty, reformed in the Ming Dynasty, and flourished in the Qing Dynasty.
 


 
With tea came the tea gardens where people would come to share conversation, play mahjong and other games and while away the hours, tea houses where people would go to drink and play chess, watch opera, or snack on local delicacies. Practices which regardless of modernization and growth of coffee culture continue to this day. Tea is also interwoven into local religion, in the way of tea or Cha Dao (茶道) interconnected with spiritual practices of Taoism.

Tea culture is not just about the tea, it is life itself with the art of tea allowing one to develop a calm and peaceful nature (廉 lian), through the enjoyment of art, beauty, and the senses (美 mei), while conversing with friends (和 he), and being of service to guests and elders (敬 jing).

Tea has been central to the Chinese way of life ever since its inception and remains firmly so with highly prized rare teas costing more than gold of the same weight and collectors who are willing to pay millions for teapots made by famed artisans.

Simple Tea Vocabulary

茶具 cha ju – Teaware
側杯 ce bei – gai wan with handle and spout
茶承 cha cheng – teapot platform, e.g. of clay, for gongfu cha
茶船 cha chuan – hot-water dish for keeping teapot warm
茶壺 cha hu – teapot
公道杯 gong dao bei – pitcher for gong fu cha
養壺 yang hu –  a favorite or cherished teapot
茶 杯 cha bei – tea cup
茶碗 cha wan – tea bowl
茶盅 cha zhong – small pitcher
盖杯 gai bei – tea cup with a lid
盖碗 gai wan – tea bowl with lid
品茗杯 pin ming bei – tasting cup
闻香杯 wen xiang bei – aroma cup
水方 shui fang – water vessel
茶缸 cha gang – tea-leaf jar
茶厂cha chang – tea factory
茶村 cha cun – tea farm, lit ‘tea village’
茶叶店 cha ye dian – tea shop (to buy tea leaves)
茶坊 cha fang – tea house
茶馆 cha guan – tea house
茶具店 cha ju dian – tea-ware shop
茶楼 cha lou – tea house where typically can eat dim sum
茶艺馆 cha yi guan – tea arts house