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The Art of Tea Processing and The 6 True Teas

Dec 19, 2023

Shanika Dasanayaka

You may be wondering what the difference is between true teas and all the other types of tea on the market. There are a lot of different kinds of tea out there, but only six of them are true teas. 

What makes them true teas? It's all in the processing. In this article, we will explain what they are and how they are processed. We will also discuss the six true teas and their unique flavor profiles. So sit back and relax with a cup of your favorite true tea!

The Tea Factory Process

When fresh leaves are plucked, they are transported to a tea factory to be processed. The process begins here to produce true teas. However, remember that a single tea factory does not produce all tea types. In most cases, large-scale tea factories are specialized for producing one or two types of tea, as each style needs specific machines and manufacturing parameters.

What is Tea Processing?

Tea processing is the method in which the leaves from the tea plant Camellia sinensis are transformed into dried leaves for brewing tea. The type of tea produced depends on the quality of the leaf and the desired end result. The main steps of true tea processing are harvesting, withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying.


The 6 Types of True Teas and Which Tea Process They Go Through?

1. White Tea


The processing steps of white tea

The process begins with young, unopened tea buds and leaves carefully plucked from the tea plant. After harvesting, the leaves are simply withered and dried in natural sunlight. This minimal intervention allows the tea to retain its natural flavors, subtle floral notes, and a light, refreshing character.

2. Yellow Tea

The processing steps of yellow tea

Yellow tea undergoes a meticulous processing journey, beginning with the careful harvest of tea leaves. Following harvest, the leaves experience fixing, sweltering, shaping, rolling, and finally, drying. This intricate process imparts yellow tea with a unique flavor profile, marked by its distinctive mildness, floral notes, and a smooth, refined finish.

3. Chinese Style Green Tea

The processing steps of green tea

Chinese green tea undergoes a comprehensive processing method that encompasses harvesting, pan-frying and then rolling and drying. Starting with the plucking of tender leaves, the tea is meticulously crafted to preserve its vibrant green color and fresh, grassy flavors.

4. Japanese Style Green Tea

The processing steps of green tea

Japanese-style green tea follows a precise processing sequence, commencing with the harvest of tender leaves. These leaves then undergo steaming, a distinctive step that halts oxidation and preserves the tea's vivid color and vegetal notes. Subsequent stages involve rolling and drying, resulting in the creation of Japanese green tea known for its vibrant green hue, umami richness, and a uniquely smooth, grassy taste.

5. Oolong Tea

The processing steps of oolong tea

Oolong tea, embarks on a journey from harvesting to create its distinctive profile. After plucking, the leaves undergo withering to reduce moisture, followed by rolling to release essential oils. Oxidizing, fixing, shaping, and finally, drying complete the intricate process, resulting in Oolong's nuanced flavor spectrum, from partially oxidized richness to floral and fruity notes, making it a captivating and diverse tea experience.

6. Black Tea

The processing steps of black tea

Black tea, a robust and flavorful choice, undergoes a transformative journey from harvesting to brewing perfection. The process encompasses withering, where leaves lose moisture, followed by rolling to release natural juices. Subsequent stages involve oxidizing, adding depth and boldness, and finally, drying, resulting in the distinctive dark leaves that yield a rich and invigorating cup of black tea.

Steps Of Tea Processing

The true teas are the ones that come from the Camellia sinensis plant. This includes white, green, oolong, black and Pu-erh tea. Here are the steps of how each true tea is processed:

1. Withering

The true teas all start with withering, which reduces the water content (60% to 70%) of the leaves and makes them pliable. This process involves placing the tea leaves in big troughs over a mesh wire. The warm air that circulates around the leaves speeds up evaporation and breaks down some of the cell walls in the leaf, allowing the true tea to absorb the flavors better; it will pick up during oxidation.

Withering is also when any bruising or broken leaves are sorted out and removed. Once the leaves have withered, they are then rolled.

2. Rolling

In old times, rolling was done manually, but thanks to factory advancements, it is now done on rolling machines (horizontal rotation on a rolling table). This process further breaks down the cell walls of the leaf, releasing more enzymes.

Different true teas are rolled differently to achieve different shapes. For example, rolled oolong leaves are long and curved, while rolled black tea leaves are more twisted. The type of rolling also affects the final flavor of the true tea.

After rolling, the true teas are ready for oxidation.

3. Oxidation

Oxidation is what gives true teas their characteristic colors, from yellowish-green for lightly oxidized teas like green tea to deep red-black for heavily oxidized teas like black tea. This process is also known as fermentation, though true fermentation doesn't occur since the leaves are not alive.

Oxidation occurs when the enzymes in the tea leaves interact with oxygen in the air. The longer the true tea is allowed to oxidize, the darker its color, and the more robust its flavor will be.

Unoxidized or lightly oxidized true teas include:

  • Green tea
  • White tea

Moderately oxidized true teas include:

  • Oolong tea
  • Yellow tea

Heavily oxidized true teas include:

  • Black tea
  • Pu'erh tea

After oxidation, the true teas are ready for Drying/Firing.

