As you pour hot water over your tea leaves and wait for them to brew to a perfect cup of tea, have you ever wondered why tea leaves look the way they do in your box or how exactly tea is made? Make yourself comfortable, here is everything you need to know...
Every tea is made in different ways. That is how they get their distinct flavours and colours and as unbelievable as it sounds every tea comes from the same plant - Camellia Sinensis.
In this post, to keep things simple, we will share how Oolong tea is made - arguably the most complicated process out of all the tea families.
Picking the Leaves
The first stage and the most obvious is the leaves need to be picked, but it is not as simple as it sounds. Experienced tea pickers walk row by row picking only the worst tea leaves. The leaves near the top of the bud are considered the highest quality and will only be picked once the bud has fully blossomed. They are small in size but pack a lot of freshness, flavour and character. These are picked to produce the greener Oolong teas. Leaves just below that are slightly bigger and maturer, these are picked to produce the darker Oolongs. Leaves towards the bottom of the stem are also picked, depending on the tea grower. They will be used to produce cheaper teas. The difference in flavours is evident.
In case of our Oriental Beauty tea, pickers will only pick the tea leaves that have been bitten by the leaf hopper insect. No bite, no Oriental Beauty.
As soon as the leaves arrive back to the factory they will be spread on large fabric sheets or bamboo racks and left outside to dry out.
This is done to remove the moisture from the leaves which can be harmful to them. If it's a particularly sunny and warm day, 30 minutes may be enough. In milder weather conditions this process can last for up to two hours.
This is the most delicate step of the entire process. Oxidise too much or too little and you will end up with a completely different tea. This is the most technical and difficult skill to master, only the most experienced tea growers know when this process is complete.
Yes, this is the stage where flavour is developed. The leaves go back into the circular bamboo trays and are stacked into shelving units in a warehouse at room temperature around 25°C (77°F) and humidity at 65 to 85%. There are no exact figures because this varies from grower to grower.
The leaves are stirred at regular intervals of 1 to 4 hours. Why? Because when the leaves rub against the bamboo trays, they get bruised releasing all the important oils that contain all the aromas. This is called oxidation. This process can last between 10 to 20 hours.
How do you know when the leaves are ready? You simply don't. This cannot be learned through a manual. Only the most experienced tea growers know through touch and smell when the leaves are ready.
Another way to understand the oxidation process is the way a banana will start turning darker after a few days and we all have our favourite banana-eating stage!
This is the process of sealing in the flavour of the tea by stopping any further oxidising.
The leaves are essentially thrown into a large and very hot 'tumble dryer'. The dryer is heated to 300°C (572°F) and as its spinning, the leaves are tossed in by hand to dry for around 5 minutes.
Rolling: Part 1
Immediately after firing, while the leaves are still warm, the leaves are taken out of the dryer and thrown onto a mechanical leaf-twisting device. There are two main components to this device: a brush attached to a rotating mechanical arm and a concave bowl-like base. The leaves are added to the base and the brush moves in a circular motion, massaging the leaves to twisted strands. More aromas are released at this stage. Some Oolong teas only have this one stage or rolling.
Drying: Part 1
Not to be confused with Firing. This stage is intended to further remove moisture from the leaves and lasts a lot longer and at much lower temperatures than Firing. The leaves are placed in a large multi-shelf oven heated at 70°C (158°F), they dry at this temperature for about 5 minutes. The temperature is then increased to 100°C (212°F) and the leaves are dried for a further 30 minutes, after which they are taken out and left to stand on bamboo trays at room temperature for up to 8 hours (or overnight).
The reason why the tea leaves in your box are as dry as twigs is to preserve the freshness and flavour of the tea. If the drying process is skipped, by the time the tea is packaged and distributed for consumption, the tea in your cup will taste of nothing but water. All the flavour would have simply escaped into a thin air.
All this work is carried out in one day and for most teas this would be the end of production. Oolong requires more work...
Heat, Roll, Compress, Repeat
On the following day the main objective is to roll the tea leaves into beads, for most Oolong teas this is a signature trait - something to easily distinguish it from other teas.
The leaves go into the Firing dryer again to soften up, no more than a couple of minutes. The cylinder can be heated or non-heated, it is up to the grower. However, non-heated will require more repetition.
Next comes the more complicated Rolling stage. The tea is emptied onto a large fabric sheet, up to 20kg (44 pounds) of tea is then turned into a parcel and placed into a machine that compresses the package into a giant ball.
Lastly, the package is then placed into another machine that turns and rolls that package while compressing it further.
This cycle is then repeated - heat, roll, compress - up to 20 times! (up to 40 times if the dryer is non-heated). Until the desired shape of the eaves is achieved.
Drying: Part 2
This is the final stage where the leaves are dried for up to 10 minutes at a temperature of 100-120°C (212 - 248°F). After this step the leaves should contain no more than 3% of moisture.
This stage greatly increases the price of Oolong because it is one of the most laborious tasks done by hands. Each bead of tea is inspected and if a stem is still attached to the leaf, it needs to be removed. This makes no difference to the taste of the tea but it takes no less than 10 hours to process 12kg (26.5 pounds) of tea..... by one person!
After this step the tea may be distributed and consumed. However, there is one important step that is optional in today's Oolong manufacturing but plays an important part in teas like our Oriental Beauty...
Roasting is what gives our Oriental Beauty its colour and sweet woody notes. The leaves go into an oven once more at a heat of anywhere between 75-160°C (167-320°F) and stay there between two and sixty hours. That's not a typo. The longer the leaves are roasting, the darker the colour of the liquid will be. It also adds sweeter notes to teas and makes them more balanced. Greener teas tend to have a slightly bitter after taste, the roasting process removes the bitterness as well as lowering the caffeine count. That is why we are so fond of Oriental Beauty - it is very easy drinkable.
Another benefit of roasted teas is their prolonged shelf life. All teas, when exposed to the air, will start losing their freshness. Roasting provides an additional barrier between the leaf and the air. Roasted teas, if kept in an air-tight container, can stay fresh for years. Green Oolongs require heavier packaging to prolong their freshness, they are commonly bought in vacuum sealed plastic bags. Once you open them, we recommend they don't sit on your shelf for too long and always keep them in air-tight containers.