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Tea Basics

What is tea?

While the word "tea" has come into common usage to refer to any hot beverage made from water and plant material, in the strict and original sense, tea is a beverage made from brewing the prepared leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, aka the "tea camellia", although it is uncommonly made from other caffeine-producing camellias in the Camellia genus's subsection Thea.

Green tea, black tea, oolong tea, white tea, pu'er tea, liu bao tea, etc. are not different plants, but variations on how the leaves and stems of the tea camellia are picked and processed.

Other species in Camellia sect. Thea include those listed below. You may hear of other species that supposedly belong in this section, but know that the Camellia genus has undergone substantial revision in recent decades as new genetic studies revealed that many older named species in the genus were conspecific (i.e., the same species). Expect further revisions as more studies are done.

  • Camellia fangchengensis (Fanchang County, Guangxi Province, China)
  • Camellia gymnogyna (Southwestern Guangdong Province, southeastern Yunnan Province, northern Guangxi Province, and southern Guizhou Province, China)
  • Camellia irrawadiensis (Yunnan Province, China; Myanmar)
  • Camellia kwangsiensis (Western Guangxi Province and southeastern Yunnan Province, China)
  • Camellia leptophylla (Longzhou County, Guangxi Province)
  • Camellia makuanica (Maguan County, Yunnan Province, China)
  • Camellia parvisepala (Southern Yunnan Province and Western Guangxi Province, China)
  • Camellia ptilophylla (Central Guangdong Province, China)
  • Camellia pubescens (Rucheng County, Hunan Province, China)
  • Camellia pubicosta (Sontoy and Vinh Provinces, Vietnam)
  • Camellia tachangensis (Eastern Yunnan Province, northwestern Guangxi Province, and western Guizhou Province, China)
  • Camellia taliensis (Western Yunnan Province, China; northern Myanmar)
  • Camellia vidalii (Southern Vietnam)

How is tea manufactured?

This could be a very complicated answer, as it varies a lot not just between categories (green, white, oolong, etc.), but also within each category and across geography. Keeping it simple, tea is:

  • Picked
  • Withered (almost always for all teas)
  • Bruised and oxidized (oolong and black tea) 
  • Heated (except white tea) - Usually via steaming or pan-frying
  • Dried

Some teas in the category of hei cha (黑茶, "dark tea"), undergo additional steps like controlled fermentation. Examples of hei cha are pu'er tea, liu bao tea, liu'an basket tea, fu tea.

Many teas are also now intentionally aged before consumption; these include all heicha, some oolongs and, nowadays, even some black teas and white teas.

How should I store my tea?

Generally speaking, store teas away from light, heat and strong smells. As far as strong smells go, the kitchen is often a bad place to store tea that isn't sealed air-tight because of the smells produced by cooking.

Some teas have specific storage preferences:

  • Pu'er, liu bao and other heicha ("dark teas") like to breathe and prefer a little more humidity, if possible, preferably 70% or higher.
  • Green, white, oolong and black teas stored for freshness should be kept in air-tight opaque canisters.
  • Oolongs, white teas and black teas intended for aging can be allowed to breathe or not; it produces a different end product in both cases. Either way, keep them in drier storage conditions with humidity of 65% or less.

How should I brew my tea?

Brewing great tea is an art. Please see our brewing information for our basic guidance on common brewing styles, including gongfu.