A Tea Glossary

“Thank God for tea!

What would the world do without tea? How did it exist?

I am glad I was not born before tea.”

—SYDNEY SMITH, Lady Holland’s Memoirs (1855)

For those who savor quiet pleasures like reading Barbara Pym, writing with a fountain pen, or watching Call the Midwife, a suggestion: get hold of a copy of the Upton Tea Quarterly and meander though its pages at a leisurely pace. This mail-order catalogue sent out from Holliston, Massachusetts (near enough to the site of the Boston Tea Party), not only offers an impressive variety of tea and tea accoutrements for sale but each issue also contains a gently erudite essay, e.g. “Tea and the Samurai,” “The Practical Teapot,” and “Reversals of Fortune in the Tea Industry.”

Reading through the esoterica as well as the delicious descriptions of bold-leaf Darjeelings, Formosa oolongs, and rare Kamakura green selections in the most recent issue, I was reminded that in the early 1970s when I was a very junior promotion copywriter at Time-Life Books, I had approached an editor about writing a kind of dictionary of teas as an introduction to the topic for a general audience. This was in the days when Time-Life was finding enormous success with its pretty and informative Foods of the World series and I reasoned that such a volume would fit in nicely.

Alas the idea was not well received. Perhaps, when you consider the profusion of such books currently available, it was slightly ahead of its time.

I have maintained my interest in the topic and am now delighted with the current easy availability of specialized tea merchants and the proliferation of books and articles on the subject. But when trying to decide what specific tea to buy, it can still be quite confusing. And although this website has already featured an article of afternoon tea in issue 4, December 4, 2011 (www.orangeandmagenta.com/tea-in-the-afternoon/), a much abbreviated and arbitrary version of that dreamed-of dictionary for those of us who are still neophytes in the fascinating and complicated world of tea still seems a good idea.

  • Assam—A strong black tea from the Assam region in India, the world’s largest tea-growing area located on either side of the Brahmaputra River and bordering Burma and Bangladesh.
  • Black Tea—Generally stronger in flavor than the less oxidized oolong, green, and white teas, black tea is the result of a special process. (The tea leaves are spread on racks and withered to remove moisture, then rolled to break up cells, and finally fermented in their own juices. When the desired degree of fermentation is reached, the tea is placed in driers where it is subjected to blasts of hot air that continue until the tea turns black.) The majority of the world’s tea production is of this black variety. Among the most popular are Assam, Nilgiri, and Ceylon.
  • Bold Leaf—This designation refers to the large size of the leaf and is sometimes further categorized as very bold leaf, extra bold leaf, or ultra bold leaf.
  • Ceylon Tea—This black tea from Sri Lanka has a golden color and rich, intense flavor when brewed and is used by itself as well as in numerous blends. Ceylon tea is usually grown at very high altitudes, said to be the best growing conditions for tea plants. Interestingly enough, this fertile part of the world might never have become tea producing region had not the coffee crops been struck with a killer fungus (Hemileia Vastatrix) in 1869 that forced coffee planters to turn to tea cultivation out of economic necessity.
  • Chanoyu—Japanese tea ceremony
  • Congou—A general term applied to describe a black tea made in China. It can also mean, more precisely, a particular grade of tea obtained from the fifth and largest leaf gathered from a shoot tip of a tea plant.
  • Darjeeling—Sometimes referred to as the “champagne among teas,” this most-favored albeit costly of the Indian teas is from the Darjeeling district in West Bengal, India. The most popular varieties produce a light-colored liquid with a distinctive bouquet that is sometimes described as flowery. Although most teas of this sort are marketed commercially as “black teas,” almost all varieties have incomplete oxidation so they are technically more oolong than black.
  • Earl Grey—Michael Smith, regarded by many as “a champion of English food and cookery,” writes, “The name of Charles, the second Earl Grey (1764–1845), prime minister of England during the reign of William IV, is probably the best known in the world when it comes to tea.” Legend has it that the recipe for this special blend of Chinese and Darjeeling teas scented with oil of bergamot was sent to the earl by a mandarin whose life had been saved by one of the earl’s envoys while on a diplomatic mission.

