Tea Book

How the different kinds of teas are made

All teas start here…..

It is hard to believe, but all tea comes from essentially the same plant, the Camellia Sinensis, a tropical relative of the Camellia Japonica that might even grow in your garden. The differences between the well-over two thousand types of tea result from variations in the processing of the leaves after they are harvested. There are essentially four different methods of manufacturing tea that give us the four major categories: black, oolong, green and white.

All truly fine teas have in common that only the most aromatic, young, top two leaves and the unopened leaf bud are used. Up to 80,000 hand-plucked shoots are needed to produce one pound of top-grade tea. The production of tea is a labor-intensive process and every step is essential to achieve superior quality.

The following chart shows the different steps of production. Click on the teas within the chart or on the text links below to find out more about the individual teas.

White Tea

During the plucking, great care has to be given to the selection of the leaves. Usually only the youngest leaves, still covered with short white hair or down are used. The production of most varieties of white tea consists of only two steps: Steaming and drying (some white teas are very slightly fermented). The absence of withering, rolling and oxidation leaves the appearance of the leaves essentially unaltered. The white down of the unprocessed leaves is clearly visible and gives the final tea leaves their sliver-white appearance.

When infused, white tea has a pale yellow cup color and a delicate, fresh flavor. The two most popular white teas are the White Peony (also called “Pai Mu Tan” or “Bai Mudan”) and the treasured Silver Needle.

Green Tea

The intent during the production of green tea is to preserve the healthy, natural and active substances of the fresh leaves so they may be released into the cup at the time of infusion.

After picking, the green leaves are spread out in the hot air to wither. Once they have become soft and pliable, they are traditionally pan-fried in woks. This prevents the leaves from oxidizing (usually called fermenting) as it occurs during the production of black tea. The subsequent rolling gives the leaves their style: twisted, curly or balled as well as increased durability. Rolling also helps to regulate the release of the natural substances and flavor during the steeping. In the final step, the leaves are dried by firing whereby the natural fragrances and flavors are stabilized; the leaves keep their green color.

The resulting green teas are high in nutrients and minerals; their health benefits are the subject of a great number of medical studies.

Oolong Tea (Semi-fermented)

Almost exclusively produced in China and Formosa ( Taiwan ), oolong teas fall between the unfermented green teas and the fully fermented black teas. They are processed to be full-bodied teas and are therefore made from larger, more mature leaves.

Immediately upon plucking, the leaves are spread out in direct sunlight to wither. Withering reduces the moisture content and softens the leaves. The leaves are then put into bamboo baskets and shaken briskly to bruise the leaf edges. In the next step, the leaves are spread out in the shade to dry. The process of shaking and spreading of the leaves is repeated numerous times. The bruised leaf edges begin to turn red through the oxidation process (fermentation) while the centers of the leaves remain green.

The amount of fermentation depends on the type of oolong and can vary from approximately 20% for a “green” oolong, to 60 % for a classic Formosa oolong. Once the desired level of fermentation is reached, the process must be stopped immediately. This is done by pan-firing the leaves at high temperatures, which produces a lower moisture content than is found in green tea, and ensures a longer shelf life for oolongs.

Black Tea (Red Tea)

Unlike green or oolong teas, black teas, during the production process, undergo a full oxidation (usually called fermentation) which causes the leaves to turn black and gives them their characteristic flavor.

After picking, the green leaves are spread out on tiers of racks to wither for about 12 to 18 hours. During the long withering process, the leaves lose most of their moisture, becoming soft and pliable so they can be rolled .
During the rolling, the membranes of the leaves are broken, allowing the juices and essential oils that give the tea its aroma to develop. After rolling, the leaves are brought into large, cool, humid rooms where they are spread in layers of about four inches high to oxidize. During the oxidation process, the leaf color darkens, and the initially bitter juices mellow. The characteristic flavors of black tea – ranging from flowery to fruity, nutty and spicy – begin to emerge. The oxidation process must be stopped at the point where the aroma and flavor have fully developed. This is done by firing the leaves in large ovens. The flavorful juices dry on the surface of the leaves and remain relatively stable until exposed to boiling water during infusion.

In the last step, the leaves must be sorted by size. During the production process, many tea leaves are broken or crushed so that the finished tea consists of full leaves, broken leaves and smaller particles (fannings). Since the necessary steeping time increases with the size of the leaf, the tea must be sorted into lots of equal leaf size.

Tea Glossary

A handy list of some commonly used tea terms.

Aroma

Scent of the infused leaf and actual infusion (liquor). Also called nose or fragrance.

Astringency

A bite or tart character of the infusion comparable to the dryness of wine.

Bakey

Undesirable taste resulting from too high a temperature during firing of the leaf.

Biscuity

Having the subtle taste or flavor of fresh baked bread.

Bite

Astringent or tangy quality of the infusion.

Bitter

Unpleasant tartness which can result from over brewing.

Black

Used to describe a fully fermented leaf; brownish-black in color.

Black tea

Tea in which the leaf has been fully oxidized.

Blended

Teas of different crops, estates or origins that are combined for consistent characteristics.

Body

Weight or strength of the infusion. Full, light, thin, etc.

Bold

Large leaf size.

Brassy

Metallic, tart taste indicating improper withering of the leaf.

Bright

Infusion appearance that is luminous and sparkling.

Brisk

Lively quality of an infusion.

Brown

Brownish leaf appearance resulting from improper treatment of CTC-type teas.

Bud

Top unopened leaf of the tea bush hailed for its sweetness and tenderness.

Burnt

Over-firing of the leaf resulting in an unpleasant taste to the infusion.

Camellia Sinensis

Scientific name of the evergreen shrub that is the actual tea plant. All varieties of tea are derived from this plant.

