Roland said

Tea Taxonomy

My understanding (please correct if wrong!) is that the tea plant as we commonly term it is a species – Genus Camellia, Species Sinensis – with two varieties (var. Sinensis and var. Assamica). There appears to be reference to subdivisions within these varieties – but what is the common term used – cultivars? Subvarieties? Forms?

Whatever term is used, how does this relate to tea production and taste? Does a particular tea type (Tie guan yin oolong for example) need to be made from a particular subvariety/whatever of tea?

I’ve got lots more questions in follow up to this, but any help with those 2 initial ones would be appreciated first :)

15 Replies
mbanu said

I’ve always heard of them referred to as cultivars. Assam and China tea can cross-breed, so the distinction can sometimes be a little hazy. They are distinctive enough in the way they look and taste to be a useful division, though.

Tea cultivars play a very significant role in the character of the end tea. Dr. Pradip Baruah of India’s Tea Research Association suggested in his recent book on the Assam tea industry that he felt that it was the number one most important variable in tea production, even more important than soil and climate.

Most of the famous styles of tea do have some limited form of origin appellation, but it can be a challenge to specify a particular cultivar due to historical reasons. Until the invention of planting tea via cuttings in the 1930s (clonal tea), all tea was grown from seed. So while over time there was a sort of selective pressure exerted on tea from one region vs. another, the result was a heterogeneous group of tea varietals all associated with one region, or even one plantation. Additionally, the tea bush is very long-lived; it can take years for a new one to becomes ready for plucking, and decades (or even centuries, if your yield expectations are low) before it is too old to produce tea. So any sort of controlled breeding before clonal tea cultivation was invented proceeded very very slowly. Many of the older tea plantations in northern India are still using the original seed-based tea bushes that were planted in the 1800s. Additionally, in countries where the plantation model of tea growth is less popular, tea leaf is simply purchased from local farmers for processing; this gives the factory a bit less control over what cultivar is being used, since they rely on farmer outreach programs rather than plantation management decisions.

While there has been some effort to breed “quality” tea clones, in practice most bred tea grown today is a compromise between quality and yield, usually with special attention paid to developing a natural resistance to some special problem (drought, borer beetles, etc.) Additionally, British-style and Chinese-style tea consumers seem to have many disagreements on what makes good tea, which I imagine would also result in each respective tea culture’s “quality” cultivars having different standards of reference. Sri Lanka (Ceylon tea) and Japan seem to have been the ones pushing clonal cultivation the most. Sri Lanka’s Tea Research Institute created many popular clones. At one time in the 1970s, almost 85% of tea grown in Japan was from a single clone known as “Yabukita”. Since the dangers of monoculture have been explored, they’ve stepped back from the brink, but it is still a very popular cultivar in Japan. I believe that Taiwan also has a heavy hand in tea clone breeding, through their Taiwan Tea Experiment Station. (At one time TTES #12/Jin Xuan was a fairly popular cultivar there for Dong Ding Oolongs.) Southern India also has gone into tee clones in a big way, although generally for yield and disease resistance purposes. The United Planters Association of Southern India (UPASI) has a Tea Research Foundation that has bred many notable tea clones… and of course the northern/southern seed/clonal divide in India is not absolute or anything like that. In Darjeeling there are a few clones that seem to be well thought of, such as Phoobsering 312, or Ambari Vegetative 2.

In China, there is a fascination over single famous tea bushes that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere. For this market, clonal tea was amazing, as it allowed for the growth of essentially identical copies of these rare bushes in nearby growing regions at a dramatically reduced price, simply by increasing the quantity of tea available.

Definitely an interesting subject. :)

Wow. Great in-depth material. Thanks! : )

Awesome stuff! Thank you for all that. Good topic too, Roland. I was curious myself :)

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I believe there is a third major classification or variety, called, Camellia Sinensis var. Cambodi (Java bush), at least according to The Story of Tea, By Heiss and Heiss, page 38. They refer to it as a ‘subvariety’, along with China Bush and Assam Bush.

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Kittenna said

From what I understand, tea is one species with a few “varieties” (or from what I gather, members of the same species falling into classes which are perhaps morphologically different, but cannot truly be classified as separate species due to their ability to hybridize with one another), within which there are numerous cultivars each.

