In the past couple of blog posts we have been working through the three factors that determine the characteristics of tea. In case you do not remember, they are:
- The variety of Camellia sinensis
- The environment the tea plant was grown in (known as terroir)
- The way the leaf was processed
Today is a very exciting day, for we will be talking about the third and final factor- processing the leaf. If you think I saved the least important factor for last… well… THINK AGAIN! Tea type is determined by the way the leaf is processed, and much of the aroma and flavor of tea comes from how the leaves are manufactured.
Covering every aspect of tea production in one blog post is an ambitious task that I do not plan on taking on today. Instead, I will simply touch on the basic stages of processing.
Please note that not every tea goes through every stage of production. Every tea type has its own processing techniques. Even individual teas have unique stages in their production that make them special. I will dive deeper into these nuances of production when I talk about tea types in the next series of blog posts.
Now that the introduction is out of the way, let’s jump right into the stages of basic stages of tea production:
OK, so technically picking is more of a transitional step and not an actual stage of production, but I’m including it anyway gosh darn it! What else am I suppose to do? Have a blog post unique to picking? Who would read that?... Ok maybe I would, but I wanted to include it here because I think it should be considered when you are studying how a particular tea was manufactured.
Before anything can happen to the tea leaves, they must be picked. During harvest season, tea pickers start their morning with instructions from the higher-ups on the plantation on what to pick for the day. The instructions could be to pick just a bud, one leaf and a bud, two leaves and a bud, etc. It all comes down to the conditions of the crop and what tea you are ultimately trying to make.
According to the aptly titled book “Tea” by Gascoyne, Marchand, Deshasnais, and Americi, it takes 10 pounds of fresh leaves (about 12,000 shoots), to produce 2 pounds of tea. In India, a tea picker will harvest on average 65 to 110 pounds of leaves per day. Think about how crazy that number is and appreciate how much labor went into picking your one pot’s worth of tea. We haven’t even started the production process yet!
"11,997... 11,998... 11,999..." - tea picker, probably
To turn any freshly picked Camellia sinensis leaf into tea; you have to reduce the moisture content of the leaves. The first step in producing any tea is to simply lay the freshly picked leaves out in the sun or a climate controlled room to let the leaves wither and dry. When enough moisture is removed, the leaves can move on to their next stage of processing.
When producing tea, controlling the oxidation of the tea leaves is the name of the game. Much like when a cut apple starts to brown, crushed or rolled Camellia sinensis leaves immediately start to oxidize. The more oxidized the tea, the more robust and naturally astringent the tea becomes.
The degree of oxidation of a tea leaf largely determines the type of tea it is. White tea leaves are often left in their natural shape, producing a fresh/floral tasting tea. On the other end of the spectrum is black tea, which often goes through vigorous crushing and rolling stages to increase their surface area (maximum oxidation) to make a darker and more bitter tasting brew.
From crushed and curled to flattened and rolled, there are several different ways to shape tea. Next time you go to make tea, study the dry tea leaves. What shape are they? Why were they shaped that way? How does the tea taste? Is there a connection between the shaping process the tea went through and the flavor of the tea? My guess is there is.
Green tea being shaped by hand.
We already know that controlling the oxidation of the tea leaves is the name of the game. We also know that shaping the leaves plays a big part in getting the oxidation process rolling (see what I did there?...hehe). Now that we’ve kicked off the oxidation process, how do we stop it? The answer: add heat.
Let’s go back to our apple analogy. Once the apple has been cut, the surface will start to brown (oxidize). What would happen if we took those apple pieces and baked them into an apple pie (adding heat)? Would the apple slices in the pie continue to oxidize? No. No they wouldn’t. It’s the same principle with tea. Amongst other things, heating tea leaves arrests oxidation.
How do we add heat to tea leaves? We don’t bake them into a pie that’s for sure (although I guess we COULD). There are several different ways to add heat to tea. The leaves could be pan fired in a wok, steamed, baked in ovens… the list goes on!
The point is this: adding heat stabilizes the leaves chemically. It stops oxidation and removes additional moisture still in the leaves. It is a critical and delicate part of tea production. It is not uncommon for a particular type of tea to go through several stages of heating during its production cycle.
Firing Pu'Erh Tea Leaves by Hand
After the leaves have been plucked, withered, and sent through various stages and combinations of shaping and heating, it is time to sort the finished product. Tea leaves are sorted by size, color, and leaf quality to make like batches of finished product.
Post-Production (Scenting, Flavoring, and Smoking)
But wait! There’s more! Once the tea has been produced, there is still more that can be done to affect the characteristics of tea. Adding flowers or spices to the leaves creates scented teas (think Green Jasmine). Spraying the leaves with essentials oils or other flavorings produces flavored teas (think Earl Grey). Smoked teas are produced by drying tea leaves over… well… smoke, usually produced from burning a specific type of wood or plant (think Lapsang souchong…commonly found in Russian Caravan).
Well, there you have it. If you read through all of that in one go, give yourself a pat on the back. It may seem like a lot to digest, but just remember: tea production is an artfully complex process that involves picking, withering, some magical combination of shaping and heating, and sorting. You could even throw some post-production techniques into the mix for additional flavor.
In the next series of blog posts, I am going to be hitting each tea type one by one. I will take the basics that we discussed here and apply them to each tea type to give you a better understanding of what goes into making your favorite cup of tea. I look forward to seeing you then!