How is tea made? This is a question we get asked so frequently, we decided to dedicate an entire article to tea cultivation, production and grading. We will start with a quick definition of terms, followed by a brief history and later we will go through a detailed guide on how each tea type is made. Let's jump in! 🍃🍵
So how is tea made?
The question of how is tea made is a tricky one to answer, as there are many different types. First, we will start by defining what tea is and later we will try to differentiate the different types of teas and how each of them are produced. We will also explain different production styles and techniques and the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
What is tea?
Before asking how is tea made, we should first probably cover what is tea. The technical definition of tea is an aromatic beverage prepared by pouring hot or boiling water over cured or fresh leaves of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to China, India and other East Asian countries. In the next section, we will cover what the tea plant is, and what different types of tea plants are used to create the thousands of different tea varieties we see today.
What plant does tea come from?
Before we ask how is tea made, we first need to learn a little bit about the tea plant. Contrary to popular belief, all true teas come from the same tea plant, camelia sinensis. Herbal infusions like chamomile, hibiscus and peppermint are often sold as “teas” but they technically cannot be considered tea as they comes from a different plant. Within the tea plant, there are 2 main subspecies that are used for producing tea and those are the sinensis variety and the assamica variety.
Camellia sinensis sinensis
Camelia sinensis sinensis is the Chinese subspecies of the tea plant.
This is a large shrub that produces numerous stems from the base of the plant and reaches a height of 10 to 13 feet.
When the tea plant is fully grown, it forms a dome shape and the leaves reach a length of between 1-6 centimeters long and 1.5-2 centimeters wide.
The tea plant is tough and it prefers the relatively cooler temperatures of mountain slopes. It can handle an altitude of up to 2,700 meters. The tea plant remains dormant in colder seasons, but in the early spring it begins to produce bright green shoots.
Camellia sinensis assamica
The Camelia sinensis assamica is the Indian subspecies of tea plant, and it is much larger than the Chinese variety.
If left undisturbed, it can reach heights of up to 59 feet. It generally has one sturdy stem or trunk where branches develop off of, resembling more of a tree than a shrub.
The leaves are much larger than those of the Chinese variety, reaching a length of between 8-30 centimeters.
For this reason, it is often known as the “big leaf variety”. This plant prefers low lying regions and subtropical climates with higher humidity. The leaves of the assamica variety contain higher levels of caffeine and polyphenols.
History of tea
To understand the answer to the question how is tea made, you also need to take a look back through history to understand how tea was made overtime. The origins of tea can most likely be traced back to Yunnan province, where the tea plant is thought to have been first discovered.
In the early days, tea was most likely first used as a medicine. The leaves were cooked, dried and then mixed into hot water, almost like a soup. This is very different from the drink that we know today, so clearly much transformation needed to occur over the years.
The tea leaves were pressed into cakes so they could be transported long distances. The Chinese monks found that drinking tea gave them an enhanced sense of focus during long periods of meditation. This magical drink was then discovered by the Japanese monks who frequently traveled to China to study buddhism. They brought some tea back and then later some tea seeds so that they could grow their own tea on the grounds of their temples.
At this time, tea was broken off the bricks, ground into a coarse powder and then mixed into water. This might be similar to what we now know today as matcha green tea powder. The flavor was improved overtime through innovations in shading, steaming and drying. The matcha powder we consume today is likely far less bitter than what was consumed in Japan during the middle ages thanks to these tremendous innovations. Here we have just a brief history of one type of tea, but each variety has its own complicated history.
How is tea made step by step
Although all types of tea are different, we thought we would cover a basic list of the processes involved during the production of tea. In a later section, we will walk you through how each individual type of tea is produced.
Step 1 - Growing the plants
Before the tea leaves are processed, they first have to be grown. The flavor of the final tea will come down to a variety of different factors, including the terroir or growing conditions of the tea. Subtle differences in the soil, temperature and rainfall can drastically change the flavor of the final tea. If the farmer wants to produce a sweeter tea, one of the options they have available is to shade the tea plants and cut them off from sunlight. This reduces the amount of catechins and maximizes the amount of theanine, leading to a smoother and sweeter tea.
Step 2 - Harvest of the tea leaves
Another important factor in the taste of the finished tea is how the tea is picked. There are four internationally recognized tea picking standards and they are as follows:
- Imperial plucking: one bud and one leaf
- Fine plucking: one bud and two leaves
- Medium plucking: one bud and three leaves
- Coarse plucking: removed more than 3 leaves with each bud.
Depending on the leaves that are selected, the tea can take on completely different flavor profiles, with finer pluckings yielding more subtle and nuanced flavors and coarser pluckings yielding to more earthy and full-bodied flavors.
