We've taught you plenty of ways to consume tea, as well as why it's good for you and which taste superior. But have you ever wondered the backstory, aka how your tea is actually made? It's rare that we think about the start-to-finish process – how budding tea leaves make it to the beverage that ends up in your cup. But, as with all of your food and beverages, it's important to know where tea comes from, and further, how one type differs from the next.
Throughout history and various cultures and regions, there have been many methods in which teamakers have processed the leaf into a delicious tea. But post-industrial revolution, new and more efficient ways of processing gourmet tea have emerged, allowing for mass production. Still, many essential elements of the process have stayed the same over the millennia, and depending on the tea type, certain teas are still produced using techniques mastered over many centuries. Here are some examples of how different teas can be manufactured:
For black tea, we will talk about mass production methods (which are common) in order to shine a light on the various types of production, ranging from traditional and hand-produced to mass-produced with machinery. While many of our teas undergo more traditional processing methods, learning about both can provide interesting insight.
After being harvested, black tea leaves begin withering. Withering is a process in which the tea leaves are laid out for several hours in order to reduce moisture in the leaf, making them more pliable. Black teas are the most oxidized of any tea type. Think of an apple you bite into and leave on your counter. The exposed portion of the apple will start to brown; this is oxidation. In a process known as CTC, the tea is "crushed, torn, and curled" – meaning the leaves are pre-conditioned and then machine-shredded, and because of a manual manipulation process, the leaves begin to curl. (For CTC or tea bag grade tea, this process allows for more surface area of the leaf to be exposed to water, extracting more color and flavor from the leaf.) Next is maceration: rolling the tea in order to rupture it. At the same time, oxidation occurs, leading to the dark and deep color and flavor of black tea.
Try our Assam black tea for a brisk, full-bodied black originating in Assam, India. This tea is not produced using the methods mentioned above, although some parts of the processing may align.
The key difference between white tea and its darker counterpart is that white tea is nearly unoxidized. The leaves are then withered and dried slowly at low temperatures as opposed to pan-firing in high heat the way many other teas are. White tea therefore only oxidizes very slightly, due to lack of rolling and less exposure to air and heat. It's no wonder, then, that white tea has the most gentle, mild, and mellow flavor profile and color of the bunch. White tea is generally the least processed of all the tea types.
Try our house-blended Ginger Peach white tea for a delicious blend that makes a great cup, hot or iced!
Green tea is typically steamed or pan-fried in order to prevent its enzymes from undergoing significant oxidation. As a result, the tea is less full-bodied and more clean and vegetal tasting. Because of the presence of health-promoting polyphenols, green tea must be processed delicately. With extremely low moisture, green tea lasts a long time on the shelf and maintains its strong aroma. A powdered form of the same tea leaves, following a similar process (although it's usually shade-grown), is called matcha.
Oolong is grown mainly in southeast China and Taiwan. In order to develop their bold and full-bodied taste, the leaves are picked when they are quite ripe and processed immediately. They are withered then shaken in bamboo baskets to slightly "bruise" (aka agitate) them; this drying period is relatively short compared to that of black tea. This yields partially oxidized tea, falling somewhere between black and green tea in terms of flavor and color. They are then rolled (which gives the leaves spherical appearance), either by hand or machine, and air-dried, after which the leaves are pan-fired at very high temperatures; this allows for minimal moisture, meaning a longer shelf life than those fired at lower temperatures, such as green tea.
Try our unique Brandy Oolong tea for a rich, deep oolong with complex notes.
Pu-erh, is a special type of fermented tea. Traditionally aged in caves, the tea is aged in climate-controlled rooms where the humidity level is maintained at less than 80%. The tea artisan will carefully add moisture to the tea leaves which are regularly turned & tended to in order to grow healthy bacteria. In some cases, the fermentation process can occur for up to six years until the process is complete. This natural aging produces a very mellow, smooth cup. Here's one case where aging is good! The exact processing of pu-erh tea is still a well-guarded secret in china due to its complexity, cultural value, and the level of mastery it takes to produce a highly desired pu-erh.
Try our Pu-Erh Tuo Cha for a traditional, earthy brew.
Although we've laid out some of the processing techniques involved in making each tea type, not all oolong, green, or black teas are processed in the same way. The steps vary depending on the tea type, its use, economic factors, whether or not the tea is being mass-produced, and many other factors. Still, you get an idea of the complexity involved in the processing of loose leaf tea, and how it may differ depending on the type. Now that you know the backstory, you can enjoy a sip of any or all of your favorite tea types alongside your upcoming holiday meals and have a built-in conversation starter!