The Lab

Tea Varieties & Cultivars

Teas come from the same plant genus and species: Camelia Sinensis. Over several thousand years, there has been natural differentiation of the species into different subspecies. These are Sinensis and Assamica. From here, there are different varieties and cultivars.

The difference between a variety and a cultivar is whether the plant separated naturally or was selectively bred to be different than the parent plant. Considering tea’s long history, it is difficult to know what teas are definitely heirloom varieties and which have been selectively bred. There are some terms that are sometimes used to describe wild landrace varieties like Caicha, Taicha, or Qunti. Even though a type of tea may be traditionally produced using certain cultivars or varieties, the same type of tea may be produced using a different variety and express similar character. Producers may also use the same variety to make multiple types of tea. For example, Lapsang Souchong and Jin Jun Mei come from the same plant variety, but Jin Jun Mei uses only the plants buds. Huangshan Mao Feng and Keemun Mao Feng also come from the same varieties, however they showcase different flavor profiles.

China

Tea Producer in China

Da Bai is a variety of white tea produced in Fujian, Fuding, and Zhenghe. Traditionally Da Bai is used in the production of White Peony or White Silver needle teas. More recently Da Hao is a larger bud cultivar that is becoming more popular for modern white teas.

Da Ye is a variety of the Assam subspecies primarily found in Yunnan, China. Popularly, this tea is used in Dian Hong tea or Yunnan black tea. Da Ye cultivars are traditionally used in Pu’er teas.

Pu’er Tea Processing

Many tribute teas have traditional cultivars which are responsible for some of their unique characteristics. The West Lake area of Zhejiang is most renowned for its production of Longjing or Dragonwell green tea. This tea represents how tea is not static as new cultivars are still being developed. Traditionally, Dragonwell tea is produced using the variety native to the region. The Longjing #43 cultivar is becoming more popular as it was selectively bred to bud sooner and produces bigger buds without sacrificing much of the traditional flavor. Other recent developments of tea cultivars include Anji Bai Cha. This tea uses a specific cultivar developed in the early 1980s. Anji Bai cha is related to the Bai Ye variety.

Anji Bai Cha plucking

The mountains of Wuyi are home to a diverse group of cultivars, the most common being Shui Xian and Rou Gui. Shui Xian trees can be found marketed as Lao Cong which translates to old tree. Teas of this type are produced from bushes that are over 100 years old. The four famous bushes of this region are the Si Da Ming Cong – Da Hong Pao, Tie Luo Han, Shui Jin Gui and Bai Ji Guan. Each represents a cultivar best suited for life in a particular area and a specific flavor profile developed during processing: roast, minerality, floral and honey.

Wuyi Mountains

Feng Huang, or Phoenix, Oolongs are teas using cultivars grown in the Phoenix Mountains of Guangdong, China. Different Phoenix Oolongs are generally different cultivars. Each cultivar is named for their fragrance or flavor profile and has been bred to thrive in particular microclimates on the mountain. Dan Cong is the reference of these oolongs of being from a single bush or single cultivar.

Phoenix Mountains

Taiwan

You may see Taiwanese teas referred to by taicha numbers or reclassified using TTRES numbers. TTRES is the Taiwan Tea Research and Extension Station. It was founded in 1903 during Japanese occupation and has undergone several name changes and restructuring efforts, but the goal has remained the same: to grow and improve the tea industry of Taiwan. The high mountain oolongs of Alishan, Shanlinxi and Lishan use the Qin Xin cultivar. This same cultivar is used for Dong Ding tea.

Jin Xuan is probably the most famous cultivar to be produced by TTRES. This cultivar is used in the production of Milk Oolong. Contrary to popular belief, there is no milk used in its production. Milk oolong has a creamy texture similar to milk, which is how the name was derived.

Japan

Sencha Farm

In Japan, the prevailing cultivar is Yabukita. It was developed in the 1950’s and now accounts for over 70% of tea production. It is processed into Sencha, kukicha, Tencha, Matcha etc. The second most popular cultivar is Yutakamidori primarily found in Miyazaki and Kagoshima. Okumidori is becoming more popular because of its later picking time. It blooms over a week after Yabukita, so when they are planted together, producers are able to spread their labor requirements out. Saemidori is another newly developed cultivar that thrives in some of Japan’s warmer climate zones.

India

Darjeeling Phuguri Estate

The majority of tea used in Indian tea production uses cultivars of the Assam subspecies with exception of the Darjeeling region where Sinensis is prevalent. Darjeeling Tea has undergone extensive experimentation in the development of cultivars, especially considering the brevity of its tea production history. The Tea Research Association of India has published 30 cultivars of tea and divided them by a number of factors, including size, drought resistance, quality, and yield. These cultivars are listed as number and letter codes, the highest flavor rank being given to AV2 and highest yield being RR 17/144.

Cultivars and varieties are responsible for the growth rate and yield of a tea bush, but there are many factors that play into the final flavor. For more information about tea cultivars and varieties please contact a trader at Royal Tea.

Patrick McKeown

Patrick began his coffee journey on Long Island at a small coffee bar and roasting at home. Since then he has been a barista, manager, and craft roaster in NYC.