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Tea Harvesting and Production - Common Terminology

Tea professionals often spend years to understand just one style of tea production. Therefore, this tutorial will not even attempt to cover all nuances of all of the varieties or types of teas. What we will do is discuss some of the tea basics that are common to most teas. Tea production generally falls into one of two camps: Orthodox and Crush-Tear-Curl (generally referred to as CTC). In addition, most tea processing includes five basic steps, which are re-ordered or repeated depending on the style of tea being produced.

Orthodox Production

9-get-ready-to-carry-tea.jpgThis is mostly hand-processed but more and more machines are being implemented during certain steps.

Step 1. Harvesting

The leaves are plucked by hand. The most typical harvesting is one bud and two top leaves. However, sometimes just the bud is harvested or in another case the top two leaves are used without the bud. In order to make hand-plucking possible, the tea "trees" are generally pruned into waist-high bushes. An exception are the wild arbor or ancient arbor pu-erh tea trees that are found in the high mountain regions. (See Pu-erh Tea Cultivation for more info.)

Step 2. Sorting

Any particulate, stems, twigs, or broken leaves are removed. This assures the best appearance of the leaf and uniformity of leaf size, both factors being critical to the tea's quality.

Step 3. Primary Drying and Withering

The leaves are laid out to allow the natural rigidity of the leaf to weaken (wither) through the loss of moisture. In some cases the leaves are slightly heated, rotated, flipped, or stirred to ensure even exposure to the air. This assures that any subsequent rolling or twisting doesn’t break the leaves.

Step 4. Rolling

12-withering-inside-to-oxid.jpgThe leaves are rolled, pressed or twisted to break the cellular structure and expose the enzymes and essential oils to the oxygen in the air, speeding the oxidation process. (This step is not done for white and green teas.)

Step 5. Oxidation

The leaves are laid out and allowed to oxidize (the process by which the oxygen in the air interacts with the enzymes in the leaf turning it brown and changing the chemical composition). The length of this process depends on the style of tea being produced and the preferences of the grower. (This step is not done for white and green teas.)

Step 6. Repeat

Processing varies dramatically by tea type, culture and region. In some cases the tea undergoes a repeated process of withering, rolling and oxidation until the desired result is achieved. (This step is not done for white and green teas.)

Step 7. Firing

The final step in the production process is to "fire" or heat the leaves quickly to dry them to below 5% moisture content and stop the oxidation process. (For pu-erh tea, the leaves are called máochá at this point and usually undergo additional from here.)

CTC Production

tea-blog-assamtea-experb000a.jpgCTC (Crush-Tear-Curl) production is performed primarily by machines versus the human involvement of the orthodox method. Technological advances have made machine harvesting and production significantly less expensive, and today more than 90% of all tea is harvested and processed by machines.

The three basic differences between orthodox and CTC teas are:

1. Hand plucking vs. machine cutting

Picking only the top two leaves and the unopened bud is nearly impossible to do by machine, as is picking only whole and unbroken leaves. Hand plucking is also the only effective means of harvest in the highest elevations on steep mountainsides where the best teas are grown and machines are unable to operate. Machine cutting simply takes the top off of a plant and therefore introduces stem and stalk to the mix which much be later removed. It is also more suited to less steep terrain.

2. Human expertise vs. automation

Processing by hand does not mean that no machines are involved. It does, however, suggest that a skilled craftsman is carefully monitoring and adjusting the process to account for variations in the leaf, outside temperature, humidity, etc. Artisans throughout the tea producing nations are trained for years to be able to pull the most unique and prized characteristics from the leaf. Machine automation is designed to efficiently produce a uniform result from as many leaves as possible. While connoisseurs may appreciate the nuanced differences in each harvest, mass market tea companies are looking for a reliable product that tastes exactly the same every time.

3. Resulting leaf size

Orthodox teas are typically whole leaf teas and range from open to tightly rolled. CTC teas are uniform tea clippings that are usually no more than 2mm in diameter. Because of the uniform size and taste, CTC teas are much preferred for iced and bagged teas.

A brief side-note on leaf style

Orthodox teas can be found in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes, from long “needles” to tightly rolled “gunpowder” pellets. In China especially, the quality and style of the leaf is prized as much or more than the actual taste of the brew.

The rolling process used in orthodox manufacturing has a scientific purpose (to break the cellular walls of the leaf and allow the essential oils and juices to mix and begin the oxidation process). Legend holds that the practice of rolling the leaves into specific shapes and sizes, particularly the tightly rolled varieties, was started as a method of increasing the shelf-life of the tea. With relatively crude storage and transportation methods typical of the early tea trade, tightly rolled teas held up better and preserved the essential oils in the center of the leaf that would be released when “unfurled” in a cup of hot water.

The CTC process of chopping the leaves into small, uniform pieces makes it impossible for the leaf to hold onto those essential oils that are required to deliver the most prized flavor profiles. CTC teas also lose their flavor and quality much more quickly. Loose tea, if properly stored, can keep for up to 2 years. CTC teas typically keep their best taste for only 4-6 months.

The reality of the teabag industry is that, by the time the tea bag reaches the customer’s cup, the tea is often already more than 6 months old and is past its prime. Since there is no dating of the product, you really have no idea of the age of the tea or how long it has been on the shelf. To combat this, some specialty tea companies are now offering whole leaf teas in larger, pyramid bags or sachets. These new offerings make it possible to sell the same tea in a bag that one might find loose in the world's finest tea shops. While this is possible, buyer beware - most bagged teas are still of a significantly inferior quality.

Having made the comment above about not knowing anything about the freshness of your bagged tea, there is an additional point to be made about loose tea: most vendors provide no information about the age of their loose tea. JAS-eTea.com always tells you when the tea is harvested.