All tea comes from the same plant – the Camellia Sinensis – which isn't much different from the familiar Camellia bushes in our gardens. The tea bush blooms with small white or pink flowers.
The differences between the various types of tea (black, green, white and oolong) come from the way the tea is processed. As with wine, subtle differences come from variations in climate, soil and growing practices.
In the Chinese countryside, tea is nearly ubiquitous. It is planted both in wide, flat fields and on steep, terraced hillsides. Many families even plant bushes in their yards for their own use. On plantations, tea is typically planted in long rows with just enough room to walk between them. Bushes are typically no higher than the waists of the women who typically pick the tea.
Most premium teas are picked by hand. When the tea is ready, pickers head out to the fields with baskets and carefully pick the leaves which are appropriate for the intended type of tea. Sometimes only the very top leaf (called the bud) is picked. Usually the bud is picked along with two adjacent leaves. Thus the name of the standard picking, ‘two leaves and a bud.’
Some teas are machine-plucked, including low-grade teas which find their way into ready-to-drink iced teas. Some high-quality Japanese green teas are also machine-picked.
All teas are withered. Once the tea is plucked, it is brought to a tea processing plant where it is laid out in large trays to be withered. Withering is the process by which the leaves are wilted, softening the leaves and reducing their moisture level, making them ready for rolling or other processing.
At this point, different teas go their different ways. White teas are simply dried. Green teas are fired or steamed and then dried. Before drying, black and oolong teas are rolled.
Rolling is the process of twisting the tea leaf in order to rupture the cell walls of the withered leaves. This allows the cell sap to spread like a film over the surface of the leaf, letting the polyphenols and enzymes in the leaves to mix with oxygen. This starts a chemical process known as ‘oxidation,’ whereby the tea leaves turn from green to a coppery brown color. Only oolong and black teas are rolled.
Rolled black and oolong tea leaves are then put into bins and left to sit, such that the tea sap and enzymes continue to oxidize, turning the leaves a coppery-brown color.
The level of oxidization differs depending upon the type of tea being made. Oolongs range from less than 20% oxidized up to 80% oxidized. Black teas are typically completely oxidized, although floral blacks such as Darjeeling are somewhat less oxidized. Oxidation can range anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours.
Green, oolong and black teas are fired or steamed before the final drying process. Firing halts the oxidation process. The dried tea is then passed through vibrating screens of various mesh sizes to sort it into different grades. Final tea leaf size is a large factor in tea grading, which also helps determine its price and desirability. The larger sized tea pieces remain on top and are bagged, with the remaining falling through to be sorted separately.
The finished tea is graded and packed into crates for shipping. Grading is the process of judging size and style of leaf. Common terms include:
• Pekoe – Comes from the Cantonese ‘Pek Ho,’ which refers to the white hairs of the new buds. Pekoe leaves are whole.
• Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) – Broken leaves with no tip (golden buds).
• Fannings – Smaller tea particles that drop down through the sorting sieve when grading.
• Dust – The smallest tea particles, most often used in tea bags.
Tea is sold in a variety of ways. China has a large number of retail tea shops as well as wholesale tea malls such as the one in the above photo. This mall is over three stories tall, filled with shops that sell only tea and tea accessories.
Tea plantations also sell their tea directly to tea packers in China for domestic consumption as well as to importers and tea companies in the US and around the world.