How Are Tea Leaves Processed?

Have you ever wondered, “how are tea leaves processed?” In this article, we will be discussing the whole process of making tea. 

dried hearbal tea - how are tea leaves being processed
Processing methods ultimately determines the quality of the tea

Whether you prefer a cool glass of iced tea or a steaming mug of hot tea, the way the beverage is made impacts the flavors and aromas. From harvesting to drying, the tea leaves go through changes that distinguish between a delicate, sweet white tea and a strong, bitter black tea. The flavors and aroma that you enjoy are not because of different leaves or plants – the processing methods of the same tea leaves provide these distinct tea qualities. 

Tea has a wonderful story about proven health benefits, traditional uses in ceremonial practices, and a production process that demonstrates skill and creativity. The flavors and aromas of tea leaves are influenced by the place they are grown, the amount of sunlight they receive, and the expert eye of a renowned tea master. 

Tea leaves are harvested by hand and manufactured in a multi-step process, with different outcomes depending on which true tea you like the most.

What Is Tea?

Tea is undoubtedly one of the most popular drinks in the world. There’s a flavor for everyone, with hundreds of different flavors and aromas. Drinking tea also offers many health benefits, making it a great way to improve your health while enjoying a delicious drink.

unidentified woman pouring tea - what is iaso tea
Tea is one of the most popular drinks in the world

Tea derives its wide range of flavors and aromas from the production process of the tea leaves. True teas, such as green tea, white tea, oolong tea, black tea, and pu-erh tea, are made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal infusions, less commonly known as tisanes, are made with various spices and flower parts, such as unopened buds and stems. 

Cultivation Of Tea Plants

The production of tea starts with the cultivation of the tea plant. The Camellia sinensis plant is a species of evergreen shrubs or small trees that grows in tropical and subtropical climates.

It prefers acidic soil and significant rainfall for the best growing conditions. Tea plants grown at higher elevations tend to have a more robust flavor.

Generally, it takes about three years before a tea plant produces suitable leaves for making tea. Tea leaves are classified into three different groups according to their size: Assam tea leaves (largest), Cambodian tea leaves (medium-sized), and Chinese tea leaves (smallest). 

Although the tea plant can grow up to 50 ft. tall, most of them are kept to waist height to make it easier to harvest the young, fresh leaves at the top. Shorter plants can also produce more shoots and leaves, which boosts the production capacity. 

Harvesting The Tea Leaves

Tea leaves are harvested from the tea plant and then delivered to a tea factory within the tea plantation. Only the top one to two inches of the tea plant’s leaves are picked during the harvest. These tea leaves are known as “flushes” and are produced every one to two weeks during harvest season.

hand-picking tea leaves from a tea plantation
Tea leaves are mainly hand-picked from the tea plantation

Tea leaves are mainly hand-picked from the tea plantation and then placed into big wicker baskets. When a basket is full, it is taken to a tea master, who inspects and weighs the tea leaves to ensure quality.

Broken leaves, as well as those with signs of sun or water damage, are usually discarded. For every 100 kg of fresh tea leaves, only about 25 kg are dispatched to the next stage of tea production.

Processing The Tea Leaves

As mentioned earlier, all true teas are derived using the same tea leaves. The differences in color, flavor, and aroma come from how the leaves are processed after harvest. Depending on the desired type of tea, leaves can be dried, roasted, oxidized, shaped, and withered.

Matcha green tea powder is made by grinding green tea leaves. On the other hand, strong, dark teas such as black tea and oolong tea are made through the process of oxidation. 

During this phase, leaves are withered and rolled to allow the enzymes within the tea leaves to react with oxygen. This results in darker tea leaves with stronger flavors than those found in delicate true teas like green tea and white tea. 

The process of oxidation is made up of two methods: The Orthodox method, which is most common, and the CTC method.

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Orthodox Method

Tea leaves go through a four-step process for the orthodox method — withering, rolling, oxidation, and drying. During the production process, each step helps in producing the flavor profiles 

For the orthodox method, tea leaves are subjected to a four-step process that includes withering, rolling, oxidation and drying. Each step in the production process contributes to the flavor profiles associated with darker true teas.

Step 1: Withering

After harvesting, tea leaves are delivered to a nearby tea factory. Tea leaves that are supposed to be black tea or oolong tea are withered to reduce water content so that they can be rolled without flaking. Harvested tea leaves usually have a high water content, about 75%, and it is reduced to about 45% for rolling and oxidation.

Step 2: Rolling

Once the tea leaves are withered, they are rolled to allow oxidation. In traditional production methods, tea leaves are hand-rolled, while in modern times, many manufacturers utilize rolling machines to speed up the process. As the withered tea leaves are rolled, internal cell structures are broken down, releasing essential oils that react with oxygen to develop flavor profiles and aroma.

green tea ball
Tea leaves are rolled to allow oxidation

Step 3: Oxidation

After rolling the tea leaves, they go through oxidation, also known as fermentation, which determines the flavor and strength of the tea. When enzymes and oxygen interact, chlorophyll is broken down, and tannins are released, causing the tea leaves to turn dark in color. Tea producers manage the oxidation process by keeping the environment warm and moist.

Step 4: Drying

The tea leaves are subjected to drying to end the process of oxidation. Tea leaves can be pan-fired, sun-dried, or baked, depending on the tea producer’s preference. The tea leaves are subjected to hot blasts of air (over 100 °F in temperature) to end the oxidation process and reduce the water content to just 2% to 3%.

CTC Method

The CTC method, also known as the crush-tear-curl method, produces shredded tea leaves and granular pellets for teabags. CTC tea leaves are withered, oxidized, and dried in the same way that orthodox teas are. 

The main difference between the two methods – the Orthodox and CTC – takes place during the rolling phase. During CTC production, tea leaves are rolled in machines with hundreds of small, sharp teeth. These sharp teeth break down the tea leaves into smaller pieces.

Production Variations For White, Green, And Pu-erh Tea

These production steps are often for tea leaves that are supposed to become black tea or oolong tea. A few steps in the production process are removed for different teas, such as white tea and green tea. 

White teas are made entirely by hand, without using any machines, and only go through one stage of the production process — drying. White tea is considered the least processed among all true teas and is commonly known as organic tea.

white tea
White tea is commonly referred to as organic tea since it is the least processed

Green tea is not allowed to oxidize, but it goes through several steps in the production process. Rather than withering, green tea leaves are dried immediately after harvest through pan-firing or steaming. The tea leaves are then rolled and dried again in a process that can happen several times before getting shaped and styled.

Pu-erh tea is a post-fermented tea that is produced in the same way as fine wines. It is allowed to oxidize for years, with the best-tasting teas reaching the longest age. Pu-erh teas can be aged for up to 50 years when raw and 10 to 15 years when ripened.

Know Where Your Tea Came From

Enjoy your next cup of tea knowing that the flavors you are drinking are the result of thousand-year-old production processes practiced worldwide. Tea is best enjoyed when you appreciate the effort and finesse put into making each exquisite cup, whether you choose loose tea or tea bags, black tea or white tea. 

Tea drinking is filled with nuances or little minute details that make all the difference when we talk about producing and enjoying the different flavor profiles of true teas. So, pour yourself a cup and toast to thousands of flavors and centuries of tea production.

You may also read our guide on How Much Caffeine Is In A Cup Of Tea?