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Basic Tea Categories and Production Methods

By December 5, 2011Our Tea & Travel Blog

All teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant; but it is the method of production that determines the type of tea. Of the myriad teas available, they can usually be grouped into five basic categories – white, green, oolong, black, and puer or aged tea.

Like fine wine, the flavor and characteristics of tea depend not only on how it was processed, but also on its terroir: the climate, weather, soil, region, specific cultivar of the leaf, customs and traditions of the artisans, etc. White and green teas are considered unfermented or non-oxidized teas.

White teas receive the least amount of processing. Once the leaves are carefully plucked, they are simply withered and laid out dry in the sun or in indoor drying rooms. Some are finished off with a brief roasting to remove lingering moisture so the tea will keep during storage. Originally, white tea was named for the tiny white and downy hairs on the new shoots. They’re made using only the new unfurled leaf bud, the new bud and one or two leaves right after it on the stem, or from already open leaves. Examples of the more famous white teas include Silver Needle (Yin Zhen), Ceylon Silver Tips, and White Peony (Bai Mu Dan). Try our selection of white teas.

Green teas are made in many countries; however, China and Japan still produce the most distinctive green teas. An important stage in production of green tea is the “fixing” of the leaves. Once the leaves are harvested and withered they are promptly fixed, meaning they are subjected to heat to halt enzymatic activity (de-enzyme) which turns the leaves brown, otherwise known as oxidation.

Chinese green teas are pan-fired or subjected to dry heat, producing green teas that are more aromatic, slightly sweeter, and can have a nuttier, toasty taste. Most Japanese green teas, on the other hand, are fixed by steaming. This produces teas with a darker and more vibrant shade of green and are more vegetal, seaweed-like in taste, and can be tinged with a faint sweetness. After the fixing, a series of rolling, shaping and additional firings take place. Note that methods for shaping and firing teas vary in different countries and regions. In China, much of the rolling and shaping is done by hand, giving various tea leaves their distinctive and artistic shapes. The tea leaves are subjected to dry heat by way of pan-firing in large woks, oven drying, tumbling in a dryer, or heating in bamboo baskets over charcoal fires. Thus tea leaves can also develop their shape while they are being dried. Some distinctively shaped Chinese green teas include Dragon Well, Jasmine Pearls, and Chun Mee or Precious Eyebrows.

In Japan, most of the tea production is mechanized. Once fixed, majority of the green teas, other than producing Matcha which requires milling the leaves to powdered form, are cooled then mechanically rolled which breaks them into tiny needle-like shapes. The leaves are then dried and pressed for several stages before being fired in an oven and cooled again. Well-known Japanese green teas include gyokuro and sencha. Try our selection of green teas.

Oolong or wulong teas are perhaps the most labor-intensive teas to create and require great skill and experience on the tea artisan’s part. Oolong teas are categorized as semi-fermented or partially oxidized teas so they fall somewhere between green and black teas. Oolongs are traditionally produced in China and Taiwan. The main oolong producing regions include Guangdong, Wuyi Shan, Anxi, and Taiwan.

A wide range of flavors, aromas, and colors are available as there are many variations in technique when creating oolong teas. It would be beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the ways oolong can be manufactured so we’ll just outline the basic steps.

First of all, more mature leaves are used for oolong teas which are plucked later in the season. The more mature and open leaves are better able to withstand the multiple, and sometimes rigorous, stages of processing. The two leaf styles are long and twisted or curled pellet shapes.

Once the leaves are plucked, they are laid out to wither in the sun for several hours. Next, the leaves are lightly rolled or shaken to bruise the outer edges. Following is a partial drying stage to further reduce the moisture content in the leaves. More greener or lighter oolongs receive a final firing after the first rolling.

Other oolongs, such as Tieguanyin, will go through a series of alternating ball-rolling then partial drying for several hours. They will then receive a final firing, then baked or roasted to bring out more flavor characteristics. More heavily fermented or oxidized oolongs, once rolled, will be re-rolled before receiving a final firing.

Quality oolong teas may be steeped many times with each new infusion releasing another layer of flavor as the leaf unfurls. When using a mesh or ball infuser, we recommend using a larger one to allow the leaves room to expand. Well-known oolongs include Oriental Beauty, Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy), and Da Hong Pao (Great Red Robe). Try our selection of oolong teas.

Black teas (known as red tea in China) are fully-fermented or fully oxidized teas. There are two methods of producing black teas: orthodox method and non-orthodox method. The orthodox method entails processing teas manually or by using machinery designed by the British in the 1800s to mimic hand processes. Many teas, as outlined above, are produced using the orthodox method to maintain the integrity of the leaf.

Non-orthodox tea production, on the other hand, focuses on saving time and money by cutting down on the more time consuming stages of manufacture. The predominantly used machine is the CTC machine. CTC stands for cut, tear, curl. The essential difference between the two is that instead of crushing, bruising and rolling the leaves by hand or using simple machinery, with CTC the leaves pass through a number of spiked rollers that shred and mince the leaves, then rolls them into tiny balls or granules. CTC-produced teas are ideally suited for teabags; they are more full-bodied and are used mainly in countries like India and Sri Lanka where they usually take their tea with milk and sugar.

As with so many teas, the manufacture of black tea varies in each country and region, but once plucked, there are basic steps that all black teas go through. These are withering, rolling, fermentation/oxidation, and firing to destroy any lingering enzymes by halting the oxidation process, and grading the tea. Try our selection of black teas.

Aged or Puer Tea, is a post-fermented tea and is actually called black tea in China. Puer is the name of a town in Yunnan Province which historically was a major trading post and important hub for buying and selling teas many centuries ago. It wasn’t too long ago, however, that puer tea was only found in China, but has become increasingly popular around the world and at times commanding prices in the thousands of dollars. In 2008, the Chinese government set the standard that puer tea must originate from specific cities and regions within southwestern Yunnan Province and be made from a particular variety of local tea plant in order to be called puer tea.

What’s unique about post-fermented teas is that due to its processing, and proper storage, it is suitable for years of natural aging. Puer is produced in loose leaf form or compressed into bricks. There are two kinds of puer teas: sheng cha (sometimes referred to as raw or green) and shou cha (also referred to as cooked or ripe).

After harvesting, the leaves are laid out to wither to reduce the moisture content and make the leaves pliable. This is followed by pan-firing in a wok. Next, the leaves are hand-rolled to further break down the cell walls and to encourage enzymatic activity. Depending on weather conditions, the leaves are sun-dried or dried in dryers until moisture content is reduced by 90%. The tea will be rolled once again then sorted to various grades. At this point the tea is known as mao cha and can be finished as either sheng cha or shou cha. As sheng cha is processed for natural aging it can take up to several decades to achieve a desired flavor and color. The mao cha is either left as loose leaf tea or it is quickly steamed and compressed into various shapes such as tea cakes, tea bricks, tuo cha, etc. The tea is dried then stored to naturally age.

Cooked puer or shou cha, on the other hand, is manufactured in such as way as to speed up the aging process. The method was developed in 1972, and the tea undergoes a process called pile-fermentation. The mao cha is moistened and placed in a pile under humid conditions. Heat will naturally build up within the pile encouraging microbial fermentation and accelerating the aging process. The microbial fermentation helps give cooked puer similar smooth and earthy characteristics as naturally aged puer. The microbes also allow the tea to improve with age. After the piling process, the leaves are rolled, dried, and sorted into loose tea or compressed into shape before being allowed to dry. Try our selection of puer teas.

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