Teas are often named for the variety of Camellia sinensis they are plucked from. Over the long history of tea cultivation, farmers have developed thousands of distinct varieties in pursuit of specific flavor profiles or adaptations for particular terroir. These cultivated varieties, or ‘cultivars’ form one of the four pillars of any tea’s identity.
But the final expression of variety depends heavily on the other three cornerstones of identity, as well. A single cultivar can produce wildly different results based on the effects of provenance, harvest date, and craftsmanship. To best understand the effects of variety on flavor, we recommend trying these five teas, each of which is distinguishable from similar styles because of the choice to use a particular variety.
Discover more about our first example with Alice in this video:
At first glance, this tea looks like an oolong due to the mottled, dark color of the partially oxidized leaves. But despite meeting this usual criteria for oolong categorization, this tea remains firmly in the white tea family because it is crafted from the traditional Da Bai variety.
While the unusual crafting method sets this apart from more common white tea styles like Silver Needle or Bai Mu Dan, this tea retains the key features of white tea flavor: a naturally rich, smooth texture and a distinct note of stone fruit in the subtle, sweet finish. These characteristics come, in part, from the downy trichomes that coat the buds of Da Bai plants more densely than other varieties, and give traditionally crafted examples their white color. In combination with traditional terroir that allows these plants to grow slowly and develop rich flavor, this tea remains recognizably “white” in flavor, regardless of its dark color.
Tieguanyin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy, is one of China’s oldest and most famous tea varieties. Yet the lightly oxidized style of this particular tea is a newer development, adopted only recently in the traditional Anxi region due to the popularity of greener oolongs from Taiwan. Mild oxidation leaves both styles of oolong with a distinct fresh and often floral aroma, but this tea remains distinct from its Taiwanese cousins thanks to the natural features of the Tieguanyin variety.
While traditional Tieguanyin styles used higher rates of oxidation and heavier roasting to better preserve the teas for long term storage, modern innovations like climate control and vacuum sealed packages have made lightly oxidized teas more accessible. The nutty flavor notes of the Tieguanyin variety, which are emphasized by the older crafting methods, add a more subtle almond note to the finish of this greener style.
When discussing the importance of variety, the distinctive category of Phoenix oolong teas is sure to come up. Originating in the remote area of Wudong Shan in Guangdong Province, these teas are always named for the cultivar they were plucked from. Unlike other regions, where particular varieties might be cultivated for their high crop yields or adaptations to harsh environments, tea farmers in this region have spent generations breeding varieties for specific flavors and aromas.
Thus, the name Mi Lan Xiang, translated as ‘Honey Orchid Fragrance’, describes the all-natural flavor profile of this tea with surprising accuracy. While teas like this one still require specific terroir, harvest dates, and crafting techniques to make the most of their natural characteristics, these other aspects are all tailored to enhance the expression of this variety. The final result, for this tea, is a surprising natural sweetness, with distinct notes of flowers and lychee on the tongue. Try brewing it alongside a similar oolong from the same region, like our Yin Hua Xiang (Honeysuckle) to showcase the impact of these particular cultivars on flavor.
Watch Alice taste and describe our the next tea on our list in this video:
Another of China’s most famous teas, Da Hong Pao, is also named for a specific variety - even though the original no longer exists. Teas with this name are still easy to find, but the true Da Hong Pao variety is now mostly legend, revered by tourists that make the trek to the Wuyi Mountains to take photos of the protected ‘mother’ trees. Instead of seeking out teas bearing the Da Hong Pao name, true connoisseurs of this style look for the closest descendents, including the one used for this tea, known as Beidou.
When we source teas from this region, we’re usually focused on terroir and craftsmanship, as these aspects form the foundation and most obvious top notes in this mineral-rich, heavily roasted style. This tea, however, depends on the lineage of its cultivar to produce a remarkably balanced flavor, with extra layers of complexity featuring notes of dried fruit and oak.
This tea’s unusual combination of variety and terroir was initially tested during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in an attempt to complement Japan’s domestic green tea industry with black tea production for export. Though oolongs had been produced on the island for some time with native varieties, the Japanese transplanted this Assam variety from India in hopes of enticing the European palate. Today, Taiwan is better known for the development of cross-bred cultivars like #18, but the pure-stock Assam plants used for this tea contribute a bold richness that is hard to match.
The impact of both variety and terroir are on display in this tea, and easily showcased with two side-by-side comparisons. Next to an Assam tea produced in India, this tea reveals the effects of Taiwan’s relatively temperate climate and rich volcanic soil. On the other hand, tasting this tea alongside another Taiwanese black tea like our Formosa Red, Native Cultivar will highlight the differences that can emerge between two distinctly different varieties, even when they are grown in similar environments, harvested during the same season, and crafted using the same techniques.
What impact does variety have on the flavor of your favorite teas? Let us know what you think in the comments below!
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