Taylor Cowan • April 16, 2020
The Problems of Tea Classification
Most of us, in our tea education, learn incorrectly the first time. I was taught by my first teachers that oxidation is the definitive step in tea classification. White teas and green teas are lightly oxidized; black teas are heavily oxidized; and oolong is any tea that’s in between. Later, I discovered flowcharts, which break down the order of operations for a tea’s production. Tony Gebely, creator of the most ubiquitous flowchart, says it’s best understood as “a continuum”. He divides processing thought into two camps, lumpers, people who emphasize the broad similarities in processing and splitters who insist it’s too complicated and nuanced to be put into a concise chart presentation. Gebely rightly asserts that a “splitter mentality has no place in a beginner’s education.”
According to the chart above, our seasonal teas might fit multiple definitions.
Even giving way for some minor, semantic variations (e.g. sencha is baked and shaped after being fixed) the chart hold up to its essentials. Think of it more of a distillation, the center of a Venn diagram “not all green teas are prepared exactly this way, but most green tea share these essential steps.” Even assuming these precepts, there are, of course, notable outliers—“Brandy Oolongs”, “New Craft Whites”, “Bao Zhong”—teas generally and neatly fit into these essential categories—but here we’re getting too far into a splitter mentality.
Tieguanyin is a familiar name and style, but is differently interpreted by region, farmer, and traditional tastes.
Tea is Tea
To put such hard delineations on tea “categories” White, Green, Black is convenient, and aids our understanding and classification of tea. It is especially useful to a beginner, building a framework of tea knowledge. But, the further along in learning we come, the more this way of thinking threatens to downplay the essential miracle of tea. There is, in reality, no such thing as “White Tea” or “Green Tea”—there is only tea. What we call white tea or green tea, are simply processes or ways of crafting the same species of plant. It is the truth that makes it at least as compelling a botanic experience as wine or coffee, every flavor, sense and experience we’ve encountered—thousands of possibilities— originate from the selfsame plant species*. I would argue that a tea’s variety, at a taxonomic level, and the environment it was cultivated and processed in—are leagues more important than the actual steps of that process. Certain cultivars have indelible characteristics—no matter how they are eventually processed. We can taste the sarsaparilla, wintergreen notes of a ‘Hong Yue 18’ as a white tea process, or a black tea process thanks to its abundance of methyl salycylate. We can taste the “sour” of a ‘Tieguanyin’ whether it’s an oolong or black tea process. The eminent yancha varietal, ‘Qi Lan’, tastes shift to squashy when rolled and wilted as a black tea process. Pinot Noir is ostensibly identifiable as such, whether it grows in Burgundy or the Willamette, despite stark regional differences in production, equipment and soil.
To make it additionally confusing, most tea producers don’t really consider themselves “green tea” producers, or “yellow tea” producers but rather Longjing Shifeng producers or Huangshan Maofeng producers. The distinct set of skills a teamaker learns in production, usually concern a singular, historical style—not a broad theme of tea. There are interesting results in experimentation. One of our favorite encounters on our trips last year was our friends the Moriuchis in Shizuoka had produced “Bao Zhong” from the Koushun cultivar. Right down to its rolling, it resembled the Pinglin classic oolong. But! it had all the familiar cinnamon and sakura taste of a Koushun Sencha—thanks to the varieties rich coumarin content. We affectionately dub these experimental productions “karaoke style” at Spirit—a sort of tribute performance. Now that information on tea and tea production production effortlessly crosses national borders and enterprising tea masters travel to encounter new —and as the curtain of pedantry falls—a new and exciting tea dialectic is emerging, embracing the spirit of experimentation and the power of collaboration.
This is how new tea styles continue to be born and, for producers not swayed by the constraints of tradition or an imaginary “style"—we see wonderful new ideas take shape.
*there are in fact a number of Camellia species, particularly in its genesis region, that could be argued as “tea.”
Loving the Exception
First Flush Darjeeling’s production, which our Nepal White is most emulative of, involves taking first-harvest leaves through a long withering window and a light, low-pressure rolling, which expresses many of the otherwise rich catechins through the context of oxidative, sweet theaflavins and thearubigins. It’s an elegant, expressive and structured taste. To this day, many producers in Darjeeling, and some in Nepal, refer to this style as a “black tea.” Indeed for most of the remainder of the year, these same gardens employ a classical black tea process in production.
Ankit Lochan of Surajmukhi Tea said in a 2013 discussion thread on the subject, “In India, a decade back no one really knew what an oolong tea was so people called all Darjeeling teas “black.” Slowly, due to technology [and] the internet and people traveling they started discovering and they understood that the light bright cup that they manufacture by altering the normal process of manufacturing is actually oolong tea.” I like this story because it touches on another problem of classification: producer nomenclature versus steps-of-production absolutism.
Indeed, our Nepal White is quite similar in its methodology to Xin Gong Yi. Both are rolled, left to partially oxidize and even undergo two separate oven finishes. Everywhere I’ve seen Xin Gong Yi, it is classified as white tea. But white tea is classically such because there are no explicit rolling or heating steps. Following the flowchart, one might argue it’s actually an oolong or bizarro black tea process. Eventually this argument becomes theoretical, rather than useful. This is why it is imperative to honor the wishes of the producer, first and foremost. Part of our basis in being transparent as a tea company is to bestow credit where credit is due—including the traditions a tea emerged from.
This borne in mind, there are many, many advantages to tea classification. Our primary cause being—simplifying a nearly endless array of possible processing steps and, more importantly, speaking about our selections in a way our consumer will understand and relate to from their previous experience. Tea, for all its leaps and bounds in the new millennium, is still in its relative infancy in terms of widespread knowledge and appreciation in the United States.
How Spirit Tea Classifies Tea Processing In Our Catalog
In order of priority:
- What a producer refers to their own tea as.
- What will best communicate the experience of the tea to the people we serve.
- Where in the flowchart continuum the tea most closely falls.