illustration of Camellia sinensis plant

Tea 101: Tea FAQs

What is tea?

True tea refers to either the infusion or the leaves of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen plant species native to Southeast Asia. There are two naturally occurring varieties of Camellia sinensis:

  • Camellia sinensis v. sinensis are compact and bushy with small leaves. This variety grows well at high elevations in cooler, cloudier climates.
  • Camellia sinensis v. assamica are larger plants with broad leaves. This variety responds well to a subtropical climate.

As with other crops, these two species may be cultivated through selective pollination, grafting and cloning for specific growth and flavor characteristics. Ongoing tea research continues to result in new and different cultivars.

Where does Camellia sinensis grow?

While the oldest Camellia sinensis plants still grow in Southeast Asia, tea is cultivated globally including throughout North and South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Tea grows comfortably at altitudes ranging from sea level to 7,000 feet, and in many types of soil including loam and well-drained clay.

G.S. Haly sources teas exclusively from the traditional tea producing regions of China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Japan.

How many types of tea are there?

While all true tea begins as Camellia sinensis, there are six main types or categories of tea. Each type is determined by the level of oxidation, or enzymatic change, the leaves undergo after they are harvested. The five types, in order of least to most oxidized leaves, are:

Green Tea
Application of heat—dry heat such as pan-firing or baking, or wet steam heat—de-enzymes the leaves and fixed them in a green state.
Yellow Tea
Leaves are heated gently then covered and left to swelter over a short period of time.
White Tea
Freshly harvested leaves are left to wither and naturally begin to oxide. Leaves retain some original green color, but also undergo some enzymatic change.
Oolong Tea
Leaves undergo repeated rolling and shaping to break down some their cellular structures and encourage oxidation. Leaves retain some green color.
Black Tea
Full, rigorous rolling breaks down the cell walls in each leaf so full oxidation may occur.
Pu-erh Tea
There are several styles of pu-erh, each requiring the leaves to sit for an extended amount of time so natural fermentation and oxidation may occur. This process is similar to that of other traditionally fermented foods such as kimchi or sauerkraut.

In all types of tea production, once the desired degree of oxidation has been reached, the tea leaves are fired at high temperatures to remove any remaining moisture and stabilize them for transport and storage.

For more information on tea types, see our Master Tea List.

What is a leaf grade?

A tea’s grade indicates the size of its leaves. Since different leaf sizes infuse at different rates, the final step in quality tea production is grading, or sifting leaves into uniform sizes. One significant marker of quality is how thoroughly and consistently a tea has been graded—a well-graded tea results in an even, reliable infusion, while a poorly-graded tea will have a muddy, inconsistent flavor.

The most common industry grades and their acronyms are:

Whole Leaf

Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: one of the highest qualities grades, consisting of whole leaves and golden leaf buds.
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: an open leaf with golden brown tips.
Flowery Orange Pekoe: long leaves that are loosely rolled.
Flowery Orange Pekoe: long, thin, and wiry leaves, more tightly rolled that FOP leaves.
Sort, small leaves, loosely rolled.
Broad, flat leaves.

Broken Leaf

Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe: broken, uniform leaves with golden bud tips.
Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe: slightly larger than standard BOP leaves, often containing golden or silver leaf buds.
Broken Orange Pekoe: one of the smallest and most versatile leaf grades, with a good balance of color and strength. BOP teas are useful in blends.
Broken Pekoe: short, even, curly leaves that produce a dark, heavy cup.

Tea Bag and Ready-to-Drink

Much smaller than BOP leaves, fannings should be uniform and consistent in color and size.
The smallest leaf grade, very quick-brewing.

Other Resources

For more information on tea or the tea industry, visit:

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