The traditional production of tea

All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub or tree from southern China and Southeast Asia. From the leaves of this plant, we can obtain, depending on the type of process to which it is subjected, different varieties: green tea, white, black, Pǔ'ěr 普洱, Wūlóng 烏龍… Let's see how tea is made.

The traditional or orthodox tea production consists of five elementary steps: harvesting, wilting, rolling, oxidation (commonly, and almost always erroneously, called "fermentation") and drying. Not all varieties are produced following these steps: some follow only a few, while others repeat some of them several times. In addition, some teas are subjected to a sixth process: fermentation or post-fermentation.

The traditional production of tea consists of five elementary steps: harvesting, wilting, rolling, oxidation and drying.

Next, we will describe each of these steps in more detail:

1. Collection:

The collection of the leaves is traditionally done by hand. The tea plants are kept as shrubs at a suitable height to allow harvesting. There are different harvesting protocols, which dictate which part of the tea plant is to be collected. Sometimes it will be only the bud, others it will be the first leaf, or the bud and the first leaf, bud and two leaves, etc. This will directly influence the quality of the tea, since the bud and the first leaves possess different amounts of nutrients that affect the taste.

Plantacion de te - The traditional production of tea


2. Withering:

It consists in spreading the leaves on a flat surface, to allow them to soften as they wilt, becoming more flexible. This allows the subsequent rolling in different forms without breaking the leaves. The withering takes between 12 and 18 hours approximately, in which the leaves have to turn several times to allow a homogenous exposure to the air.

3. Rolling:

It is at this time when each tea acquires its characteristic appearance, and when the process of flavour development begins. The leaves, already soft, are rolled or compressed in different forms, and are squeezed to extract their juices. The rolling allows a better preservation of the essential oils and aroma (the more compressed the leaves are rolled, the longer they keep their aroma).

4. Oxidation:

After rolling, when the enzymes and essential oils of the leaf are exposed to the oxygen of air, the oxidation process begins, which produces changes in the chemical composition and the colour of the leaves, turning them brown and reddish. It is during oxidation that more complex flavours develop, which define each variety. The duration of this process depends on the climate and the variety produced, but it can happen in a matter of a few hours. The leaves can then be rolled and/or oxidized again, although oxidation occurs only once in most types of tea.

Formerly it was believed that the leaves fermented during this process, so the name "fermentation" has remained to this day to refer to oxidation. It is true that a slight fermentation occurs naturally during wilting and oxidation, but it is not a significant process. However, some types of tea are later subjected to a real fermentation (therefore, they are sometimes called post-fermented).

5. Drying:

It is the last step in the production process. The leaves can be roasted or heated quickly to remove the remaining moisture, stop oxidation, firmly adhere cellular fluids to the leaves and allow a good conservation of them.

6. Fermentation or post-fermentation:

This process only occurs in the variety known as hēi chá 黑茶 and in some types of white tea. The tea is stored in controlled conditions of humidity and temperature, which produce an authentic fermentation, through microorganisms (such as bacteria and yeasts) beneficial to health that naturally inhabit the leaf. This process endows the tea with digestive and probiotic properties, and is also known as aging.

There is also an alternative or heterodox production, more modern, in which the same steps can be followed but using mechanical or artificial means to accelerate the process.

In a next article we will see how each of the steps affects the achievement of a variety of tea or another.



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