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How Is Tea Made?

Tea 101

Although tea is consumed worldwide, most people are unaware of how the leaves of the Camellia sinensis shrub become the tasty beverage they enjoy so much. Whether crafted by hand or mass-produced, all teas undergo similar processes which take them from tree to table. What follows are a few of the ABC’s of tea which will make you consider each cup you drink from here on a little more thoughtfully.

Orthodox Production

Traditional tea making is concerned with keeping leaves intact in order to maintain their natural qualities, as every action impacts the final flavor. Leaves are treated gently to avoid breakage and tearing which can compromise their integrity. Because it is labor-intensive, a single batch of tea produced using this method can require an entire day to make. Tea artisans may train for years to master the art of making specific varieties. While more time consuming than other methods, orthodox manufacturing makes it possible to obtain far more from every leaf in terms of color, aroma, and flavor.

Crush-Tear-Curl Processing

A more modern method, Crush-Tear-Curl or “CTC”, processing evolved to meet high demand for black tea during WWII. Mass-market teabags made it convenient for troops to infuse tea quickly, and had a long shelf life. To prepare leaves for use in bags, specialized CTC equipment transforms harvested leaves into tiny pellets. As they are broken up entirely, heat and oxygen can reach every surface easily, making it possible to speed up production. As a result, large quantities can be made from start to finish in just a few hours. In addition to making tea production and brewing simpler, CTC allows greater quantities of tea to be packed and shipped in smaller spaces. Regardless of which method is employed, five basic steps are necessary to get tea from tree to table.

Harvesting

Traditionally done by hand, tea harvesting involves gathering unopened buds or the buds and top few leaves of each branch, depending on the variety of tea to be made. While most farms now rely on harvesting equipment, hand plucking is an important part of the manufacture of high-quality teas, as it helps to ensure that only the finest ingredients are obtained.  To make the job easier, tea growers typically keep plants pruned to waist height. Once leaves have been harvested, broken leaves, stems, and other unwanted materials are removed.

Withering

Freshly-harvested tea leaves can be quite stiff and difficult to work with. Exposing them to air and allowing them to wither reduces water content, rendering them soft and pliable.  Occasional fluffing and turning helps to ensure that the leaves receive even exposure. Because worldwide demand for tea is so high, withering is often hurried along by blowing warm air on the leaves in a controlled environment. However, top varieties are still withered more slowly and naturally.

Rolling

After withering, tea leaves are rolled, pressed, or twisted (by hand in orthodox production) or chopped in a CTC machine (modern) to break down their cell walls. This exposes enzymes and essential oils with them to the air and jumpstarts the oxidation process. Because it is less “invasive” orthodox rolling retains more essential oils which are (necessary to flavor development). While CTC makes it possible to keep up with demand, the loss of flavor-creating compounds is an unfortunate side effect of speed and convenience. Before modern food preservation techniques, rolling served a practical purpose. When rolled tightly, leaves keep longer; important when the journey to market might take weeks, months, or years.

Oxidation

Oxidation (or “fermentation”) is vital to flavor development. After rolling, leaves are allowed to rest for several hours, during which oxygen causes enzymes to undergo a chemical reaction, leaving them reddish-brown in color. The length of time the process continues (or whether it is used at all) determines the type of tea produced, along with its individual flavor characteristics and caffeine content. (Ex: black teas, with their dark color, strong flavor, and higher caffeine level are oxidized longer than other varieties.) In some instances, rolling and fermentation is repeated to further enhance taste and aroma. In orthodox production, oxidation is allowed to occur naturally, while CTC methods utilize climate-controlled chambers. Accelerating the process in such a way allows the oxidation to be completed in less than an an hour.

Firing & Sorting

To halt oxidation, heat is applied to tea leaves to kill off the enzymes responsible for the process. This also lowers moisture content (below 3%), which help the tea keep longer (important considering the fact that most of the tea we buy left its happy home on a tree somewhere at least six months ago). After heating, leaves are sorted (by hand if orthodox or using mesh sieves in varying sizes if by other means). The most basic size classifications are: whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings (basically what you see in mass-market teabags), and dust (used to make instant tea beverages).

An important part of our cultural traditions as well as our everyday lives, tea has an infinitely interesting lifecycle. Whether you enjoy oolong, gotta have green, or are all about your “basic” black, it’s important to know not just what’s in that cup but, what goes into getting it there in the first place.