The soil, climate, altitude, time of picking, and manufacturing expertise determine the quality and taste of the tea, but it is the manufacturing process and level of fermentation (correctly understood as oxidation) that determines whether the tea will be white, green, oolong, or black.
At one time, all processing of tea was done by hand in a carefully executed series of stages that were first developed by the Chinese. Today, far fewer teas are handmade; instead, machines carry out some or nearly all stages of manufacturing. The term "orthodox" is used by the tea industry to designate manufacturing methods that mimic the traditional hand-processing.
WHITE TEAS: After careful plucking, the buds and leaves are withered for several hours at room temperature. During this time, water evaporates from the leaves, and up to 40% of the original weight is removed. The wilted leaves are then roasted until they lose 93-95% of their moisture content. Because the processing of white tea is simple and quick, the resulting tea yields a pale color and delicate taste.
GREEN TEAS: In the processing of green tea, freshly plucked leaves are spread out in pans or bamboo trays to dry. Once most of the water has evaporated from the leaves, they are quickly heated to prevent any fermentation from ruining the delicate leaves. In some mechanized processes, the leaves are warmed in metal pans to induce vaporization of the leaves’ moisture. Often with high-quality green teas, the leaves are twisted or rolled to create distinctive shapes that gracefully unfurl during infusion.
OOLONG TEAS: The processing of oolong teas begins with the partial withering of the leaves in sunlight; these shriveled leaves are then shaken in baskets to cause slight bruising which releases oils and enzymes. Subsequently, the leaves are fermented for varying lengths of time depending on the desired character of the tea. A long fermentation of 40-70% creates an oolong that has deep color with nutty or woody flavor while a shorter fermentation of 12-20% results in a light, sometimes green-tasting tea. Pouchong teas, sometimes classified as oolongs, are lightly fermented and usually have a subtle, green character. Because of this delicate flavor, pouchongs are often scented by the addition of flowers—as in high-quality jasmine teas.
BLACK TEAS: After withering, the leaves that will be processed in the orthodox manner are rolled 2-6 times for a period of up to 30 minutes each. The leaves are then fully fermented to produce a black tea. The expert tea manufacturer will determine the precise time at which to stop the fermentation by observing the color, smell, and general appearance of the leaves. A quick firing of the leaves halts oxidation without imparting a burnt flavor onto the leaves.
With emphasis shifting to production efficiency, the majority of tea produced today is not orthodox. In 1925, it was discovered that commercial grade tea could be produced from unwithered tea leaves if they were first shredded using a tobacco cutter, and today the CTC (crush, tear, curl) machine is widely used. Using this machine, lightly withered leaves are processed in such a way that fermentation time can be cut in half. The distinguishing characteristic of a CTC tea is its uniform, granular appearance.
PU-ERH TEAS: Pu-erh teas, from the Yunnan province of China, are unique due to a true fermentation -- not the oxidation used for oolong or black teas. Bacteria may be added to processed green tea leaves which are then placed in damp caves to age for up to 60 years. As a result of this storage, the leaves take on an earthy, mold-like flavor.
FLAVORED TEAS: Flavored teas require an additional step once the leaves are sorted and graded. A black or green tea base is dried a second time, and flavoring, fruit, spices, or flowers are added. Some teas, such as most Jasmines and our Rose Congou, are flavored during the actual fermentation process to develop deeper flavor notes. After the flavoring is added, the tea is cooled and packaged.
"Upton Tea Imports was founded in 1989 with the objective of providing the North American tea drinker with
the finest teas available. We purchase teas from reputable brokers and estates worldwide, dealing only with
sources who are capable of providing top quality teas. We sell directly to the consumer, thus ensuring the
freshest product and fairest pricing."