cup of tea“Isn’t oolong supposed to be darker?” asked a co-worker for whom I’d just steeped up a cup of our new Iron Goddess Oolong and organic Teguanyin. He’d been drinking Dark Roast Oolong for a couple of weeks. “Well, no,” I replied, “an oolong can be just about any color.” My response left him unsatisfied. “Shouldn’t a tea expert be able to tell what kind of tea’s being served at the table next to him, just by looking at it?” he asked. And the answer to that question is largely “yes,” although a qualified “yes.”  It was, of course, an unfair departure point to begin a “tea colors” discussion with oolongs – the family of teas that boast the widest range of flavors, aromas, caffeine levels, and leaf and infusion colors.

Which tea colors (or liquors, as they are referred to) jump out as obvious identifiers?  In my eyes, Japanese green teas (shades of vibrant jade to intense emerald), white teas (think champagne), and black Pu’erh (think ink!) are all identifiable from across a room. These three tea types are unique and strong in their colors.

The vivid colors that Japanese Green tea leaves produce in their infusion are not surprising, given the meticulous care and shading they get while growing. The highest grade green teas from Japan, like Gyokuro and Matcha, are traditionally covered from sunlight for a few weeks before they’re harvested,http://www.flickr.com/photos/aubergene/2051730569/which boosts the chlorophyll levels in the leaves of the plants. These are the teas that will look like emeralds.  Purely sun-grown Japanese teas, like Sencha and Bancha, infuse into lighter – but still very distinctive and vibrant – shades of jade green.

The liquor of white teas can be described as anything from rosy pale yellow to yellow-green, but what differentiates them from green teas is their champagne-like, or slight brassy tint. Given that white tea leaves are the closest thing to fresh tea leaves, the pale, delicate color makes sense.

Black Pu’erh tea has a black edge to its red-brown-black color range that’s unmistakable, as is its flavor. It might sometimes be harder to tell this aged and fermented black tea apart from motor oil or black ink than it would from a black tea.

You can generally tell most other broad classes of tea by their color – Black, Darjeeling, and Chinese greens. Oolong teas, however, are often out of my range of differentiation – masquerading as anything from a Chinese green tea to a Darjeeling to a black, by their liquor.  No surprise either, as oxidation levels can vary from 20% to 80%, spanning the range from lesser-oxidized green teas well into the black teas. So at the end of this tea-color exploration, my answer still remains that I can’t necessarily tell if that’s an oolong in your cup. But if you give me a taste – or even a smell – then yes, your tea’s true colors will become evident.

This post was originally published to T Ching in January of 2011.