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THE ART OF TEA
HOW TEAS ARE PROCESSED

One day, five thousand years ago, there lived a Chinese emperor who was revered for his scientific curiosity and wisdom (he even boiled his water before drinking it - a hygienic practise that would later save thousands of lives).  On this special day, as he prepared the boiled water, a sudden gust of wind suddenly swept some leaves from the branches of a nearby small tree, and the leaves gently dropped into the emperor’s kettle.  The leaves turned the hot water a deep, rich color and released an enticing aroma, and so, our curious emperor cautiously tasted the rich liquid.  He was very pleased with his new discovery.  Thus as legend claims – the great cultural and social tradition of Tea drinking was born in China.  Tea has been used as a medicinal beverage to promote health of mind and body since that time and was even recorded as a medicinal aid in China as early as 2737 B.C.

Tea was first cultivated in China, and some of the finest varieties are still found there.  Some of the finest Oolongs are grown in Taiwan, and fine Teas are also cultivated in India, Ceylon ( Sri Lanka) and Indonesia.  Tea is also grown in Russia, Africa (notably in the Kenya highlands) and South America. The proper growing conditions are crucial to producing fine Tea, and the best Teas thrive in warm, mountainous regions, and Asia’s topography lends itself perfectly to superior tea-growing conditions.

The word for Tea in most of Mainland China (and also in Japan) is cha.  However, the word for Tea in the Fujian Province of China is te  (pronounced “tay”), and because the first large-scale commercial Tea traders from the West were the Dutch, whose contacts were in Fujian, they adopted this name, and it spread throughout Europe.  The two exceptions were Russia and Portugal, who had independent trade links to China; thus, the Portuguese call it cha, the Russians, chai.  Oddly, at some time in the early eighteenth century, the British changed their pronunciation to “tee,” but virtually every other European language, however, retains the original pronunciation of “tay.”

Tea, as a beverage, is made by infusing or steeping the leaves, buds or twigs of the Tea plant in hot water for several minutes, and Tea may also refer to the leaves of the Tea plant.  It has a cooling, slightly bitter and astringent taste.  It should be noted here that herbal teas are really not true “teas” at all; they are herbal infusions, also made by steeping herbs in hot water. They would be better called tisanes or herbal drinks since Tea, strictly speaking, involves the Tea plant only.  There are many kinds of Tea, but they are all derived from one  Tea plant Camellia sinensis.  The four main categories of Tea are Black, Oolong, Green and White, and all four come from that same Tea plant; they are simply processed differently in their preparation for market.  There are, of course, many varieties within these major categories.  Black Teas undergo several hours of oxidation; Oolongs receive less oxidation, and the process that produces Green and White Tea does not allow oxidation to take place at all, and because they are not oxidized, the active constituents remain unaltered and stronger and possess potent antioxidant properties.

Most Tea harvesting is still done by hand, which is very labor-intensive, although there are vacuum-like machines that are sometimes employed to glean cheaper varieties of Tea.  Thereafter, the harvested Tea leaves are processed in two ways: the “Crush, Tear, Curl” (CTC) or the “orthodox” method.  CTC is a machine process (for lower-quality leaves) that compresses withered leaves, tears them, then curls and finally fires (or dehydrates) the leaves.  Although the leaves may be of middling quality, there are many varieties of CTC-processed teas that are preferred because of their strong, robust flavor. This method is efficient and effective for producing a better quality product from medium and lower quality leaves and is usually employed for teabag production.  The orthodox method is a bit more complex, and is usually done mostly by hand, depending upon the quality of the leaf.  This style of processing results in the high-quality loose Tea preferred by many connoisseurs.

Processing Tea is generally considered the Art of Tea.  It is the point when many of the subtleties in taste, body and overall character are created.  In its most basic form, Tea processing is the harvesting of the raw green leaves and deciding whether or not, or how much, oxidation should take place before drying them, and the different processes create Black, Oolong, Green and White Teas.

Let’s begin with BLACK TEA, which is more heavily oxidized than the Oolong, Green and White leaves. Black Tea is generally stronger in flavor and contains more caffeine than the more lightly oxidized teas. Black Tea retains its flavor for several years, and as such, it has long been an article of trade, and compressed bricks of Black Tea even served as a form of currency in Mongolia, Tibet and Siberia into the nineteenth century. Although Green Tea (which can lose its flavor in a year) has been gradually increasing in popularity, due to its growing reputation as a medicinal aid, Black Tea still accounts for over ninety percent of all Tea sold in the West.

