How Tea is Processed:
What Goes Into Getting Your Tea to You
Since it became the height of fashion during the Tang Dynasty in China (618–907 AD), the growing and harvest of tea has spread throughout Asia and the rest of the world. For thousands of years, growing tea as a crop has spread to other countries, which include Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Iran, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.
Even though there are four classifications of tea, they all come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Most tea plants thrive in high altitudes and in climates that are both warm and wet. There are some subspecies of the plant that prefers an environment that occasionally gets a little colder. The difference between each classification of tea is how and when they’re picked and processed before being brought to market.
The term terroir comes from France’s Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC), which oversees quality and regional designation of wine, cheeses, and other agricultural products within the country. Terroir applies specifically to the regions and conditions where the wine grapes are grown. The same factors surrounding the conditions where tea grows and how it is harvested and processed also affect tea. Soil, altitude, weather, climate, water, and sunlight all play a part in the terroir of the tea, which determines its quality, aroma, and flavor.
Harvesting & Processing the Tea Leaves
For the best quality teas, the plants need at least 3 to 5 years before they are ready for their first harvest. It takes between 7 and 15 days for a new harvest of buds or a “flush“ to grow. The spring tea harvest is called “first flush tea,” while the tea harvest in the fall is called “second flush tea.”
Tea leaves are picked by hand rather than by machinery because tea leaves are easily damaged. When workers harvest the tea on the tea plantations, it is only the top two inches of the tea plant or the second and third leaves of the bud which produce the finest teas. Tea farmers keep a very close eye on the growth of tea leaves. If there is too much growth, the quality of tea will go down. During any year, a single tea plant can produce a few thousand leaves.
After picking, the tea leaves move to processing. The leaves are dried for 8 -24 hours on average before they move on to the next step. This initial drying of the tea leaves, known as withering, causes most of the moisture within the tea leaf to evaporate.
In the production of green tea, the next step of processing tea leaves is steaming. Steaming helps to prevent the tea leaves from losing any of their flavor.
In some green teas, the leaves are stir-fried. Traditionally this is done using a large wok. Both the processes of steaming or stir-frying seals in the aroma and will ensure that when the green tea is brewed, it will have a good color.
After steaming or frying, the tea leaves are shaped or rolled. Rolling releases any of the remaining moisture. From there, the green tea is sorted according to size and quality before being brought to market. By the time the process is finished, the leaves have very little moisture.
For black teas, the process is a little different. After harvest, the tea leaves are withered and rolled, but there is an extra step after this.
After rolling and cutting, the leaves are spread out and left in a cool and damp room. This exposure to moisture and coolness causes the tea leaves to oxidize. Oxidization causes the green leaves to turn a light brown and gives black tea its flavor. To stop the oxidization process, hot air is piped over the leaves. This darkens them further. The tea is then left to cool before it is sorted, graded, and sent to market for distribution.
Oolong, or “Black Dragon” tea, has a process between green and black tea. Depending on the region and the methods used, it can have a sweet, fruity, woody, or smoky flavor. The significant difference is the amount of time that oolong tea is oxidized. Like black tea, oolong is withered, rolled, and dried; however, temperatures and timing are more closely monitored to preserve oolong’s complex range of flavors.
Perhaps the rarest type of tea made from the Camellia sinensis plant is white tea. In Imperial China, this tea was only available to members of the nobility because it can only be harvested just two days out of the year before the buds on the tea plant are fully open. It has only become more widely available outside of China just a little more than a decade ago. The oxidation process of white tea is stopped very early after its harvest to preserve its smooth, delicate flavors.
As you can see, each type or style of tea, whether green, oolong, black, or white, is processed differently.
Ask an herbalist or tea connoisseur, and they will tell you that herbal “teas” are not teas at all, but a tisane or an infusion. Herbal tisanes can contain leaves, flowers, seeds, bark, that are infused or boiled in hot water. Each plant within an herbal blend will offer its own set of tastes and health benefits when brewed. Some herbs have their own set of antioxidant properties, while others can relax you, aid in your digestion, or give you a boost of vitamins that can help you feel better if you’ve got a cold. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor beforehand to make sure the herbs won’t interfere with any medical conditions you may have or medications you might be taking.
Here at Sir Jason Winters International, we take great pride in offering only the finest quality teas and ingredients from around the world. We believe in our products so much that if you are ever unsatisfied with any product you purchase from us, you can return the remaining portion to us within 90 days for a full refund of your purchase.
“The Way of Tea” by Master Lam Kam Chuyen, Lam Kai Sin and Lam Tin Yu, 2002, Barron’s Educational Series, NY
“The Everything Healthy Tea Book: Discover the Healing Benefits of Tea” by Babbette Donaldson, 2014, Adams Media
“ The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide” by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, 2007 Ten Speed Press, Berkley, CA