Tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, with a rich and complex history that dates back thousands of years. While tea production can vary greatly depending on the style and region, there are five basic processing steps that all tea undergoes. In this article, we will explore these steps and the two main styles of tea production.
Tea production can be divided into two broad categories: Orthodox and Non-orthodox. Non-orthodox tea production, also known as the CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl) method, involves using machines to process the tea leaves, resulting in smaller, more uniform pieces of tea. Orthodox production, on the other hand, involves a more traditional, artisanal approach and is often used to produce higher-quality teas.
The first step in Orthodox tea production is plucking. The tea leaves are harvested by hand, usually consisting of just the unopened bud and the top three leaves. The leaves are then sorted for uniformity, with any stems, twigs, or broken leaves removed.
The second step is withering, where the leaves are laid out to wilt and wither for several hours. This process prepares the leaves for further processing by making them more pliable. During withering, the leaves are gently fluffed and rotated to ensure even exposure to the air.
The third step is rolling, which is where the process of developing flavor begins. The softened leaves are rolled, pressed, or twisted to break the cell walls of the leaf, releasing the juices inside. This exposes the enzymes and essential oils in the leaf to oxygen in the air, starting the oxidation process.
The fourth step is oxidation, where the leaves are laid out to rest for several hours. During this time, the oxygen in the air interacts with the enzymes in the leaf, turning it a reddish-brown color and changing the chemical composition. This step is crucial in creating the many wonderful and complex flavors in tea. Depending on the type of tea being produced, the leaves may be rolled again and oxidized further, or not.
The final step in the production process is firing, or heating the leaves quickly to dry them to below 3% moisture content and stop the oxidation process. This step ensures that the tea will keep well and maintains its flavor and aroma.
While these five steps provide a basic overview of Orthodox tea production, there are many nuances and variations depending on the style of tea being produced. Tea professionals often spend years studying just one style of tea production, highlighting the intricate and complex nature of this beloved beverage.
Tea production involves several stages, including plucking, withering, rolling, oxidation, and firing. Orthodox tea processing adheres to all of these steps, taking time and skill to preserve the integrity of the tea leaf and create a range of complex flavors. In contrast, Crush-Tear-Curl (CTC) production was specifically developed for the black tea industry to save time and money.
The CTC process involves macerating fresh, whole tea leaves through a machine that crushes, tears, and curls them. The resulting ground-up tea is oxidized and rolled into little pellets, producing a one-dimensional, bold, and powerful flavor with a pungent astringency. The shredded leaves oxidize too quickly for other types of tea, such as white teas or oolongs, and cannot produce the same range of nuanced flavors and aromas as Orthodox teas.
While Orthodox teas are made by true tea artisans who have trained for years, CTC production can be completed in just two hours, making it ideal for the tea bag industry. CTC teas resemble Grape Nuts cereal or large coffee grounds and lose their flavor and quality more quickly than Orthodox teas. Loose tea can last up to two years if stored properly, while CTC teas typically maintain their best taste for only 4-6 months.
Rolling tea leaves is an essential part of Orthodox tea processing that helps preserve the essential oils contributing to the aroma of tea. Tightly rolled teas also store better, which was crucial in the early days of tea trade when shipping times were much longer.
The tea bag industry often sells old tea past its prime, but some specialty tea companies now offer whole leaf teas in larger, pyramid bags or sachets to combat this issue. However, most bagged teas are still not very fresh.
In conclusion, while CTC production may save time and money, it cannot match the range and complexity of flavors and aromas produced by Orthodox tea processing. The appearance of the tea leaf, the machinery involved, and the resulting flavor profile are all significantly different between these two methods. Understanding these differences can help consumers make informed choices when purchasing tea.