Tea was discovered 4700 years ago by Shen Nong, an emperor who fell asleep under a tea tree. One leaf accidentally found its way to his cup and changed history. Tea production underwent many significant changes through numerous Chinese dynasties. Nowadays every tea has to follow many guidelines to deserve its name. Each and every type has its own way of production. Six main types of Chinese teas go through different ways of processing, but even different types from each category have their own way. Sometimes the difference lies only in the shape of the leaf, sometimes in the type of leaf, sometimes in the harvesting period. Do you know the difference between the main types?
Tea production is a very complex subject. Each and every type of tea has to go through specific processing methods, and there are numerous teas out there. Tradition is becoming more and more important and farmers tend to cherish their knowledge and expertise more than ever, for making authentic and high quality tea. The only common step for all of them is withering. Tea can go through two, to as much as thirty steps in production.
The story of your favorite tea begins with picking the leaves. This can be done by hand or by machine. Those harvested by machine are usually less expensive and those picked by hand are the most expensive. Some areas can only be reached by human, and the price of tea will highly be influenced by this fact. Did you know that a certain type of Chinese Tie Guan Yin tea is said to be picked by monkey? Legend says that monkeys were trained to pick the leaves of Tie Guan Yin tea bush in Anxi, for making a tea for an emperor Qian Long. Nowadays this term stands for high quality hand-picked tea.
After picking, leaves start to wilt. This is a natural process of any plant. Controlled withering is done on tea farms, and it is common for all tea types. However, it can be done both indoor and outdoor.
White tea is the least processed tea. Right after withering, leaves are dried. They do go through a natural oxidation process, but not in a way a green tea does. White tea is the most unprocessed of all teas and usually has a dry hay aroma.
Fixing the tea leaves is a process of stopping the oxidation in green and yellow teas. It can be done in several ways, but the most popular ones are baking, pan-firing and steaming. Steaming is more common for Japanese teas, while pan-firing is popular among Chinese tea producers. Only black teas are fully oxidized. Oolong tea is the most diverse category because it can be oxidized to a different level. Oolong and black teas go through similar process; after withering, leaves are rolled, oxidized and dried, but before drying, oxidation needs to be stopped for Oolong teas.
The last step in production of any tea is drying. This step is different only for dark teas that are fermented, not dried. Fermentation can be achieved either naturally through many years or fast in controlled environment. The most popular way of drying tea leaves is oven-baking and sun-drying. Some traditional authentic teas can be dried over charcoal, which will give them a special smoky aroma.
For an amateur tea drinker it is not that important to understand the processing methods. However, if you are ready to explore numerous nuances of tea types, try to find out more about the processing method of the tea you are drinking. You will be able to choose your tea better and discover many different hidden gems among them by knowing this information.