How Tea is Made

Growers keep the tea plant in the early stage of growth with constant pruning and pick only two leaves and a bud from the tops of the plants.

Once workers gather enough quantities of tea leaves, their stash is quickly carried over to a tea factory located right on the tea plantation. The factory is placed close to source of the leaves because once the tea is plucked, oxidation immediately begins. The oxidation process is important in understanding tea -- it must be closely monitored during production and is essential in determining the type and quality of the tea

In this section we'll find out the role of oxidation by looking at the different steps of processing tea.



Black Tea

You are probably most familiar with black tea. It's the world's most popular type of tea. Names such as "English Breakfast Tea" or "Earl Grey" commonly stock the shelves in grocery stores. Without milk, the drink has a reddish brown colour and a particularly bold taste.

There are two ways to make black tea -- the orthodox method and the CTC ("Cut, Tear, Curl") method. Both are similar in the five steps they take, except the orthodox method is mostly done by hand, while the CTC method is done by machine. Remember, the workers have just transported the tea leaves from the plantation to the factory where the following steps will take place:

  1. Withering - Tea leaves are spread out in large groups and left to wither, losing some of their moisture.
  2. Rolling - In the orthodox method, the leaves are now rolled so the remaining moisture is released, coating the surface of the leaves with its juices. This method is particularly gentle, so the tea leaves are usually left whole and unbroken. The CTC method, however, chops the tea leaves into tiny pieces, and you're left with a more dust-like substance.
  3. Oxidation - The leaves are spread out again, this time in a cool, damp atmosphere, and the oxidation process continues. The colour of a tea leaf is originally green, but as oxygen reacts with the cell tissues, it begins to turn a copper colour. This is very similar to tree leaves turning from green to brown in the fall.
  4. Drying - The leaves are dried with hot air, and the colour changes from copper to brown or black.
  5. Sorting - The final process involves sorting the tea leaves by size and grade

 Green tea

It's difficult to imagine green tea coming from the same plant as black tea. The colour of green tea is much different -- hues range from green to yellow -- and the taste and smell of the drink are very grassy and natural.

Like black tea, green tea also has five steps in its process, and, when written out, they look nearly the same. The five steps for processing green tea are: withering, steaming, rolling, drying and sorting.

The big difference here is the inclusion of steaming and the removal of the oxidation process. After the leaves wither and lose some of their moisture during the first step, they are immediately steamed or pan fried. This stops the oxidation process before it can really get started -- in a way, it's almost like putting car wax on your car to keep it from rusting. Steaming "freezes" the tea leaf in its current state, keeping the colour green. After steaming, the leaves are cooled and rolled to release the remaining moisture, dried with hot air and sorted according to size and grade.

 Oolong tea and White tea

Oolong tea falls right between green and black. It's only partially oxidized, so it never quite reaches the same stage as black tea.

White tea is a specialty tea and somewhat rare, picked only two days out of the year when the buds haven't fully opened. It's similar to green tea in colour as the oxidation process is stopped early on, but the taste is smoother and less grassy. The rareness of white tea makes it slightly more expensive than others -- it has only been available outside of China for a few years, as the leaves were only reserved for Chinese nobility.

Herbal "Tea"

Some teas can have scent or flavour added to them. Chai tea, for example, is black tea brewed with several spices, including cinnamon, cloves, pepper and ginger.

A common misconception surrounds herbal "teas," however. Drinks labelled "herbal tea," "herbal infusion" or "tisane" actually have nothing to do with the tea plant. They are simply dried fruits or herbs infused in hot water. People generally associate herbal infusions with tea, though, and each has its own unique qualities. Here are a few major kinds:

  • Rooibos - Grown in South Africa, this "tea" comes from the plant Aspalathus linearis. Rooibos is red in color -- the name is Afrikaans for "red bush" -- and the flavor is described as sweet and nutty.
  • Herbs such as chamomile, mint, sage, thyme and rosemary are commonly used as infusions.
  • Mate (pronounced mah-tay) - Made by steeping the leaves of the yerba mate plant in hot water, this drink is popular in South America, especially Argentina and Uruguay. A cup of mate contains the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, and the drinking tradition is unique to other teas and infusions. The brewed leaves are left in the cup, and a filtered straw is used to drink the liquid.