A Brief Intro: Basics of Tea Processing, Variations, and More

Basics of Tea Processing
Tea, enjoyed at any time of the day, hot or cold, is the second-most widely consumed beverage in the world, just after water. Here, we have provided a brief glimpse of the methods of tea processing.
Tea plants (Camellia sinensis) grow in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. They thrive in areas with plenty of rainfall and prefer soil with high acidity. There are mainly five different types of teas, namely green, white, black, yellow, and oolong. Most people are not aware of the fact that it's the processing that results in these variations in color and aroma, and not different types of tea plants.

Tea processing begins with tea plantation workers hand-picking tea leaves in early spring (first flush) and early summer (second flush) and taking them to the tea factories. As soon as the leaves are picked, oxidation begins. This process must be closely monitored since it is a prime factor in determining the type of tea. In the factory, the tea leaves are subjected to various processes, as described below, to get the final product.
Basics of Tea Processing
Withering
Freshly picked leaves are spread out in a thin layer and left to dry in the sun or in cool breeze. They lose most of their moisture content in this process, which is also known as wilting. If weather conditions are not favorable, artificially heated air is passed over the tea leaves to dry them up. This process encourages the leaf proteins to release amino acids, which in turn can change the flavor of the tea.
tea loose leaf
Rolling
Withering allows the leaves to become flexible enough to be rolled and twisted which enables the leaf cells to release oils and all the extra moisture. The liquids released in the process coat the surface of the leaves. The process needs to be carried out gently. It can either be done by hand, or by shaking the leaves in bamboo trays or by rolling them using machinery.
rolling tea leaves
Oxidation
The most important stage, which decides what type of tea you want. The chlorophyll present in tea leaves is broken down into enzymes, releasing polyphenols. The desired type of tea is obtained by either under-oxidizing or over-oxidizing the tea leaves. Leaves are kept in temperature-controlled rooms, where due to absorption of oxygen, they turn from green to copper-red. This process is also termed as fermentation.
oxidation tea process
Firing
The leaves are thoroughly dried using various techniques like baking, air-drying, and sun-drying to completely stop the oxidation process. Precautions must be taken to ensure the leaves do not get burnt out in the process.

Moisture and temperature regulation is essential in these processes to get the desired type of tea. If care is not taken, the tea leaves obtained may develop fungi and become unsuitable for human consumption. Described below are the slight variations in the processes mentioned above to obtain the different types of teas.
sun drying tea leaves
Variations in Processing Tea
Black Tea
It requires 100% oxidation, and hence the process lasts for several hours. Leaves are placed in ovens and over fires to completely rid them of moisture and what you get are dark brownish-black leaves. In some parts of the world, mostly in the Indian subcontinent, the CTC (Crush, Tear, and Curl) method is carried out at the Rolling stage. The tea leaves are rolled under cylinders with sharp edges which finely cut and chop the leaves, resulting in fine dust-like particles, which are ideal for use in tea bags.
Black Tea
Oolong
For this partially oxidized tea, oxidation levels can be in the range of 8% to 80%. The oxidation process is halted when the edges of the leaves turn brown, but care should be taken to see that the center remains green.
Oolong Tea
Green Tea
Green tea requires minimum or no oxidation, so it retains its green color. Immediately after the withering process, steam is applied to dry the leaves or they are pan-fried to prevent further oxidation. The oxidation step is skipped altogether.
Green Tea
Yellow Tea
It requires a slightly longer oxidation time than green tea and a slower drying out process, and is best obtained when leaves are picked while they are very young.
Yellow Tea
White Tea
Consumed primarily in China, white tea also undergoes minimum oxidation like green tea. The difference lies in the picking of leaves. Leaf-picking for white tea is done when the leaves have not yet completely opened, and the tea buds are still very young and covered with white fuzz. White tea has a subtle, sweet taste, unlike green tea which has a grassy flavor.
White Tea
Tea has numerous health benefits, especially green tea. Tea contains powerful antioxidants, amino acids, and vitamins. Consumption of tea aids in weight loss, and protects the body from heart diseases and many forms of cancer. So the next time you have steaming hot tea, or maybe a glass of iced tea, think of the long journey those tiny leaves have made, from the gardens to your cup, to give you that aromatic, refreshing flavor.