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Tea Processing 101

You already know that true teas - that is, anything that is not an herbal infusion or tisane - are all derived from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. But did you know that tea leaves, when processed differently, can determine which tea comes to life in your cup?

Intrigued? We certainly hope so! You can see on the chart below how different processes yield different teas. From withering and shading, to steaming and rolling, the journey from tea plant to cup can vary, but always produces a fantastic end product — especially when curated by your friends at Upton Tea Imports!

Tea Processing Chart

Key Terms

  • Fresh Tea Leaves – Harvested daily, the fresh growth of the plant is hand plucked, two leaves and a bud set.
  • Withered – The fresh leaves are laid into troughs, where they begin to wilt and oxidation gradually starts. In most instances, forced hot air helps lower moisture levels in the leaves.
  • Shaded – To produce Matcha tea, tea rows are shaded twenty-one days before plucking to block sunlight and boost chlorophyll and theanine levels in the leaves.
  • Pan Fired – China green teas, such as Lung Ching (Dragonwell), are pan fired in a wok to stop oxidation and retain their green color. Pan firing gives the tea a chestnut quality not found in other offerings.
  • Steamed – Japanese green teas, such as Sencha, are steamed after plucking. This stops oxidation and ensures that the leaves stay as green as possible.
  • Bruised/Rolling – Wilted tea leaves are bruised and rolled to encourage oxidation, a key step in making Oolong and black tea. Rolling breaks down the enzymes in the tea leaf wall and causes them to react with the oxygen.
  • Oxidation – The level of oxidation determines the kind of tea that will be produced. White and green tea have minimal oxidation. Oolong tea is partially oxidized: from 5% to 40%, and black tea is fully oxidized.
  • Fermentation – Shou Pu-Erh tea processing requires that the tea leaves be moistened and piled for about six weeks. This encourages microbial activity, which causes the leaves to ferment. This process was invented as a quick way to mimic the traditional aging process of Sheng Pu-Erh.
  • Dried/Fixed – After all processing steps are completed, tea leaves are dried to remove all moisture and stop oxidation.