Step 3 - The Tea Leaves Wither and Get Rolled (or Ground)
Next the leaves are almost always laid out to wither for at least a little bit of time. During this time the moisture is evaporated out of the leaves and the leaves become more pliable and less likely to break. Depending on the tea type, this process can either take place over a long period of time or a short period of time.
Step 4: The Tea Leaves Undergo Oxidation
The final stage that has the most impact over what type of tea is produced is the oxidation. During this process, the enzymes break down the catechins within the leaves and convert them into theaflavins and thearubigans. If this process is allowed to take place, a black tea or and oolong tea is produced and if it is stopped, the tea produced will be a yellow tea or a green tea.
Processing the tea leaves
The orthodox method of tea production is the standard tea method across the world. This includes withering, rolling, oxidizing and drying. In this next segment, let's explore how is tea made using the orthodox production method.
During the withering stage, the tea leaves are spread out onto a type of mat and left to dry out either indoors or underneath the sun. During the withering content, some of the moisture content escapes the leaves, which leaves them more supple and less likely to break during the production process. This withering process is down slowly overtime in the case of white tea, and in the case of yellow and green tea, it is done either quickly or not done at all.
After the withering process has taken place, the tea leaves are then rolled into their desired shape either using a machine rolling technique or a hand rolling technique. Different types of teas take on different shapes, so this rolling process is far from uniform. Some like shou mei are completely unrolled and just allowed to dry naturally, while ball rolled oolong are tightly compressed into small round pellets.
Oxidation is a key factor to answering the question how is tea made. The type of tea being produced is determined by how the tea is oxidized. If the producer is creating a green tea, they will skip the oxidation altogether by applying heat to the tea leaf. If they are producing a black tea, this oxidation will take place over a long period of time and if an oolong is being produced, the oxidation will be short and incomplete.
Finally, the tea leaves need to be dried before they are packaged. By drying the tea leaves, a producer is able to seal in the flavor and aroma until the leaf is infused into water. The dried leaf then unfurls all at once and releases its flavor into the cup. To accomplish this, a tea must be at between 4-7% humidity. The freshly picked leaves start at about 70% so clearly there is a lot of work that needs to be done before getting the finished product.
After discussing how tea is made with the more traditional, orthodox method, let’s explore an alternative and talk about how is tea made using the Crush Tear Curl (CTC) method. This method is used to produce very low quality teas, like those used in teabags. In this method, the tea leaves are ground up into small hard pellets.
This is the primary way to produce teabags containing black tea. The teabags are used to disguise these lower quality, mass produced CTC teas, which have a much more bitter flavor to them. The CTC method is also prone to adulteration. When tea leaves are ground up like they are with teabags, it is easy to mix in lower quality leaf materials where it is much harder to do the same with loose leaf tea produced in the orthodox style.
How is White, Green, Black and Pu-erh Tea made?
White tea production
White tea gets its name from the fine white hairs that form on the bud and the smaller leaves of the tea plant. This tea is the least process of all tea types, and as a result these fine white hairs remain intact. These “hairs” are known as trichomes and they are actually a solid armor that protects the younger leaves from insect attacks, but they can also protect the buds from cold wind, bright sun, heavy rain, etc.
White teas are originally from Fujian province in China, and still to this day many are made in the traditional style. First, the young buds and sprouts of the tea plant are selected. This picking usually either contains just the buds, or the bud and 1-2 open leaves depending on the type of tea being produced. Once the leaves are harvested, they are spread out onto a bamboo mat to begin the next stage of the tea production.
The production of white tea is essentially a controlled drying process. First the leaves are left out in gentle sunlight and allowed to wither. Then the tea is brought inside to continue to wither over the next few days. The withering process all happens according to the ambient temperature and humidity. Because white tea is the least processed of all the tea types, there is little room for error. If the temperature is too high, the tea will dry too quickly which will inhibit the flavor.
During the drying process, some oxidation begins to take place. The buds and leaves may begin to turn a slight yellowish or brown color, but the tightly curls silver buds rarely oxidize at all. If you look at a mixed white tea, you will notice that the open leaves oxidize the most, as these will take on a much darker color.
The white tea can later be baked in room with a very gentle ambient temperature. This is done by putting the leaves in a bamboo basket over a smokefree fire to remove any excess moisture. White tea does not need to be baked like this, and it can be risky. If the heat applied is too high, it will spoil the final appearance and flavor of the tea.
Green tea production
Green tea is actually the oldest of the tea categories, and it is usually made from the younger leaves and buds of the tea plant. After the leaves are picked, they are usually gathered up and allowed to wither for a few hours, during which some of the moisture content within the leaves begins to evaporate. The leaves cannot be left out for too long, otherwise the oxidation process starts and the tea will become a black tea or an oolong.
