What is Camellia sinensis?
Ever wondered about the difference between green and black tea? Most people assume different teas come from different plants, but they're actually all created from an evergreen called Camellia sinensis. Read on to find out how this is possible!
White tea is composed of the top buds from the Camellia sinensis plant, and can sometimes include the adjacent two leaves. Silver Needle is the higher quality tea made up of buds entirely, and White Peony includes the adjacent baby leaves.
The buds and baby leaves are briefly oxidized by a short period of withering in the sun or a warm drying room. Oxidation level is approximately 10-20% for white teas (percentages are usually arbitrary estimates since lab testing is expensive).
The leaves aren't white of course - they're named after the white down covering the buds (making them appear like silver needles). However, as new countries start experimenting with tea production, don't be surprised to come across a white tea these days with no silvery buds at all!
Green tea is created when leaves from Camellia sinensis are dried almost immediately after picking - making the oxidation level of green tea ~0-10%. After drying, the leaves can be shaped into needles, spirals, pellets and more. Popular green teas from Japan include Sencha, Genmaicha (blended with toasted rice) and Hojicha (roasted after drying). In China, popular types are Dragonwell, Gunpowder, Mao Feng and more.
Oolong teas are made up of leaves oxidized anywhere between 10-80% - a huge range! Lightly oxidized oolong teas are generally greener in appearance (like the rolled oolong below), while heavily oxidized teas appear darker.
China and Taiwan are the main producers of oolong tea, and use some of the following methods to oxidize:
- Withering leaves in the sun
- Shaking leaves in baskets (to encourage cell-breakdown by impact)
- Tumbling leaves in machines
- Rolling leaves in large cloths (by hand or machine)
Puerh tea is fully oxidized tea that is also processed to ferment over time. (See our September newsletter about Puerh and read about fermentation vs. oxidation.)
Black teas are considered fully oxidized, generally between 80-100%. Camellia sinensisleaves are withered for many hours, allowed to oxidize completely and then finally dried. Since the invention of the tea bag, black teas are commonly processed by CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl) instead of being rolled, so leaves are smaller and easier to manufacture. CTC tea leaves undergo such an intense processing that it's unlikely any of the possible health benefits remain from polyphenol antioxidants - another reason to choose whole-leaf teas over tea bags!
We've barely scratched the surface, so here's further reading for tea geeks looking for more:
Our favourite coffeetable book is Tea Sommelier, by Gabriella Lombardi. Full of beautiful close-ups, this book also includes both Western and Eastern brewing methods for all the featured teas.
Pick up a copy of Jane Pettigrew's Tea Classified: A Tea Lover's Companion to read more about tea production and classifications of over 100 different teas from all over the world.