I have recently come across a few posts and articles debating about this categorisation, especially the term of ‘fermentation’ used in the categorisation.
From a consumer, but not scholar or academic’s perspective, I make following observations.
Teas were traditionally ‘categoryless’
Tea has a consumption history in China for more than 2000 years. For a big majority of this history it was ‘categoryless’.
To understand the absence in categories, we need to look into its history during the pre-modern transportation era: tea’s production and consumption were extremely geographical.
For example, Oolong teas such as Tie Guan Yin and Zhang Ping Shui Xian were the local teas in the area where I grew up (Long Yan of the Fu-Jian province). With a few exceptions, these teas were only grown, processed and consumed locally (pre mid-20 century), and these were the only teas the local tea drinker were familiar with, known as Tie Guan Yin or Zhang Ping Shui Xian, but not as Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea or Zhang Ping Shui Xian Oolong tea.
From the production point of view, the tea farmers leant their knowledge and skills from the previous generations and were more likely NOT even aware of the 6 tea defining categories. This however had zero impact on both of the tea product and consumption. The locals knew their teas best and no one else could do a better job in making their teas. This is why the tea names in China are more associated with the areas they are produced than the tea categories they belong to: An-Xi (area name) Tie Guan Yin (tea name), Zhang Ping (area name) Shui Xian (tea name), Yunnan (area name) Pu-erh (tea name) etc.
The categorisation of teas only came into place and became meaningful when modern tea scholars and researchers started studying and analysing teas from top down – with so many varieties around, it makes sense to create some ‘shoe boxes’ to put them into.
Raw Pu-erh tea, green tea or else
To discuss or answer this question, we need to step back and ask some of the following first:
- ‘Fermentation’ is the factor used to define and differentiate the various categories of teas. Some argue that the term 'fermentation' used to describe the tea processing process, such as Oolong or black tea, is not actual fermentation as there are not yeast or bacteria involved. This is a topic of debate for another day. We would just call it an 'enzyme mediated oxidation' now, bearing in mind that 'fermentation' is the term used in most of the tea books and journal reports.
- Is tea categorisation as clear cut, black and white as people think or expect? My personal opinion is that the modern science is trying to use a simplified and well-ordered format to capture a highly cultural tradition, and the reality is that there is plenty of vague and grey areas that deserve due respect and acceptance.
- Green tea is a category with a vast variation within, but not a single tea. For example, if we offered the exact same tea leaves to a Mao Feng processor and a Long Jing processor, the end products produced could look and taste rather different. This however would not make one more of a green tea than the other, or one ‘yes’ and the other ‘no’.
- I personally believe the very fundamental difference between a conventional ‘green tea’ and a ‘raw Pu-erh green tea’ is in the tea leaves, or more precisely the tea trees/bushes: The bush leaves are smaller and more tender, more suitable for being consumed fresh and young; While the arbor leaves on the other hand, being bigger, thicker and stronger, are more suitable for aging and fermentation. They are therefore processed accordingly to facilitate these different consumption styles: most of conventional green teas are dried with relatively higher temperature: eg. Chao-Qing (炒青 – fried dry) and Hong-Qing (烘青- baked dry); while the Pu-erh is Liang-Qing (凉青 – aired dry) with a much lower temperature to preserve enough enzymes and nutrients for the future post-fermentation.
- Based on the category definition, as long as a tea is not fermented, it is a green tea. An unfermented, newly produced raw pu-erh therefore can only be a green tea.
It is also worthwhile mentioning that there are new products coming to the market all the time, challenging the conventional categorisations/definitions. Eg, Pu-erh teas are conventionally compressed, this does not make loose pu-erh not a Pu-erh tea; Is a Pu-erh white tea cake pu-erh tea or white tea? All this prompts me to re-ask the question: do we really need to know the categories of the teas we drink? Or we should just enjoy the teas as they are and not to worry too much about anything else as our ancestors did?
The founder and owner of Valley Green Tea
I grew up in the Fu-Jian Province – the tea country of China. Tea drinking has been part of our daily life for as long as I can remember.
While I was working as a public health researcher a few years ago, I read many research reports conducted over the last 30 years about the health benefits of green tea in fighting certain life style related challenges such as cancer, obesity, cardio-vascular and inflammatory diseases etc.
From my research, I realised there is a significant gap between what people consume (i.e. commercial tea bags) for assumed health benefits and the actual benefits that have been enjoyed by the Chinese for a long history from the premium loose leaf teas.
As well as being potentially beneficial to health, the premium loose teas (green tea being the biggest group) are most enjoyable beverages with a fascinating history, colourful culture and holistically dynamic in every aspect.
It is my passion to share, not only the products, but also the whole culture dynamics around the premium teas with the tea enthusiasts, here in Australia and around the world.
Valley Green Tea currently supplis a diverse range of premium loose teas to the tea drinking community that suit all tastes and all cultures and to pass on a deep understanding of the history and benefits of this wonder beverage.Website: https://www.valleygreentea.com.au
- The age of a Pu-erh when there is not a production date
- Top ripened Pu-erh tea a gamble than a prediction
- The transformation of Chinese tea from a local produce to a modern luxury
- Pu-erh tea storage risks
- A comparison study of consumer’s ripened Pu-erh preferences against two differing temperature and humidity storage conditions