The production of tea is a mix of art and science. A lot of skill is involved, and getting a better understanding of what goes into our favourite beverage makes you appreciate your cup of tea even more.
In our previous article we have given an overview over how each type of tea is manufactured, whereas here we’ll dive into a bit more detail.
As usual, we’ll try to keep things simple and visualise them as much as possible, but please do let us know in the comment box below if you have any questions – we’re happy to help!
So let’s take a closer look at the steps involved to make a tea:
Plucking (also called ‘picking’ or ‘harvesting’)
This might seem fairly obvious but no matter what tea is intended for production, the first step is plucking the leaves from the tea bushes.
This is also the first opportunity a tea maker has to influence the flavour of a tea. How? By choosing when to pluck the leaves and which leaves to pluck (so called “plucking standard”).
For example, Bai Hao Yin Zhen (aka Silver Needles), the most prestigious Chinese white tea, is only made from the buds – these are the youngest, unopened leaves. Buds imbue sweetness (and caffeine!) although a tea’s strength is all down to the leaves. Younger leaves tend to have a better flavour complexity than older, bigger ones.
Once the tea leaves have been plucked, they begin to slowly dry out or “wither”. This reduces the moisture levels making them more malleable and strengthening the flavour compounds. The most prestigious teas tend to be withered slowly under the sun for 12-24 hours, whereas more commercial teas are usually withered indoors at a much faster pace using leaf-drying machines.
It’s important that the leaves wither evenly, and that they are prevented from excessive dehydration.
Rolling is the next step and an important one at that; all types of tea with the exception of white tea undergo this process. Rolling serves three main purposes:
- To squeeze out the flavour juices from the leaves
- To shape the leaves
- To gently break the tea leaf cells to initiate oxidation
If you’re wondering, yes, the best teas are hand-rolled though the trend is for them to rolled by machines. The word “rolling” suggests that the leaf is turned into a little bead but that isn’t always the case. Depending on the tea the maker wants to produce, the leaves are twisted, curled or even pressed flat.
If the leaves are destined to go into a tea bag (sigh), they get macerated into tiny pieces in order to speed up the oxidation process.
Oxidation is undoubtedly the most important step in the entire tea manufacturing process and a critical to get right as it has a huge impact on the final tea that we end up drinking.
But what is oxidation? Simply put, it’s the chemical reaction that occurs when oxygen interacts with a broken tea leaf. This results in the leaves turning brown in the same way an avocado turns brown when sliced open.
As we mentioned earlier, oxidation is induced by bruising the leaves during the rolling process. Once the leaves are bruised, air is blown over them until they reach the intended level of oxidation (no oxidation for Green and Yellow teas; minimal oxidation for White teas; medium oxidation for oolong teas; full oxidation for Black and Dark teas).
Here, the tea maker’s skill and experience are crucial as machines are unable to detect the appropriate level of oxidation.
Oxidation has a major effect not just on the colour of the tea but also its flavour. Highly oxidised teas look darker and have a stronger, deeper taste than less oxidised teas.
Once the leaves have been oxidised to the desired level, the oxidation process needs to be immediately halted. This is done by submitting the leaves to high heat by either steaming or pan-firing in order to deactivate the enzyme responsible for oxidation. This process is called “fixing”, “heating” or “kill green”.
Some types of tea don’t need fixing, either because the leaves are fully oxidised anyway (as is the case with black teas), or because they don’t undergo any oxidation process in the first place (like white teas).
Drying is the second-last step of the process and all but dark teas get dried. For this step, the leaves are heated with dry air, and this serves two main purposes:
- To stabilise the aromatic oils that were released during the rolling process
- To eliminate any remaining traces of water in the leaves to avoid any molding later on, thus making the tea stable for storage and shelf-life.
Occasionally, drying serves also the purpose of changing the flavour of the tea by roasting the leaves, thus lending them a nuttier, toastier flavour profile.
You might wonder why dark teas don’t get dried? That’s because dark teas are aged over a long time but that’s for another blog post!
The final part before packaging involves a sorting the leaves, i.e. removing any broken leaves and separating the leaves based on their size. This is done by sifting them through fine sieves, and can be performed either manually or mechanically. Stems are also usually removed at this stage, although occasionally the stems are deliberately retained, as is the case with some Taiwanese oolong teas.
Uniformity in the leaf mix is desirable as it allows for a better brewing experience and for better blending.
This video, shot at a tea factory in Assam (northern India), demonstrates the entire manufacturing process for Black tea quite nicely.
The one part of the process that we haven’t tackled here is fermentation. But to avoid making this blog post too long, we’ll leave this explanation related to Yellow and Dark teas for another post.
Ultimately there are no real hard and fast rules about manufacturing a tea – every tea undergoes slight nuances of the process. But we do hope that our overview and this more in-depth post have helped to clarify any questions – or maybe they have stirred your curiosity?
Either way, when you drink your cup of tea next time, do think about how much work is behind it and how much skill is required. It will help you enjoy it that much more.
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