4. Drying/Firing

Drying/firing is the final step in true tea processing. This process halts oxidation by removing all the leaf moisture, preventing the true tea from going bad.

True teas can be dried in a number of ways, but the most common method is to roast them in large pans or on a conveyor belt. This method reduces 3% of water content and also gives true teas their final color and flavor.

After drying/firing, the true teas are ready to be packaged and sold.

The CTC Method

This is another method of making tea - black tea, to be precise. The term CTC stands for “crush, tear, and curl” the main steps of the processing. It originated during the Second World War to increase the tea weight so that it could be packed into a sack or chest.

This method is used to make what is known as 'black tea', and is the most common method in use today. It involves passing the tea leaves through a series of cylindrical rollers, which crush the leaves and break them up into small pieces.

 The broken leaves are then passed through a sieve, which separates them into three different sizes - 'boulders', 'fannings', and 'dust.' The boulders are too large to be used in most teabags and are sold to be used in 'tea temples' or for iced tea. The fannings and dust are used in most commercial tea bags.

The leaves are then passed through a dryer, where they are heated to stop the oxidation process. Finally, they are sorted into different grades according to their size.

Type-Specific/ Methodology As Per True Teas

Did you know that tea is categorized based on the oxidation and fermentation length it goes through?

Green Tea

Green tea undergoes the least amount of oxidation. The oxidation process is halted with the help of the rapid application of heat after tea picking, either with steam, the method favored in Japan, or through dry roasting and cooking in hot pans, favored in Chinese tea processing.

Yellow Tea

Yellow tea is allowed to oxidize for a very short time, and then it is quickly heated to stop the oxidation process. This results in a yellow-green color and a slightly more mellow flavor than green tea. Specifically, the oxidation process in yellow tea occurs in the leaves' chlorophyll. This is done via non-microbial and non-enzymatic browning. Thus, giving the leaves a yellowish color.

White Tea

The next true tea is white tea, which is minimally oxidized. White tea processing begins with the young leaves and buds being withered in the sun or in an artificially controlled environment. Once withered, the leaves are then rolled, twisted, and dried to stop any further oxidation from occurring. White tea is the least processed of all true teas, and as a result, it has a very delicate flavor.

Note: The preferable withering conditions are at 30 °C (65% relative humidity) for up to 26 hours.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is allowed to oxidize for longer than green and yellow teas, but not as long as black tea. The oxidation process is halted by roasting the leaves over charcoal. This tea usually takes 2 to 3 days from withering to drying, with a longer oxidation time than green and yellow teas.

Black Tea

The oxidation in black tea processing is a carefully monitored and controlled chemical reaction between the enzymes in the tea leaf and the oxygen in the air.

During oxidation, enzymes convert natural compounds in the leaf, including catechins and polyphenols, into complex aromatic compounds known as theaflavins and thearubigins.

These give black tea its characteristic reddish-brown color and full-bodied taste. After oxidation, the leaf is then rolled into small pellets or twisted into long strips. This action breaks open the leaf cells and allows the oxidation process to continue more evenly and quickly.

The leaf is then dried to stop the oxidation process and preserve the flavor compounds that have been created.

Post-Fermented Tea

This type of tea undergoes a microbial fermentation process after the leaves are dried and rolled. The length of time for this post-fermentation varies, lasting anywhere from several months to many years. The final product results in a dark tea with a strong flavor. Many of these teas are aged; the older they are, the more valuable they become.

  1. Pu-erh Tea: Pu-erh is a post-fermented tea that originates from the Yunnan province in China. This type of tea is made from a large leaf variety of the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis var. assamica. This tea is made from sun-dried and shaded tea leaves that are then fermented and aged.
  2. Liu'an Tea: Liu'an tea, also spelled Liu'ang, is a post-fermented tea from the Anhui province of China. This tea is made from a local variety of the Camellia sinensis plant known as Camellia sinensis var. liu an. The leaves for this tea are picked during the spring and are then sun-dried and fermented.
  3. Liu Bao Tea: Liu Bao tea is a post-fermented tea that comes from the Guangxi province of China. This type of tea is made from a local variety of the Camellia sinensis plant known as Camellia sinensis var. Liu bao. The leaves are picked during the spring and then sun-dried and fermented. This tea is often aged for many years before it is consumed.

In conclusion, exploring the diverse world of tea processing has been a fascinating journey, unveiling the intricate art and science behind each of the six main tea types. From the delicate nuances of white tea to the robust flavors of black tea and the oolong's semi-oxidized charm, the vast spectrum of tea processing techniques has shaped an array of distinct profiles to delight the palate.

The art of tea processing is unique to each tea origin as well as to each tea producer. Yet the core steps of tea processing involve harvesting, withering, rolling, oxidation, and drying. As a tea lover, this is where you should begin your journey of exploration, and there are many delicious teas to accompany your journey! 

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