About Tea - White Tea - Green Tea - Oolong Tea - Black Tea - Pu-erh Tea

How Tea is Produced:
Processing the 5 Major Categories of Tea

White tea

White tea is the least processed of all the tea types. To make white tea, fresh tea leaves are simply picked and dried. Different combinations of direct sunlight, light shade and/or low heat baking are used in the drying process.

Green Tea

  • Withering: Fresh tea leaves are picked and withered either in the sun or in a climate controlled indoor space until the leaves lose about 20% of their moisture content. Fresh picked tea leaves are very brittle, so this step makes them supple enough to be handled without causing too much breakage.
  • Fixing: Next the tea leaves are cooked in some way to kill/deactivate the enzymes that would otherwise oxidize & turn the tea leaves brown in color. In the case of Chinese-style green tea, fixing is known as Sha Qing (Kill Green), and it is either done by pan firing/frying in a dry, relatively low temperature wok, oven baking/roasting, or steaming. In the case of Japanese-style green tea, fixing is almost always done by steaming, but pan-firing is also used to a much lesser extent.
  • Rolling/Shaping: Leaves are rolled either by machine or by hand to break down cell walls and distribute juices evenly throughout the leaves. It is also an opportunity to form the leaves into the many different shapes that green teas can take.
  • Drying: The tea is then dried in low temperature ovens, cylindrical tumble-dryers or simply in the sun before it is packed and ready for sale.

Oolong Tea

The specific tea plant variety/cultivar used to produce an oolong tea largely determines the flavor and aroma of the finished product, but, from a processing standpoint, oolongs are somewhere between green and black teas.

  • Withering: Fresh tea leaves are picked and withered like green tea.
  • Bruising/Shaking & Oxidation: After withering, the tea leaves are rolled or shaken to bruise the edges of the leaves, break some cell walls and release some of the enzymes in the leaves to start the oxidation process. Just like when an apple is cut and the flesh begins to turn brown when exposed to air, when a tea leaf's cell walls are broken and exposed to oxygen, it begins to turn brown in color. Periodic shaking and tumbling takes place until the tea master decides that the leaves have oxidized to the point that he or she deems appropriate to the style being produced.
  • Firing/Kill-Green: Once the desired oxidation level is achieved, the tea is pan-fired/baked/roasted to stop the tea from oxidizing further.
  • Rolling/Shaping: After firing, the tea leaves are still relatively moist and pliable, and rolling takes place before drying to distribute the leaf juices evenly and to shape the leaves into whatever shape they will take when finished. Strip-shaped-leaf oolong teas, while occasionally still rolled by hand, mostly undergo a mechanical rolling process in which the leaves are placed between two ridged, horizontal, rotating plates that are slowly squeezed together with increasing amounts of pressure to shape the leaves into strips. Ball-shaped oolong teas undergo a much more extensive rolling process to slowly shape them into their final, tightly-rolled ball shape. First, the leaves are placed into cloth bags, which are then tightly wound to compress the leaves into a big, cloth wrapped ball. The cloth bags are tied, and they are placed into the rolling machines, where the bags rolled and squeezed between two ridged, horizontal plates to compress the leaves even tighter. After a period of time in the rolling machine, the big ball of leaves is dumped in a large tumbler to separate the leaves, which are noticeably more compact at this point. The leaves are then re-bagged, re-wound, re-rolled, and broken apart over a period of about 8 hours (sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the leaves) until the leaves end up tightly compressed into their final ball-shape.
  • Drying: The tea is then dried in low temperature ovens or cylindrical tumble-dryers.
  • Roasting: Roasting oolong tea is done for several reasons. Primarily, roasting acts as a way of preserving the tea leaves for future use. At its most basic level, roasting simply forces the moisture out of the leaves, which could otherwise facilitate spoilage through fungal or bacterial growth. The happy byproduct of this purely functional aspect of roasting is the creation of complex flavor compounds through the modification and/or caramelization of proteins and natural sugars in the tea leaves. Greener style oolongs such as the famous High Mountain oolongs from Taiwan can be roasted for a short amount of time simply to create a balance between flavor and aroma or emphasize desirable flavors and aromas in the tea leaves. In contrast to their light roasted counterparts, darker roasted oolongs such as the famous Wuyi Oolongs from China's Wuyi Mountains can undergo a multi-step process of roasting over charcoal that takes many hours, days, weeks or even months to create the desired flavor profiles.
  • Aging (Optional): Many tea makers will age a portion of their tea production each year, and aged oolongs are some of the most prized teas among enthusiasts.

