The time of year the tea is plucked and harvested has a lot to do with how it tastes. Most premium teas are hand-plucked and focused on picking the young tender buds and leaves that shoot at the top of the tea bush in the spring, post winter dormancy. These teas are sweet, smooth and deliciously fragrant.
It is essential to remove extra water from the leaves, either by air-drying the freshly plucked leaves in the sun or in a cool room. Without this step, much of the buds and leaves would simply break apart during the next step.
Shaping (Rolling, Bruising)
This process speeds up oxidation. For a light level of oxidation, leaves may be shaken or tossed in a bamboo tray. Heavier oxidation is achieved by kneading and rolling the leaves by hand for premium teas and primarily for oolongs. This photo is an example of a rolling machine used for Japanese greens which breaks the cellular walls of the tea, catalyzing the oxidase enzymes to release and begin the oxidation process.
How the leaves are oxidized determines the type of tea produced, depth of flavor and strength. White tea is the least oxidized, green tea second, while black teas are the darkest teas as they are fully oxidized.
Firing stabilizes the leaves by stopping the oxidation process and drying the tea leaves. Temperature and time is an art form especially for artisanal methods of pan-firing which is still prevalent in the production of premium Chinese teas. Most are produced in rotating drums where the leaves are gently crushed to release more enzymes, changing the flavor of the leaf and simultaneously heated to begin stopping oxidation.
Drying, Curing, Post-Fermentation
Panning, sunning, air-drying or baking shaped tea leaves are all drying processes used differently to produce different tea types. Most white teas are gently sun-dried and stacked in racks for a few hours, while greens to oolongs are most varied with many different kinds of heat sources from charcoal, different types of wood firing, electric or gas heaters. This final process prevents molding and other degradation of the leaf in packaging or transit. For puerh teas, additional aging is needed to enhance the tea’s flavor. There are natural aging processes as well as methods to speed up the aging process.
Finished tea is sorted visually by size and color, either by hand or by machine. Oolongs are particularly labor intensive where the tea stems are manually de-stemmed from the finished oolong (photo image). Japanese greens are sorted through a high-tech color laser sorting machine that detects different shades of green among leaves and stems. The grading system of teas are initially set here but will further go through sensory tasting and analysis which all depends on the professional tea taster or cupper, to determine whether to select this tea from its amazing journey for the discerning customer.