The leaf that brings us so much pleasure is simple yet complex. Simple because it is nature’s gift, pure and delicious by itself. Complex because there are eight steps involved in turning the delicate leaves of Camellia Sinensis into a perfect cup of tea. The 8-step process is: plucking, sorting, cleaning, withering (also called primary drying), manufacturing (to cater to the class of tea: green, yellow, black, etc.), final drying, sorting, and lastly, packing.
Before the leaf is plucked, much love and care must be given to the plant. Some of the teas in your cupboard traveled thousands of miles and across the sea to meet you, while some of the tea never got to meet their beloved tea drinkers because it spoiled in transport. In this case, the process of drying becomes extremely important. On the one hand, we want to maintain the freshness of the tea (i.e., avoid over-drying), but on the other hand, tea leaves that are not properly dried will mold and spoil regardless of how exquisite the tea is.
You might wonder, why should I care how my tea is made? Well, knowing the process will help you determine the right kind of tea for you, and help you pick the best quality tea possible. When you are in a tea shop, the more information you know, the better you will be able to determine the best kind of tea.
Let’s dive in.
First, we have the plucking of the tea. Small and soft hands are preferred for picking tea leaves. Plucking is the foundation of great tea and must be done by hand. (There are some exceptions, such as the Japanese cut-tear-curl method, which we will get into it in another article.) Plucking style varies depending on the quality of tea; some are more precise, and some are more relaxed. More precious teas, such as Huang Shan Mao Feng (黄山毛峰), require a more evolved precision in the plucking.
The sorting of the tea varies greatly from country to country. The Chinese greatly honor the look of the leaf, whereas the Japanese believe that the taste or the quality of brewed tea matters more than the shape of the leaf. In the sorting phase, leaves are cleaned and carefully set aside from broken leaves, pebbles, and insects. Each leaf must be picked individually by hand and inspected to ensure quality.
After the plucking, sorting, and cleaning, now the fun begins. The next steps depend on what kind of tea we are dealing with. For example, green tea is laid out to air dry to prevent oxidation, which darkens the leaf, whereas yellow tea undergoes a very different step called Men Huang (闷黄), which translates into English as “seal the yellow.” It goes like this: the leaves are slightly steamed then covered with a cloth to allow the aroma to get back into the leaves. While green tea leaves are air-dried for a short period of time, oolong tea leaves must be dried in the sun for several hours on end. Then tea masters must hand roll the tea leaves every 2 hours for the next 7-9 hours. It takes 30 hours total to process a batch of oolong tea.
There are various ways of drying the tea leaves, such as sun-dried, basket-fired, pan-fired, tumble-dried, oven-dried, steamed, etc. The methods depend greatly on which type of tea we are working with. As a child, I watched a documentary on tea and I was puzzled as to why some people were “cooking” with their hands; as it turns out, the method they were using is called pan-fired. The tea masters use their hands instead of a spatula to ensure the temperature is not too high, as it could damage the leaf.
After the processing method that’s specific to the kind of tea, leaves are given a final dry to ensure a proper finish. Then the tea is sorted one final time to take out any broken leaves. Finally, the tea is sealed in air-tight, vacuum-sealed packages. And off it goes!
Each class of tea deserves its own article on how to properly process the leaves (such as some oolong tea has 18 steps), but I will save that for another article! Today, I wanted to write about the work that it takes to create a perfect cup of tea. There is so much love and patience in each cup, and like everything else in life, simple things don’t come easily. Or does it?