Exhilarating flavour profiles that build with age. Oolong tea » Southern Fujian » Iron Buddha Teas, ★★★★★
Also known as: 铁观音, Iron Goddess (of Mercy).
Fresh Tieguanyin is very grassy. Its leaves are a luminescent green and brew into a tippy, caffeine-and-nutrient-rich yellow-green broth. Most people don’t drink fresh Tieguanyin because it’s supposedly bad for your stomach, but if you live in China, you can ask your local tea merchant to brew some for you. Sip some and you’ll feel like it’s brushed your mouth with an entire bunch of watercress! (It’s a fun experience, but just taste it—I don’t suggest buying any.)
Six-month-old Tieguanyin tastes just right. It’s grassy, but not overpoweringly so. The leaves are a slightly darker green but still ‘jade-coloured’. The nutrients (including caffeine and catechins, which are very, very abundant in this tea) are still present and the mouthfeel is still complex. After six months, the sharp taste has developed into a smoother, blunter, creamier feel. Like the Taiwan Dong Ding tea I reviewed, Tieguanyin is a perfect choice for drinking at work. I’m drinking it now.
Older Tieguanyin tastes even more oxidised. The dry leaves will have unfurled and will have turned a disappointing brown colour. In my experience, these leaves also turn bitter much more easily than the young ones. As a fan of less-oxidised teas, I like my Tieguanyin while it’s still green.
So don’t buy Tieguanyin that you can’t see (e.g. if it’s boxed then shrink-wrapped in plastic). Invariably, these are the lowest-quality over-oxidised tea leaves packaged into (sometimes very nice) boxes by unscrupulous tea traders. They are the fruit-equivalent of compost. Aged Tieguanyin might be cheap, but it is a total waste of money—I’ve even known it to put novice tea-tasters off oolong teas as a whole. Only drink Tieguanyin with a jade-coloured leaf.
Find a good-quality Tieguanyin and you could drink it daily. But store it properly (cool and airtight but not near food); buy a little at a time (no more than 6 months’ supply); and drink it seasonally (look out for your local tea merchant’s posters that read, “Spring Fujian Teas Coming Soon/Now In Stock!” and buy some). Every tea-lover should have at least a little Tieguanyin in their tea collection. Classic. ★★★★★
Very slightly tangy. Alert yet aloof.
Oolong tea » Traditional » Taiwan, ★★★★
Also known as: 冻顶乌龙茶
Dong Ding has the characteristic ‘buttery sensation’ (of course, without a buttery taste) that underlies all good oolong teas. This arises as the tightly-knotted leaves unfurl and change the mineral composition of the water.
This particular oolong is special for its subtle notes of tangy orange, peach and lychee. There’s a very slight acidity that tickles your mouth and leaves you feeling very refreshed (I’m tempted to replace ‘tangy orange’ with ‘lemonade’). The caffeine and catechin content is very high in this tea, so it makes you feel alert but not shaky. Dong Ding oolong tea makes you feel effortlessly energetic yet slightly automatic. It’s perfect for work.
I used to drink this tea when I taught 8 noisy English classes in China. Between classes, I’d go to the hot water machine and re-fill my mug of Dong Ding oolong tea. (Chinese tea stores can pack your chosen tea into convenient 7-gram packages).
Eventually, this tea loses its fragrance and gains astingency. Brewed gongfu style, the second and third brews are the most pleasant because the flavours need several minutes to unfurl out of the leaves. Unfortunately, for $380/kg (1300 RMB per 500g), I would expect fewer stems—or even none at all—and many more buds in the mix. On the bright side, the stems and rugged tertiary leaves in this pluck allow you to brew it all day, at the end of which, you’re drinking an inexhaustible broth of tea-stems with barely any colour. Dong Ding brews forever. It makes you work harder, and it makes you keep drinking. Take it to work.★★★★
Tastes naturally of honey and expensive flowers. Exquisite bouquet. Oolong tea » Traditional » Guangdong » Mt. Phoenix, ★★★★★
Also known as: 凤凰单丛, Phoenix Single-Bush, Oolong Dancong
Fenghuang Dancong (Phoenix Single-Bush) has hints of honey, vanilla, osmanthus and pomelo over a lightly-oxidized oolong leaf. This tea is grown on the protected slopes of Mt. Phoenix in China’s Guangdong Province. Like champagne, only tea produced in this region can legally be called Fenghuang Dancong, making this tea special, rare and expensive.
I generally like the greener, fresher, less-oxidized oolong teas—in fact, the more oolongs resemble green tea, the better, in my opinion. But Fenghuang Dancong is special: despite its purple-brown leaf colour, the brew doesn’t taste particularly oxidised at all. It tastes smooth, light and floral, and there’s no bitterness. It’s extremely fragrant, not just with flowery overtones, but with fruity undertones (think about peeling a warm pomelo with honey on your lips) that are soothing and slightly warming to drink, as well. It’s a sexy tea.
I love how the level of sweetness matches the level of fruitiness. It delivers the same amount of fruit to the palate as it promises to the nose. Don’t brew it too cold, as the flavours need to be persuaded out of the leaf (by 85 degree water) and there’s no bitterness to be afraid of. This is my favourite tea. Goldilocks. ★★★★★
I love tea. And while studying, drinking and writing about tea, I’ve categorized all the teas you’re ever likely to encounter onto one simple poster. There are thousands more rarer types and subtypes, which you can add yourselves via the comments section. This selection is a great start (and it’s all I’m willing to show you). If you learn only one thing from this diagram, it should be that there are thousands of types of tea. Tetley Pyramid Teabags are just the beginning (overpriced sweepings from the factory floor).
Sources: The Story of Tea, 识茶泡茶品茶 (Chinese book), tea blogs too numerous to list, personal experience (teas I drank) and Baidu.
Darjeeling is coloured ‘teal’ because it is technically a Oolong tea, despite being classified widely as a Black tea.
Black tea is coloured ‘red’ because the Chinese classify tea by the liquor colour rather than the colour of the dried leaves.
Pu’er is sometimes considered a separate category because of its popularity. In which case, the other (non-Pu’er) Dark teas are usually ignored. I’ve chosen to include both Pu’er and non-Pu’er Dark teas in this poster.
There are many more sub-types of each tea. Take Iron Buddha, for example, which has its own characteristics within the class of “Iron Buddha”. Age, oxidation level and unique fragrance are but some of these many characteristics.
Sundried Green teas such as those made for local consumption in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, are coloured ‘white’ because they are technically white teas, despite the production process having been re-evolved as a shortcut to Green tea production. Sundried Green teas are distinguished further from the other Green teas because, like the vast majority of White teas, they usually use large-leaf Assamica subspecies of tree (Chinese: 古茶树; English: “India Bush”).
Modern Flower teas are usually classified as Green, White or Black, depending on the leaf colour. These modern Flower teas are (almost) an existing tea blended with flower or flower essence. However, the traditional method of Flower tea manufacture (via a Zaobei leaf), was totally different from that of any of the other six tea categories. I have therefore included Flower teas as a seventh type of tea (to which some tea-lovers may protest). Be quiet. Drink tea.