After harvesting, the processing commences:

  • Withering or Wilting:  The leaves are spread out in the open air (preferably in the shade) to remove some moisture until they wither and become limp, so that they can be rolled without breaking.
  • Bruising or Yaoqing:  The edges of the Tea leaves are bruised to create more contacting surface for oxidization.
  • Rolling or Rouqing:  The Tea leaves are tumbled for the next stage. Rarely done by hand any more, rolling is more often done by machine and helps mix together a variety of chemicals found naturally within the leaves, enhancing oxidation. After rolling, the clumped leaves are broken up and set to oxidize.
  • Oxidation:  This process starts during rolling and is allowed to proceed for an amount of time required for a specific variety of leaf. The leaves are oxidized under controlled temperature and humidity. The level of oxidation determines the type of Tea. Since oxidation begins at the rolling stage itself, the time between these stages is also a crucial factor in the quality of the Tea. Longer oxidation usually produces a less flavorful but more pungent tea. Although many texts refer to the oxidation process by the term "fermentation," this is not entirely accurate, since no real “fermentation” takes place and is simply a chemical process that has nothing to do with the yeast-based fermentation that produces bread or beer. Tea leaves include enzymes in their veins, and when the leaf is broken, bruised or crushed, the enzymes are exposed to oxygen, resulting in “oxidation.” The amount of oxidation depends upon how many enzymes are exposed and the length of time.
  • Firing or Shaqing:  The Tea leaves are heated or “fired” (sometimes steamed) to arrest the oxidation process. They are then dehydrated for storage. Depending on the quality of the leaves, they will be dried in a large pan over heat (Pan-fried) and stirred by hand (premium tea) or by machinery.
  • Cooling:  The Tea leaves are cooled.
  • Drying:  Removal of excessive moisture.
  • Grading:  The leaves are sorted into grades according their sizes (whole leaf, brokens, fannings and dust), usually with the use of sieves. The Tea could be further sub-graded according to other criteria.
  • The Tea is now ready for Packaging.

OOLONG TEA undergoes this very same delicate process in order to produce its unique aroma and taste. However, the leaves are oxidized for less time. Oolong Tea ranks somewhere in between Green and Black in oxidation, and although it has a flavor more closely allied to Green Tea than to Black, it does not have the strong, grassy vegetal notes that typify Green Tea. The best Oolong has a nuanced flavor profile. One legend tells of a man named Wu Liang (later corrupted to Wu Long, or Oolong) who discovered Oolong Tea by accident when he was distracted after a hard day's tea-picking, and by the time he remembered about the Tea it had already started to oxidize in the sun, giving the world a delightful brew.

GREEN TEA undergoes no oxidation at all. The leaves are steamed or fired to inactivate polyphenol oxidation and then dried. Thus, they retain the high concentrations of catechins, which are present in fresh Tea leaves. Green Tea is high in polyphenols that are said to possess potent antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties. The specific catechin in the polyphenols called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is said to be over two-hundred-times more powerful than the known antioxidant, vitamin E, in neutralizing free radicals.  Green Teas, like White Teas, are closer to tasting like fresh leaves or grass than the Black or Oolong and are also lower in caffeine content with higher antioxidant properties and are thus preferred for their health-giving properties.  Green Tea is made from more mature tea leaves than White, and may be withered prior to steaming or firing.  After the leaves are plucked, they are (sometimes) laid out to wither for about eight to twenty-four hours. This allows most of the water to evaporate. Then, in order to neutralize the enzymes and prevent oxidation, the leaves are steamed or pan-fried. Some varieties are not even withered, but are simply harvested and fired. Next the leaves are rolled up in various ways and tightness.  After that, a final drying takes place. Since no oxidation took place, the Tea has more of a green appearance.  From there, it goes off to be sorted, graded and packaged. Green Tea is mostly consumed in Asia and the Middle East.  However, because of Green Tea’s rising reputation as an extraordinary health tonic, it is becoming more popular in the West, which traditionally drinks Black Tea. The first shipment of tea to Europe in 1606 by the Dutch East India Company was Green Tea.

Rarely mentioned in most discussions about Tea is the last category from the same Camellia sinensis plant: It is WHITE TEA, which is made from new-growth buds and young leaves of the Tea plant. The little buds that form on the Tea plant are covered with silver hairs that give the young leaves a white appearance, and the buds are sometimes shielded from sunlight during growth to reduce formation of chlorophyll.  White Tea is a specialty of Fujian Province in China and is frequently used in ceremonies. The tightly rolled buds of the plant are steamed or fried to inactivate the polyphenol oxidation, and then dried.  In order to prevent oxidation, White Teas are immediately fired or steamed after letting them wither (air dry) for a period of time.  There is no rolling, breaking or bruising of any kind.  White Tea, like Green Tea, undergoes no oxidation at all and retains the high concentrations of catechins that are present in fresh Tea leaves (but there may be a slightly different catechin profile) than that of Green Tea and also contain the low caffeine levels and high antioxidant properties associated with Green Tea.

Tea was an expensive beverage in ancient China, confined to only wealthy classes, and widely used as a medicine during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), but the fall of the Mongolian Empire in 1368 A.D., brought Tea drinking to the general populace.  When China was a sea power in the East (1405-1433), Tea was among the indispensable supplies for the seamen.  The amount of vitamin C in the tea drink consumed by the seafarers at that time was enough to prevent scurvy which would kill many European sailors more than one hundred years later.

Tea processing has changed dramatically since ancient times, and so, we in the twenty-first century benefit from a variety of flavors, aromas and even the health benefits derived from the different methods of preparation that have evolved over the centuries and employed today by Tea growers worldwide.

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