How Do They Make Tea?

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“All there is to making tea is to pick it, steam it, pound it, shape it, dry it, tie it and seal it.”
-Lu Yu, The Classic of Tea

This is an excerpt from the first ever book on tea, called the Ch’a Ching, or The Classic of Tea. Written in the eight century (yes, that means in the 700’s AD), it’s remarkable how little has changed regarding the growing, plucking, and manufacture of (orthodox) teas.

There are two main ways that tea is produced today – the traditional method, referred to as “orthodox”, and a more modern method, CTC (which stands for Crush-Tear-Curl). No matter the method used, all tea will follow roughly the same 5-step process:

  1. Harvesting/Plucking
  2. Withering
  3. Rolling
  4. Oxidation (sometimes referred to as Fermentation)
  5. Drying/Firing

Despite following essentially the same process, the reason each tea tastes different has to do with (among other factors) how each step is performed, when it is performed, and the possible repetition of some of the steps. For example, green tea has almost no oxidation involved in the processing, whereas black teas are oxidized quite a lot. And oolong teas are rolled and oxidized in succession multiple times.

tea-pickers

Orthodox Tea

Orthodox teas are made following a much more traditional process. The leaves are picked by hand (depending on the tea to be produced, it will typically be either the bud alone, the bud and one leaf, or the bud and two leaves). The leaves are then generally handled personally by the people processing the tea. In many cases, these individuals learned to make tea from the older generations of their family, who in turn learned from theirs. Some of these specific processes have been taught to the next generation for hundreds of years, perhaps even over 1,000 years in some families.

These teas are, in a general sense, going to be the higher quality options on the market. They are full leafed and flavorful, with unique characteristics that will vary depending on who actually makes the tea (among other things). To top it off, the full leaves allow you to get more of the natural antioxidants in the tea to be most beneficial health-wise.

yixing-set

Crush-Tear-Curl Tea

Crush-Tear-Curl (CTC) production was really designed to increase productivity in the area of black tea. It is a machine-driven process that, while using all 5 of the steps in the Orthodox method, takes a fraction of the time that hand-made teas take. The machine harvests by cutting off the top layer of the tea bushes and proceeds to crush, tear, and curl the leaves (effectively withering, rolling, and oxidizing the tea very quickly).

The fruits of this machine labor is primarily found in the form of various black teas, many of which tend to wind up in blends (English Breakfast, Earl Grey, etc.).

The Bottom Line

When it comes down to it, while I generally prefer the Orthodox teas myself, I still love a good CTC tea. Especially with cream and sugar in a china tea cup. But maybe that’s just my 4 months living in Scotland speaking!

In all seriousness, the most important thing when considering if a tea is “good” or not is whether or not you like it. If you like it, then it must be good!

Sources
1 The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J Heiss.
2 The New Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson
3 http://www.teaclass.com/

Image Sources (in order that images are shown)
Tea Leaves by kira69
Tea Harvesting by sdhargal
Yixing Teapot by lekyu

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