Also, just for interest’s sake, ‘cultivar’ means ‘cultivated variety’ :)

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Roland said

Thanks! Great information :)

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With so many different cultivars, so many processing methods, is there a single source, database or something to make sense out of all the information.

Wine has grape, region, cask, aging. Which I find transferable across region and country. I think that I need to understand more about cultivars, which cultivar I am drinking (which is not normally declared), more information on the processes.

I think what I am finding is that tea has so many secrets, more than any other food or drink I know of.

AllanK said

Tea from each specific region will be different. I know of no single database about different tea cultivars. I find the only way to make sense of it is to experiment with tea from different places. Assam tea for instance has noticeably different characteristics from Yunnan tea. Even within a place like Yunnan there will be great variation.

AllanK said

You might look into someone like Yunnan Sourcing and their raw puerhs. For each one they give the local village where it was made usually stating if it is Assamica for instance too. It is one of those rare cases where you can drink a tea and know exactly where it was grown.

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I would agree @AllanK, I taste the differences in the regions, I taste differences in first flush and second flush. But even if I drinking lots of Assams teas, I will still not know which cultivar I prefer, which could be being used in other regions or countries, as it will remain a secret most of the time.

Perhaps I am just being too curious.

AllanK said

In some cases the store you buy from will have more information on this. I will bet that Scott at Yunnan Sourcing knows more about his teas than is listed on his website but some local vendors may be clueless.

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My reason for landing on this page was because I was looking into tea taxonomy, as in white, black (red), green, oolong, and perhaps pu erh or not. When you look at sites like Yunnan Sourcing, they are mentioning Purple teas. Also I have seen Yellow, Dark (Fermented) and Scented (Like Jasmine).

When I am reading books, all be it out of date by 10 or so years, they are more reserved and stick to Green, White, Oolong, Black.

Is there a consensus?

When you look at the “Amazing Tea Taxonomy” by James Kennedy. It make sense to me. But its missing things, right?

Is there a better source of taxonomy, if so, could this overlap with cultivars?

AllanK said

Purple tea is a varietal, not a tea type like black or white or puerh. Purple tea can be made into various other types but Yunnan Sourcing usually makes it into raw puerh.

AJ said

Black, green, oolong aren’t biological taxonomies, they’re different processing methods.

What exactly do you mean by “consensus”? Consensus on what? The number of ‘accepted’ processing categories? A majority of older (30-60yrs) books are written by people who worked in Indian or other non-China tea production, and so reflect both the teas that were popularly drunk in Western countries at the time, or the only teas that were at least ‘known’ outside of China at the time.

Like AllanK says, purple tea is a cultivar (of the assamica varietal) with a history in puerh production, and only recently in black, green and even oolong production in Yunnan and Kenya.

Production method overlaps with cultivars all the time (see the above purple tea). China grooms specific cultivars for specific tea processes. Japan is the same way. India and other regions are a bit different, using the same cultivar for a variety of production methods and instead focusing on the flushes.

You’ll have to explain what you think you’re missing. Kennedy’s chart shows tea organized by production method, region, and then only where it’s known does it then categorize it by individual teas (which are differentiated often by the cultivar used, but the finished tea often does not go by the same name as the cultivar).

It’s difficult to call that chart complete. There are no overarching sources, and often it comes down to doing your own research. Which can be daunting. A lot of books don’t just give you clear lists.

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A couple things not mentioned outright in this excellent discussion, started 4 years ago, are that Sinensis and Assamica are from the only two original native areas where tea was found to be growing naturally in the wild. Southern China and Assam India.

All teas come from the same plant, the difference, as said by AJ is in the processing. As AJ explains, the cultivars developed to specialize tea to the differing production methods. As tea may be cultivated specifically for Puerh, etc.

Another term not yet mentioned is terroir. ‘Regions’ of tea have led to specializing as well, because all the influences that a region, soil chemistry, water, altitude and so on has on the tea grown there differentiates it from other regions. As in the revered Darjeeling.

Wine; terroir= region. Cask and aging = processing.

but re the James Kennedy thing. While an interesting poster showing ‘types’ of tea and how they might have developed, where they ended up, my opinion is that it is misleading to call it a taxonomy. Hence, possibly the ensuing confusion.

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