  • English Breakfast TeaA blend of Ceylon and Indian teas, it is full-bodied and well-suited as a wake-up drink.
  • First FlushThese are the leaves of the tea plants that grow in the spring after initially awakening from dormancy, usually in April or May. Reported to have a unique taste, First Flush teas were traditionally saved for nobility but some connoisseurs prefer the special qualities in later harvests.
  • Green TeaAccording to an authoritative and useful new paperback, The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, “Green tea is tea in its purest form and the one that is minimally altered by man. There is no room in tea production for over manipulation or drawn-out fussy techniques.” Throughout its long history, green tea has been used in most of Asia as both a beverage and as a medicine to help everything from controlling bleeding and healing wounds to regulating body temperature and promoting digestion.
  • Gunpowder — One of the oldest teas from China and known as pearl tea to the Chinese, its large greyish-green leaves are rolled into pellets resembling its namesake. Its liquor is pale, straw-colored, and lower in caffeine than other teas.
  • Gyokuro — A Japanese green tea grown in the shade rather than in full sunlight. It is one of the most expensive of green teas.
  • Hyson — Sometimes called Lucky Dragon tea, this is a Chinese green tea made from thinly rolled leaves that comes from the Anhui province and is often considered to be of mediocre quality.
  • Irish Breakfast Tea — A strong, flavored black tea (most often a blend of Assams) with a high caffeine content.
  • Japanese Tea Ceremony — The ritualistic preparation and presentation of powdered green tea. Murata Shuko, a Zen monk, completed the philosophy of the unity of Zen and Tea and said, “Tea is not a pastime or an accomplished art but is a state of Zen enlightenment.”
  • Jasmine Tea — The most popular of the scented teas, it is usually an oolong but can be a black or green tea as well.
  • Keemun — A congou tea from Northern China with an almost sweet taste, it was the tea of Imperial court, and some connoisseurs regard it as among the best in the world. It has been said that it has the flavor of an orchid; its liquid is a pale golden color,
  • Lapsang Souchong – The tea with the most distinctive flavor of all, this is a very smoky brew that people tend to love or hate. In his interesting tome The Afternoon Tea Book, Michael Smith explains that this brew is “recognizable the instant the first cup is poured, not only by its light grayish green color, but more particularly by the pungent smoky aroma . . . . it is never drunk with milk, always with lemon, or unadulterated by either of these alternatives.”
  • Lung Ching – Sometimes called by its literally translated name, Dragon Well Tea, this pan-fried green tea from Hangzhou in the Zhejiang province of China is greatly favored by the Chinese. It has a delicate, slightly vegetative, slightly sweet flavor and produces a pale green liquor. It can be very expensive.
  • Matcha —This is the fine ground, powdered green tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony.
  • Nilgiri —A dark, intense, and fragrant black tea grown in the southern portion of the Western Ghats mountains in Southern India. It usually finds its way into blends.
  • Oolong —A partially fermented China tea; that is to say, a tea between black and green. It is known for its low caffeine content and amber colored liquor. Formosa oolong is generally regarded as the very finest.
  • Orange Pekoe —This is a blend, usually of specially selected Ceylon teas, and it has nothing to do with an orange flavoring. The word “orange” refers to the color of the leaf, not to the flavor of the brew.
  • Origins of Tea —Edward Bramah, a well-regarded twentieth-century authority on tea and coffee, wrote in his 1972 tome Tea & Coffee: A Modern View of Three Hundred Years of Tradition, “Camellia sinensis or Chinese camellia, has been grown in China for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, but its origins are not in the black-tea provinces of Fukien and Kwangtung, or in the green-tea provinces of Anhwei and Chekiang. The wild plant from which cultivated tea must have developed has never been found in southern China. It originated, with wild India tea, in that remote part of South-East Asia where the Yangtze runs south out of the Tibetan highlands and turns east near the source of the Brahmaputra and the Irrawaddy.” In 1992, Bramah founded the Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee, which is based in London and currently closed for redevelopment.

  • Pearl Tea —The Chinese name for gunpowder tea.
  • Pouchong —Somewhere between a green and an oolong, it is produced in Fujian, China, and in Pinglin Township, near Taipei, Taiwan. It is popular with producers of scented teas.
  • Pu-Erh Tea — A specific and exotic type of fermented black tea from the Yunnan province in China.
  • Red Tea —The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean designation for what is known as black tea in the West.
  • Russian Caravan Tea —This popular blend, traditionally composed of a blend of Keemun teas as well as some oolong, was originally brought to Russia by the long camel caravan route and was introduced at that imperial court by the Empress Elizabeth about 1735.
  • Second Flush —Second flush refers to the second picking of the year, typically around May or June. These teas tend to be a little sweeter and smoother than first flush teas. Darjeeling tea connoisseurs often favor these because they clearly bring out the unique muscatel flavor for which that tea is celebrated.
  • Sencha — Japanese green tea made without grinding the tea leaves.
  • Spider Leg —A Japanese tea with long, thin, dark green, twisted leaves.
  • Yellow Tea —Not very well-known in the West, these teas are often mistaken for green teas and in fact are processed in almost the same way. An extra step, however, mellows the flavor.
  • Yunnan Tea —This is a tea from the Yunnan region in the Western province of China. It is sweetly flavored, golden hued, and ideal for iced tea.
  • White Tea —A lightly oxidized Chinese tea mostly from the Fujian province. To produce white tea, the leaves and buds of the tea plants are allowed to wither in natural sunlight before they are lightly processed to prevent further oxidation. The name comes from the silvery-white hairs on the unopened buds of the plant; the brewed tea is pale yellow.


Issue Twenty Two