Black Tea

Black tea is most familiar to people in European-influenced cultures. Black tea leaves are fully (or mostly) oxidized, meaning that the enzymes in the tea leaves turn them completely (or mostly) brown during processing. To produce black tea, leaves are picked and withered like the other types of tea. Then they are rolled (usually by machine, but sometimes by hand) to crush the cell walls in the leaves and release the enzymes that promote oxidation. The leaves are then left to oxidize and turn dark in color. Once the leaves have oxidized, they are dried to make them suitable for packing and shipping.

Properly handled black teas can be stored for quite a long period of time after processing without losing quality, and many people believe that the peak flavor of a black tea is achieved after a period of storage/resting of months to years. The main reason that black tea became so popular in the West is because this style of tea could withstand the long journey from China and later India and Sri Lanka without a discernible loss of quality, while green teas could not.

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Pu-Erh Tea

Technical Note: "Hei Cha" (黑茶) or "Dark Tea" is the technically correct umbrella term for the many different types of aged, fermented and/or compressed teas produced in China, including Pu-Erh tea. Although "Hei Cha" is produced in many regions both inside and outside of China, "Pu-Erh" is a geographically specific tea term that should only apply to tea picked and processed in Southwest China's Yunnan province.

Pu-Erh tea, also spelled Pu'er, Pu-Er, or Puer is a huge subject that is still relatively unfamiliar to tea drinkers in the West. The main points about Pu-Erh tea that differentiate it from the other types are as follows:
  • Pu-Erh tea is produced from varieties of Camellia Sinensis (the tea plant) native to Yunnan province. These plants are botanically different from other tea varieties cultivated in China, loosely defined by their large, leathery leaves and the growing habit of a multi-trunked tree.
  • Pu-Erh is sun dried, not heat dried like green teas.
  • While Pu-Erh can be produced from plants of any age, the most sought-after Pu-Erh tea comes from ancient, wild trees growing in a forest setting.
  • Carefully stored Pu-Erh tea will change and develop wonderful complexity with age, like a fine wine.

Some Pu-Erh is sold as loose tea, but the majority of Pu-Erh teas produced for the Chinese domestic market are compressed into many different forms, such as bricks, bird's nests (“tuocha”), mushrooms, melons, etc. The most typical shape, though, is the "Bing Cha," a round, disc-shaped tea cake. There are many theories as to why teas were first compressed into these various shapes, but the generally accepted explanation is that compression made the finished teas much more compact and easier to transport. Due to its popularity as a beverage and the medicinal values attributed to it, for hundreds of years compressed tea was transported on horseback up over the Himalayan border range into Tibet and eventually India, as well as to other parts of modern day China and Mongolia. Many of the modern land trade routes still in use throughout modern China are based on these old tea horse roads.
Many people believe that Pu-Erh achieves its fullest potential after aging for many years. With age, the flavor of Pu-Erh tea does dramatically mellow and change. As in the vintage wine industry, the desirability of one tea over another after aging is really up to the personal tastes of the consumer. When considering the purchase of an expensive, aged Pu-Erh tea, it is important to sample any tea first and buy only what tastes good to you.

Important Note about Investing in Pu-Erh Tea: We do not encourage our retail customers to treat Pu-Erh tea as an investment vehicle. Although the market values of some Pu-Erh teas have gone up over time in the past, there is no guarantee that any tea will appreciate in value in the future. To put it extremely bluntly, unless you are a very experienced buyer of Pu-Erh tea with easy access to facilities for clean, carefully controlled storage, do not invest any portion of your savings in Pu-Erh tea and expect to make any sort of return on your investment.

Production Methods:
There are two main types or categories of Pu-Erh tea produced. There is Sheng, which is sometimes also referred to as raw, green, or uncooked, and Shu, which is also referred to as ripe, cooked, or black.

