Do you know Tea?
Did you know that all true teas comes from essentially the same plant, the Camellia Sinensis. 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. Camellia Sinensis plants have been known to grow to be 5-6 hundred years old. Older plants have better flavored leaves but the leaves must be picked every few weeks because only the young leaves and buds are used. It takes up to 80,000 hand-plucked shoots are needed to produce one pound of top-grade tea. Producing tea is very labor intensive and every step is essential to the final product.
White teas are made from only the first two leaves and a bud that is picked just before sunrise so that it has some moisture on its surface. The shoots are then steamed to prevent fermentation and the leaves are then dried. White teas appear silvery green. The best of these delicate teas give a very pale yellow infusion and a gentle soft mellow flavor. Teas made from the smaller buds and attached leaves give a more orangey liquor that has a sweet, light taste.
Green teas are produced from leaves that are withered in the sun immediately after being hand-picked. Once the leaves become pliable, they are traditionally pan-fried in woks. The pan-frying of the leaves prevents oxidation or fermentation that would result in a black tea. The leaves are then rolled which helps to release the flavor during steeping. After rolling the leaves are fired which stabilizes the natural fragrance and flavors of the tea, keeping thee leaves green. Green teas are high in nutrients and have been shown to have many health benefits.
Oolong tea falls in-between the fermented and unfermented tea categories. Oolong is made from larger, more mature leaves, which gives it a more full-bodied flavor. Immediately after picking the leaves for Oolong teas are withered in direct sunlight. Withering the leaves reduces moisture and makes the leaves more pliable. The leaves are then shaken briskly in bamboo baskets to bruise the leaf edges. The bruised leaves are then laid out in the shade to dry. The process of shaking and drying the leaves are repeated several times. The bruised leaf edges begin to turn red because of fermentation, while the centers of the leaves stay green. Different types of Oolongs have different amounts of fermentation, varying from 20% green Oolongs to 60% for a classic Formosa. When the leaves have reached the ideal fermentation levels the process is stopped by immediately pan-firing. Oolongs have a longer shelf life than green teas because of a lower moisture content cause by the pan-firing at high temperatures.
Black or Red teas are different from Green or Oolong teas because they undergo a full fermentation, which causes the leaves to turn black and gives the characteristic flavor. As with the Green and Oolong tea the leaves are withered immediately after picking. These leaves are withered for 12-18 hours and during this long process the leaves become soft and pliable. The leaves are then rolled braking the leaf membranes, allowing the juices and essential oils to develop the aroma. After being rolled, the leaves are bought into large, cool, humid rooms where they are spread out in 4 inch layers. In these rooms, the fermentation process takes place, causing the leaves to darken and the initially bitter juices mellow. 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. Sorting the leaves by size is the last step in the process. Since the necessary steeping time increases with the size of the leaf, the tea must be sorted into lots of equal leaf size.