To stop the oxidation, heat must be applied to the leaves either in a hot pan or through steam. The pan-firing method is more common for Chinese green teas while the steaming method is more common for the production of Japanese green teas. This heat deactivates the enzymes that cause oxidation, and the more grassy or vegetal flavors inside the leaf are retained.
After the heating process takes place, the tea is then rolled and pressed to develop its flavor. This can either be done by hand or by machine. This rolling process is done while the leaves are still slightly pliable and the moisture content is still high. After the leaves have been rolled, the moisture content is brought down to between 4-7%. This low moisture content makes sure the tea is able to maintain its flavor for a long time and that it infuses properly once it hits the water.
Black tea production
To produce black tea, the leaves must undergo the longest oxidation of all the major tea types. Many black teas are made from the older leaves of the tea plant, but some of the finest including “jin jun mei” is made from the youngest sprouts of the plant. Once these are harvested, they are laid out in a cool place to wither, and during this time the leaves lose between 30-40 percent of their moisture.
As the tea loses moisture, it begins to oxidize and it becomes more aromatic as well. The speed and length of this withering process will effect many aspects of the tea, including the color, taste, aroma and strength of the black tea.
Once the oxidation process takes place, the black tea is ready to be processed. If it is being processed using the orthodox method, the leaves will be separated by size, with the largest ones being used in premium loose leaf blends and the lowest quality “dust” being used in teabags. The CTC method is also used to distribute the leaf material into teabags on an industrial scale.
Pu-erh or Heicha production
Another major tea type is Heicha or dark tea. You may know this tea group by its most famous member, puerh. Puerh is a post-fermented or dark tea produced in Yunnan province. Similar to how all Champagne must come from Champagne, France, all pueh tea has to come from this one province in China. Furthermore, the tea needs to be made from the Da Ye or big leaf cultivar of tea plant. If a post-fermented tea is created and it does not come from this area, it can simply be called a heicha.
Dark teas have a long history dating back about 1,000 years. During this time, teas were pressed into cakes to transport long distances between the remote regions of China and Tibet. These teas soon became very popular and were soon marketed in the town of Puerh, which is where the tea gets its name.
Because the areas of southern Yunnan are well forested and humid, they carry a unique array of microflora, funghi, bacteria and yeast. These microflora found their way onto the tea cakes and caused fermentation to take place. Nowadays to produce post fermented tea, the tea leaves are pressed into a cake, exposed to various types of microflora and then left to ferment naturally in a cool and damp environment.
If a tea is fermented in an accelerated environment it can be referred to as a ripe puerh and it will be much darker in color. The other type of puerh is a raw puerh, and that is produced in a way that is thought to replicate the naturally occurring fermentation the tea would’ve undergone. For this process, the tea is required to age for a few years in order for the mellowing phase to take place. This leads to two vastly different categories and tastes of post-fermented teas. Both raw and ripe puerh teas go through a microbial fermentation process and a mild oxidation during the aging process.
To produce this tea, first the leaves are withered underneath shaded sunlight to evaporate some of their water content. They are then tumbled in a hot wok or panning machine to slow the oxidation process and then they are rolled by hand and dried in the sun. These sun drying and panfiring processes are done carefully as to not completely deactivate the enzymes. Some of the oxidation enzymes will need to remain in the leaf so that the tea can oxidize overtime. Finally, the tea is either aged in loose leaf form or it is pressed into a cake.
To produce a raw puerh, the same process is used but during the aging process, the fermentation is accelerated. This is done by piling up the leaves in a warm and humid environment and spraying them with water. This is also known as “wet piling” and it is the perfect environment for microbial activity to take place. The end result is a very rich and dark tea that produces a coffee-colored liquor.
Why roll tea leaves?
The rolling of the tea leaves is how they achieve their final shape. If you just take a brief look at a few different kinds of loose leaf teas, you will know that no two really look alike. Gyokuro is famously rolled into tight pine needle shapes leaves, bhoa zhong is curled into a strip shape and Tie Guan Yin is tightly rolled into a round pellet shape. All of these leaf shapes served different purposes and the rolling process is how the shape is achieved. How is your favorite type of tea rolled?
Where is tea made?
Tea is produced in a number of different countries. The two largest producers of tea are China and India, but other countries that may not immediately come to mind are also responsible for a large share of the tea production. Kenya, Iran, Turkey and Argentina are all some of the 10 largest tea producing countries. Japan ranks only 10th in total tea production, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality.
Japanese green teas are known for their intense sweet and savory flavors, super green colors and rich nutrient content. If you are interested in trying some organically grown Japanese green teas from us, please be sure to check out our selection of green teas and let us know what you think. If you want to try a bunch of different teas at once, you can order our mega sampler, a collection of 30 different types of matcha, sencha, gyokuro, hojicha, kukicha, kamairicha, bancha and more. Try all of them and let us know which ones you like most!