Sheng Pu-Erh Tea

Sheng or raw Pu-Erh is processed very much like a green tea, but there are several noteworthy differences:

  • The tea leaves are picked, withered to make them less brittle, and then heat treated, usually pan fired in a wok, to neutralize the enzymes that would cause the tea leaves to oxidize.
  • Next, the leaves are traditionally dried in the sun, one of the characteristics that make Pu-Erh processing unique. If weather conditions are not favorable for sun-drying or a producer wishes to speed up the drying process, however, the tea leaves are sometimes dried in large ovens. The drying process continues until roughly 90% of the moisture has been removed. At this point, the tea leaves are referred to as Mao Cha, or semi-finished tea.
  • The Mao Cha is sometimes then sorted and separated into different grades. Larger factories will use a blower & wind tunnel system to quickly sort the tea leaves into different sizes/grades, while small factories or family concerns will either perform this step by hand or omit it all together.
  • If the finished product is to be a blend, the factory tea masters blend the leaves from different growing regions or vintages together based on specific formulas or recipes.
  • Finally, the leaves are steamed to make them pliable again and compressed into shapes using the traditional stone molds or one of any number of mechanized systems of molds and presses.
  • The newly pressed cakes of tea are sometimes baked in a relatively low heat oven (200-250 F) to drive out any residual moisture and prevent the formation of mold.
  • Last, the finished products are stored in a low moisture environment to allow them to dry out and begin the aging process.
Newly produced Sheng Pu-Erh is drinkable immediately, although lower quality productions can be very strong in flavor and rough on the stomach. When a good quality young Pu-Erh tea is properly infused, it is a wonderfully aromatic, astringent, sometimes bitter, and complex beverage.


Shu Pu-Erh Tea


The process of making Shu (Ripe) Pu-Erh was developed in the 1970's to satisfy the demand for aged Pu-Erh in Mainland China and in Taiwan by simulating the flavors of a naturally aged tea. Shu Pu-Erh teas do have some of the characteristics of naturally aged teas, but many of the subtleties of true aged teas are, unfortunately for us, not really approximated by the ripening process. We are not implying that Shu/Ripe tea is somehow inferior to Sheng/Raw tea; rather, Shu/Ripe tea should be viewed as another, separate form or style of Pu-Erh tea with its own set of desirable characteristics.
Note: To make Shu Pu-Erh, the same basic processing as with Sheng Pu-Erh occurs until after the initial sun-drying, so many of the bullet points in this section are redundant from the Sheng Pu-Erh Section.
  • The tea leaves are picked, withered to make them less brittle, and then heat treated, usually pan fired in a relatively low temperature wok, to neutralize the enzymes that would cause the tea leaves to oxidize.
  • Next, the leaves are traditionally dried in the sun, one of the characteristics that make Pu-Erh processing unique. If weather conditions are not favorable for sun-drying or a producer wishes to speed up the drying process, however, the tea leaves are sometimes dried in large ovens. The drying process continues until roughly 90% of the moisture has been removed. At this point, the tea leaves are referred to as Mao Cha, or semi-finished tea.
  • Next, the tea factories arrange the tea leaves into evenly distributed piles and ferment the tea leaves in a process not unlike composting.
  • The carefully controlled moisture and temperature levels used along with the naturally occurring organisms in the tea leaves (i.e. yeast) actually ferment the tea, turning it a rich chocolate brown color. The line between fermentation and decomposition, however, is a fine one. If not carefully controlled, the tea leaves can actually decompose and lose any desirable characteristics that they once had. This fermentation process usually takes about 60 days, but varies based on the experience and individual preferences of the tea masters in charge of fermentation.
  • The loose ripe tea is then dried, sorted and separated into different grades. Larger factories will use a blower & wind tunnel system to quickly sort the tea leaves into different sizes/grades, while small factories or family concerns will either perform this step by hand or omit it all together.
  • A lot of ripe tea is sold loose, but if the finished product is to be a blended & compressed tea, the factory tea masters blend leaves from different growing regions, vintages, or fermentation levels together based on specific formulas or recipes.
  • Next, the leaves are steamed to make them pliable again and compressed into shapes using the traditional stone molds or one of any number of mechanized systems of molds and presses.
  • Lastly, the newly pressed cakes of ripened tea are sometimes baked in a relatively low heat oven (200-250 F) to drive out any residual moisture and prevent the formation of mold during storage.
  • Most newly produced (young) ripe tea has a pungent flavor often referred to as "fermentation taste" (Chinese: 堆味, Duī wèi; Literal trans: "pile taste"), so young ripe tea is usually stored or aged for a period of time to let some of the "Dui Wei" dissipate.

When properly fermented and stored Shu/Ripe Pu-Erh is infused, the liquor can be described as having little to no astringency and mellow, smooth, earthy, "peaty," and subtly sweet flavors with a thick, almost creamy mouth feel.

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