How is tea processed

Tea processing

Tea professionals take years to perfect the method of producing tea, hence it’s not possible to cover all the details in one session. For now we will broadly cover the two methods of tea production, Orthodox and Non-Orthodox, both of which, have five basic processing steps which are tweaked according to the tea being produced. The Non-Orthodox method is generally applied to the CTC or ‘Crush-Tear-Curl’ tea.

Processing Steps

Plucking
Tea plantations are filled with tea trees which are pruned to only waist high bushes. This is to make hand plucking possible where the tea leaves are manually plucked by hand by the skilful hand pickers of the estate. The leaves are plucked between the unopened bud to the top three leaves and the bud. After plucking, the teas are filtered for stems, twigs and broken leaves which are removed and then sorted as per size and uniformity.

Withering
Fresh tea leaves, even the tender ones, are very rigid and cannot be processed without damaging the leaves. For this very reason, the tea has to be laid out to wilt and wither for long hours while being gently fluffed and rotated and monitored to allow for even exposure to air and finally, to make them more pliable and ready for further processing.

Rolling
The now wilted and withered leaves are rolled, pressed or twisted to wring out the juices from the leaves. This where the personality and taste of the tea begins to develop. The now exposed juices, enzymes and essential oils from the leaves start interacting with the oxygen in the air, marking the beginning of the oxidation process.

Oxidisation
With the oxygen in the air interacting with the freshly exposed juices, enzymes and essential oils, the tea leaves begin oxidising, changing its chemical composition and turning into a reddish-brown colour. Oxidisation is an important, if not the most important part of tea production, as each and every tea has its own liquor colour and flavour, which is determined by the amount of oxidisation it undergoes. The style of tea being produced dictates the period of oxidisation given the climatic ambient conditions at the time as well as the number of times the process of rolling and oxidisation is repeated.

Firing
The final step in production for all teas is ‘firing’. This process heats the leaves rapidly in a dry environment to dry the leaves themselves to a point below 3% moisture content. This stops the oxidisation process as the juices are no longer exposed as well as prepares them for packaging and storage, as it is a well-known fact that the shelf life of dry-goods far exceeds that of ones with moisture.

Non-Orthodox or CTC Production

Teas can be very expensive and that is mostly due to the time taken for processing and wastage that comes from broken leaves. This is where the concept of Non-Orthodox Tea Processing comes from which was created to complete the processing in a much shorter span and in a limited fashion. CTC or ‘Crush-Tear-Curl’ was invented for the black tea industry to save time and money.

The three basic differences between Orthodox and CTC teas are: Costlier tea, which are generally made in the Orthodox process, are generally contain whole leaves and the process itself tries to maintain the integrity of the whole leaf. Be it hand-pressed or mechanically rolled, the leaves are not torn or shredded into smaller pieces. The shapes and sizes of the tea leaves might vary tremendously, but be white, green, oolong  or black tea, the Orthodox processing method uses the whole leaf to create the flavours. In stark contrast the CTC tea is produced without relying on the wholeness of the tea as it will be torn either way.

As mentioned before, teas made in the Orthodox process are never cut or torn intentionally, hence it requires a lot of time, patience and skill to carefully roll and handle these teas. Their production relies greatly on tea artisans who have skills passed through the generations to make a specific kind of tea. CTC tea production is largely mechanised. The fresh tea leaves are taken are put into a macerating machine which extracts all the juices while crushing and tearing the leaves continuously. Because the leaves are broken up completely, a whole batch of this tea roughly takes two hours to produce. After oxidising the little pellets of leaves that come out are dried and packaged. In the CTC method the oxidisation process happens very rapidly and due to this not all types of teas can be produced this way. There are green teas that are produced using the non-orthodox method, but their oxidisation process is delayed by continuous steaming while processing.

CTC was created for the black tea industry as it was necessary to create large volumes in a shorter span of time. These fast infusing teas came to be used mostly in teabags and spiced teas for its bold, rich and strong flavour. That being said, with such a strong flavour, the CTC tea exhibits only one sort of flavour which makes it very one dimensional. The teas produced by the orthodox method cannot produce the colour or the taste of the CTC tea as they don’t undergo the same processing. The key to the taste of orthodox teas is in the subtlety of the different flavours that are now detectable due to the delicacy of the taste itself. Since the tea is also oxidised in a slow manner, the tea maker is able to create and develop very delicate flavours as per their choice. Anything and everything done to the leaves during processing will alter the flavour of the end product.

Rolled Tea Leaves

The rolling of tea leaves is done to preserve the flavour of the tea in the essential oils. The wonderful taste of the tea comes from these essential oils which can evaporate over time so to prevent that from happening the tea leaves are formed into tightly rolled pellets. This mostly came about in the olden days, where shipping of tea would take many months and storing them in air tight packaging was a definitely an issue.

For CTC tea, the process itself tears and shreds the tea into such small pieces that it is not possible for the tea to hold onto its essential oils. Which is why it is recommended that CTC teas be consumed within 4-6 months from the date of manufacturing. Loose whole leaf tea on the other hand, if properly stored can even be used upto two years from production.

As for the teabag industry, most of the tea by the time it is consumed have already reached or crossed the four month period by when the flavours are already past their prime. Many speciality tea manufacturers, have recently started offering pyramid tea bags with whole leaves which help in the infusion process of the tea itself. This new concept makes it possible for speciality tea companies to sell tea that otherwise had to be sold loose before. While this is now possible, it would still be a good idea to remember that the packaging and shipping process still can take its time and the tea in the teabag is not as fresh as it can be.