Black tea, green tea, oolong tea, pu-erh tea, and white tea all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. This bush grows all over the world, but most notably in China, India, Sri Lanka, Africa, Turkey, and Taiwan. What distinguishes each tea from the other is the way that it is processed.
Let's take a brief tour from plucking of the leaf to pouring in your cup.
The first stage of tea processing is the plucking. Most tea is hand-plucked, removing two leaves and a bud from the new growth on the tea bush. Mass produced teas are mechanically cut and harvested, like in Argentina and Japan.
After the fresh green tea leaf is plucked, it is taken to a factory where it is dried, or withered. The withering process reduces the moisture content so that it is ready to be rolled.
Rolling breaks the cell walls of the tea leaf and causes the juices, polyphenols, caffeine, flavinoids and other great contents to release from the leaf.
4. Oxidation - Oolong & Black Teas, Green Teas Skip to Drying
Oxidation is what happens when you cut an apple and leave it out in the air, it turns brown. Once the tea leaves have been withered and rolled, they are then oxidized. Oolong teas are partially oxidized, depending on how the producer wants to manufacture the tea. Black teas are fully oxidized, which turns them dark brown, almost black. In previous centuries, this process was known as fermentation.
5. Drying / Firing
After rolling for green tea, and after oxidation for oolong and black tea, the tea leaves are "fired." This process either involves laying out in the sun to dry or exposing the processed leaves to heat in a factory to quickly dry. The firing process stops oxidation of the tea leaves, and prepares it for the next step.
6. Sorting / Grading
The final step before packaging, the tea leaves are either sorted and graded by hand or machine in a factory. The Chinese use bamboo trays to sort and sift by hand, while tea factories mechanically sift the tea and move it to the appropriate area for sending off to be packaged or sold.
7. Packaging / Transport
Once the tea has been sorted, it is sent to market to enter a packaging plant or arrive on a boat or airplane for export.
After many steps of growth, harvest, drying, rolling, firing, sorting, and transporting, the tea leaves are ready for us to enjoy in our teapots and teacups. Lift your cup and honor the many tea pickers around the world that make it possible for us to enjoy such amazing teas.