Mini Course: Tea Production 101
Have you ever considered the lengthy journey that your tea takes from estate to cup? There are countless different picking, processing, and packaging techniques that bring the leaf to you, and this is a quick rundown of the basics.
Tea Farms and Estates
Tea can grow in a variety of locations, from small, artisanal tea gardens to large, industrial tea estates. Ultimately, the goal of all tea growers is the same, but the scope and style of production varies.
Industrial estates or plantations can be spread out over thousands of acres and employ countless workers and grow tea for commercial purposes, so the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is common. These types of estates also tend to use industrial machinery (see CTC below) to process their tea to guarantee consistency.
On the other end of the spectrum are small tea gardens, which tend to be smaller than 25 acres. At these types of artisanal gardens, the grower focuses on natural growing techniques and takes a very hands-on approach to the growing, picking, and processing of the tea.
Somewhere in between are single-origin estates, which are large tea gardens that produce loose-leaf teas that are completely pure and unblended with leaves from other farms. These estates take great pride in their heritage, and the result is that these signature teas are prized for their unique characteristics that pay homage to the terroir of the region itself. Also, unlike industrial tea estates, these single-origin estates don’t strive for consistency.
If you have experience with tea bags, you might have noticed that the leaves resemble grains of soil, rather than whole leaves. With loose leaf, by and large the leaves tend to look more complete and, in some cases, as if they were recently plucked. This is because different tea gardens and estates have very different processing methods that result in very different products and, ultimately, very different tea liquors. There are two primary production methods: CTC and the orthodox method.
CTC stands for crush, tear, curl. It was invented in the 1930s and is a method that involves industrial machinery and is used exclusively for black tea. Large, thick, low-grade leaves are sliced by blades, crushed, and then bruised to boost oxidation. Then, the remnants of the leaves are machine rolled into tiny grains of equal size before they begin oxidation. These tiny grains of tea are known as fannings, and they brew a much darker and stronger tea liquor much more quickly than tea produced in the orthodox method (see below). Although this method is used in Sri Lanka, Kenya, and India, it is not a known method in China.
On the other side of tea production is the orthodox method, which is either wholly or partially processed by hand. This type of tea tends to result in whole-leaf tea and is the standard method for all tea production, save industrial production of commodity black tea. This type of tea is highly valued and, thanks to high demand, more and more tea growers are focusing on this type of production method. However, because of the more involved and timely nature of this processing, these teas tend to be more expensive (i.e., there is an inverse relationship between quality and quantity).
The Processing Steps to Tea
Once the leaves have either been hand plucked or machine picked, tea production for each tea varies greatly, giving each type of tea its unique character. While oolong and black teas go through many processing steps, others like yellow tea experience minimal processing. These are some of the different steps leaves can go through in the production process after plucking to achieve status as black, green, oolong, white, yellow, or pu-erh tea.
Withering: When tea leaves are picked, they are roughly 75 percent moisture. The leaves are spread out in either the sun or in trays in a ventilated, room-temperature (68–75°F) factory environment for up to a day. (Teas: white, pu-erh, black, oolong)
Fixing: Some teas don’t go through intentional withering and instead are processed with a quick air dry under high heat to prevent oxidation. Usually, this is done through pan frying, and the method preserves aroma and oils in the leaves. The method is alternatively known as “kill green.” (Teas: yellow and green)
Heaping: Specific only to yellow tea, this is the next step after fixing in which the leaves are laid out in piles wrapped in damp clothes for an extended period of time. With the humidity and heat of the environment, the leaves develop a unique yellow cast.
Rolling: With some moisture removed, the flavors become more condensed and the leaves are twisted, curled, or rolled to prepare the leaf for oxidation in the case of black and oolong teas. (Teas: yellow, green, black, oolong, pu-erh)
Fermentation: This tea production step is specific to pu-erh tea. Following rolling, pu-erh is steamed and shaped into either the traditional cake or another unique shape. Raw pu-erh (called sheng) ferments naturally over many years, and ripe pu-erh (called shou) is aged quickly over roughly 45–60 days in a humidity-controlled environment. (Teas: pu-erh)
Oxidation: Tea leaves are spread out on tables in a humid space for several hours, until the tea master feels that the tea leaves have reached the appropriate amount of oxidation. This stage allows for enzymes in the tea leaf to develop unique taste and color profiles. (Teas: black and oolong)
Firing: Also known as drying, this tea production step was originally accomplished in a basket or wok over charcoal. Teas like Lapsang Souchong (a black tea) and Longjing or Dragonwell (a green tea) still follow the traditional drying methods, but, by and large, most tea leaves are dried in tumble dryers. At this point in the processing, the leaves have retained a mere 3 percent of their moisture content. (Teas: white, black, oolong, green, pu-erh)
Sorting: The final step for many teas is sorting, either by hand or machine. This is where teas are sorted according to their grade. So, for example, an orthodox tea should have more whole leaves and fewer small bits, giving it a higher grade and a higher price. Interestingly, some machines that process sorting have infrared cameras that can sort out unwanted stems and separate the leaves into grades according to size. (Teas: white, black, oolong, green, yellow)
From tea plant to plucking to processing to the first sip, tea takes a long, winding journey that we don’t always take the time to appreciate. The next time you sit down for tea — whether with a bag or loose leaf — consider the journey, tracing back from the fragrant tea liquor you’re enjoying all the way back to the hands that plucked the first leaf.
Originally published at teforia.com on January 14, 2016.