The leaves of Camellia Sinesis plant or the tea shrub transform themselves into Green, White, Black and Oolong tea varieties during the tea processing period.
A carefully monitored, multi-step procedure, tea processing is much like creating a magic portion, a little bit more of this step or little less of that step, could result into a different tea type, colour and flavor altogether.
Loose leaf tea, unlike tea dust or fannings, undergoes meticulousprocesseswhich includes hand processing in order to extract the best flavour, all the while respecting and preserving the qualities of the leaves.
Once processed, 500gms of loose leaf tea can produce more than 200 cups of tea.
The Chronology of the Steps
There are between 3 and 7 steps to process loose leaf tea based on the tea variant that needs to be produced.
For the most part, Oolong and Black teas undergo the most number of steps, while Green and White teas undergo minimal processing.
Have you ever seen tea gardens dotted with tea leaf pickers with baskets on their back? How silently they make their way through the plantation with their hands moving in dance-like gestures all graceful, and rhythmic.
This is where the all the magic of tea begins. It’s the art of plucking the leaves. For loose leaf high grade tea- Two young leaves and a bud are skillfully hand-plucked with a quick snap of the arm.
Tea leaves absorb moisture easily and fast. In this stage, the excess water is evaporated by withering the leaves. The tea leaves are spread out in the open or on heat controlled withering troughs to remove the moisture. The leaves lose almost a third of its watercontent and they become soft and pliable.
To extract the tea oils and to bring out the flavours and aroma, the leaves are bruised by being shaken on bamboo trays or rolled in baskets or rolling machines. This is known as “leaf maceration” and it’s when the oxidation of leaves begins.
Oxidation as its name suggests has to do with exposure to air and the oxygen in it. The leaves are laid out on tile or cement or even glass floors in climate controlled hallsthat lets the leaves breathe in the cool air. The oxygen in the air browns the leaves and turns them into a copper like colour.
The duration of oxidation is closely monitored, as it determines the tea variety that must be produced. For instance, to produce a light Oolong tea, the oxidation is between 5-% 40% and thus considered “Semi-oxidized”. Black teas are 100% or fully oxidized. While green teas are mostly unoxidized.
No, it isn’t an anti-COP 21 movement. It’s the process by which oxidation is arrested or stopped. For black teas- this step is done simultaneously with the “drying” process.
Tea leaves are machine-rolled or hand-rolled (for very high-grade teas) that gives them either a wiry appearance or that of a tightly rolled pellet. This helps to preserve the flavour and aroma of the tea leaves.
Hand rolled or artisanal teas- For the most part, high quality loose leaf tea is hand rolled. There is personal care given to the leaves to assure that they are not severed.
Machine rolled tea is mainly used for mass produced CTC tea products.
DRYING OR FIRING
This is the final stage before the leaves are packed for sale. The drying helps to take out all the remaining moisture from the leaves and allows the leaves to retain its flavour, colour and aroma for a longer period of time.
The Green Tea Divergent
The Japanese Sencha and Chinese green tea processing involves minimal and traditional processing methods that allow them to retain their natural goodness.
The Sencha tea leaves, for example,undergoes a steaming process, much unlike Black or Oolong teas where the leaves are whithered and oxidized.
The Sencha leaves are readied for steaming shortly after the leaves are plucked. The steaming lasts for about 15 to 20 seconds and it stops short the oxidation of the leaves. The leaves thus retain their natural green colour and purity.
On the other hand, most Chinese green teas are pan-fired in a wok to stop the oxidation process.
Once the steaming orpan-firing process is completed, the leaves are hand-rolled. This releases the natural oils in the leaves, while reducing their grassy flavor.
Hand-rolling leaves require careful artisanal work, as the leaves are finely twisted strings or tightly rolled pellets without severing them.
Such hand-rolled tea releases maximum flavour and aroma when they uncurl on contact with warm water.
A special note on White tea
White tea is often the choice tea of connoisseurs. The term “white” is a reference to the silver hair that is found on the tiny buds of the tea plants. White tea unlike any other tea is neither steamed nor heated or pan-fired.
Instead the leaves are laid out to wither in the sun. For high quality White tea, the withering is controlled by people and not by machines.
The withering process is thus largely dependant on the weather and tea manufacturers require great skills to determine the length of withering based on moisture and humidity in the air.
Once the withering is completed, the leaves are rolled and dried.
There aren’t hard and fast rules for steeping as it largely depends on one’s palate. Some like it strong while others like it light, but usually they say:
The smaller the leaf the stronger the brew
The longer you steep, more bitter it grew
For loose leaf tea, pour water that’s warm,
And give ita minute or two.
Some tea varieties give out a better flavour when re-steeped, like for instance larger loose leaf teas. However, it’s important to re-steep within a couple of hours because the leaves start to oxidize and lose some of its essential characteristics.