Character

Desirable flavor quality of tea grown at high altitudes.

Chunky

Large broken leaf.

Clean

Leaf appearance that is without undesirable inclusions such as dust, twigs, fibers, etc.

Coarse

A strong but undesirable harsh taste. Also can describe leaf appearance or an inconsistent plucking.

Colory

Depth of character with regard to taste and appearance.

Common

Lackluster quality of the leaf or infusion.

Complex

A symphonic combination of subtle flavor nuances inherent of the finest teas.

Congou

An orthodox or traditionally made China black tea.

Creaming up

Bubbly residue that occasionally surfaces on some black teas.

CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl)

Description for machine processing of lower quality or commercial grade teas (As opposed to orthodox production. See below.)

Curly

Refers to leaf appearance of of some whole leaf teas.

Down

Fine hair-like fibers found on young high quality leaves and leaf buds.

Dry

Leaf over-firing, but not as extreme as burnt.

Dull

Appearance of the leaf that is without sheen or luster.

Earthy

Describes an elemental character of some teas likened to damp forest soil. A natural trait of tea from certain regions, but can also result from storage in moist conditions.

Even

Uniform appearance and size of the leaf of a particular tea.

Flat

Tea without body or bite. Soft.

Flavor

Distinctive taste found in high-grown, slow growth teas. Not to be confused with teas that have added flavorings.

Flavored

Teas that have added fruits, flowers and natural flavorings.

Flowery

The subtle undertone in some fine teas that is flower-like in character. Good first flush Darjeelings have this quality.

Flush

Harvesting of the tea leaves. First flush is the first plucking of the season, etc.

Fruity

Flavor nuance found in quality teas such as oolongs and Keemuns. Also describes fruit flavored teas.

Green

Under-fermented black or oolong teas; also describes pluckings from immature tea bushes.

Green tea

Un-oxidized tea leaves.

Gungfu

Traditional tea preparation method in southern China of oolong teas involving a particular process to insure maximum enjoyment of the tea.

Hard

Acrid, sharp tasting infusion.

Harsh

Unpleasant, bitter infusion resulting from under withered leaves.

Heavy

A strong and dense infusion with little or no bite.

Herbal

Infusion made by steeping herbs and various plants. Generally does not contain any of the actual tea plant (Camellia Sinensis).

Infusion

The liquor produced from steeping tea leaves.

Leafy

Large or long leaf size.

Lemon/Citrus

Describes teas with a subtle citrus fruit undertone.

Light

Weightless, thin infusion.

Malty

Sought-after flavor undertone found in good hearty Assams .

Mature

Flavor description indicating lack of bitterness or flatness.

Metallic

Copper-like sharpness of the infusion.

Minty

Mint flavor or undertone that is added or a naturally occurring trait.

Monkey-picked

Refers to oolong tea bushes pre-dominantly grown on cliffs that are difficult for humans to access, but home to monkeys. Chinese folklore has cultivated the legend of monkey picked teas.

Muddy

Murky and dull infusion quality.

Muscatel

Rich flavor like that of muscat grapes inherent in the finest Darjeelings.

Mushy

High moisture content due to improper storage or packaging.

Musty

Moldy aroma or taste. (Acceptable in Pu-Erh.)

Neat

Well sized, well made tea.

Nose

Dry leaf aroma.

Nutty

Attribute of some teas such as China greens that suggests the flavor of a mild nut.

Oolong

Tea in which the oxidation process is halted before the leaves are fully fermented.

Orange Pekoe

Term used to describe the larger of the two top leaves of the tea plant used for tea, orange/golden in color.

Orchid-like

Taste nuance frequently found in good oolong teas like that of fresh blooming orchids.

Ordinaire

Predictable, average grade tea acceptable for daily consumption.

Peak

Point when all characteristics of a black tea are fully revealed and experienced during tasting.

Pekoe

Larger of the top two leaves used in tea production. Named from the Chinese word “pa-ko” meaning “white down” for the white downy hairs visible on the fine leaf.

Plain

Clean tasting infusion without any specific traits.

Pointy

A tea with good sought after traits such as bite.

Powdery

Leaf with fine tea dust.

Pungent

Astringency or tartness; bite.

Quality

Describes infusions with desirable traits.

Ragged

Slip-shod, poorly manufactured tea.

Scented

Teas with that have had flower blossoms added, thus imparting fragrance to the leaves.

Self-drinking

A tea that does not need blending for improvement.

Shotty

Refers to a well made, tightly rolled gunpowder variety of green tea.

Single Estate

Tea from one particular tea garden.

Smoky

Taste or aroma of some teas either inherent of produced by drying the leaves in wood or charcoal smoke.

Soft

Quiet flavor with little bite, usually a result of under firing or oxidation.

Spicy

Characteristic that is piquant but without a burning sensation.

Stalk and fiber

Residual plant materials found in lesser grade teas; indicative of poor sorting.

Stewed

Bitterness caused by over brewing.

Strength

Predominant infusion quality.

Taint

Extraneous taste or aroma usually imparted by poor storage and absorbed by the tea leaves.

Tarry

Smoky character acquired through wood or charcoal smoking of the tea leaves.

Thick

Rich infusion with a combination of desirable characteristics.

Thin

Lacking complexity of infusion qualities. Simple.

Tip

The end of the youngest leaf on the tea plant.

Tippy

Having a great amount of the young golden budding leaves, indicating fine plucking.

Toasty

A warm, baked bread, slightly roasted quality.

Vegetal

Delicate taste characteristic found mostly in Japan green tea that is plant-like and sweet.

Well-twisted

Tight rolling of the withered whole tea leaves. Also wirey.

Winey

Mellow character developed by maturing Darjeelings and Keemuns.

Woody

Used to describe thin black teas and the vegetal taste of some green teas.