Tea Processing

What is Tea?
While what goes into tea is a major contributing factor toward its final taste and texture, there's more to the picture than one would think.
The way that the tea is heated, dried, sorted, and more each has its own impact on the final product. In fact, some styles, such as puer and oolong teas, are defined almost entirely by the way that they're processed — though we'll get to that soon enough.

Each "true" tea (more on that here) has its own little differences that help distinguish the general "vibe" of each style. While most production methods share broadly similar (if not identical) steps when preparing tea, some producers like to put their own spin on an otherwise everyday blend, creating something entirely new in the process.

Black Tea

Black tea requires that the tea leaves be wilted and crushed after harvesting. Depending on the style of tea, further processing can occur. Some tea suppliers use the Crush, Tear, Curl (CTC) technique to create smaller leaves, though this varies by the producer.

Black tea requires that the tea leaves be wilted and crushed after harvesting. Depending on the style of tea, further processing can occur. Some tea suppliers use the Crush, Tear, Curl (CTC) technique to create smaller leaves, though this varies by the producer. 

While the CTC method makes mass production far more straightforward, it also tends to result in a slightly lower-quality tea (once again, depending on the supplier and the tea itself). As such, Portal uses traditionally-prepared black teas without using CTC techniques to ensure the utmost quality in every cup.

Teas like Irish or English Breakfast use the Crush, Tear, Curl (CTC) technique, which creates smaller bits of leaves. 

Green Tea

Green tea relies on those preparing the leaves to halt the oxidation process shortly after harvest. Green tea preparation varies based on the desired outcome following the withering and bruising stage. 

Unsurprisingly, preparation methods can be vastly different, depending on where the tea is grown, processed, and packaged (along with the final intended product). Some green teas, such as Gunpowder Tea (#32), are rolled into “pearls” or compressed into pellets, while others are packaged loose following the final rolling and drying process(es). 

White Tea

White tea is generally the least processed style; some (such as Silver Needles, #68) teas only use the first tea tree buds and tips, while others (such as white peony, #81) allow the leaves to unfurl and grow. Regardless of the style, white tea is rarely oxidized beyond the initial withering stage, granting its signature delicate floral flavor.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea mixes the preparation of black and green tea, though it uses mature leaves rather than the younger ones commonly used for green tea. It’s oxidized more than green tea, though processed far less than black tea. Oolong teas are then generally rolled into balls or pellets before final packaging.

The flavor of oolong teas varies heavily; some are fruity, while others retain a gentle floral flavor similar to some green and white teas. Others still offer the rich, malty, buttery, and nutty flavors commonly found in black teas. 

Puer Tea

Puer tea is processed similarly to green tea, with a few changes. As puer tea is post-fermented, the oxidation process is eschewed in favor of fermentation. This replaces green tea's more vegetal, delicate flavor with an earthy, robust assortment of notes that will evolve as the tea ages. 

After the initial preparation, puer tea is fermented for a matter of months to years (if not decades). Sheng puer is the traditional preparation method and requires the tea pellets to ferment for 10 to 50 years. Traditionally, this process happens after the packaging and pressing of tea pellets. On the other hand, Shou ferments over 45-60 days before packaging and pressing occur. This allows Shou puer teas to come to market far more quickly than their traditional cousins. Think bourbon vs. scotch; each is delicious, but one takes far longer to age than the other (...usually).

Once puer tea has finished its fermentation process, it’s compressed into one of several shapes. The most common is a “cake” or “brick,” though some high-quality Sheng puer teas, such as our Tuo Cha (#18 and #90, respectively) and Tangerine Puer, are shaped into mushrooms, pumpkins, and other novelty designs.

High-quality Sheng puer teas (such as our Tuo Cha and Tangerine Puers) are shaped into mushrooms, pumpkins, and other novelty designs. While the fancy format eventually came along to appeal to a larger market, the original intent of pressing puer teas into various shapes has humble origins: transportation!

Imagine trying to transport and sell potentially hundreds of pounds of loose tea leaves - that doesn’t sound fun, does it? The Chinese, refusing to simply suffer, opted to press the leaves into “pucks,” allowing merchants to transport more tea in the same space while making it far simpler to exchange, trade, and offload.

Tea Processing: Step-by-Step

  1. Withering
    1. Tea leaves are left out to dry and wither.
  2. Bruising (used for black, green, and oolong teas) 
    1. The tea leaves are lightly rolled, twisted, and/or crushed to break down their cell walls and assist with oxidation. 
  3. Oxidation (exposure to oxygen; not used with green tea) 
    1. Technically, this is another round of withering following the bruising stage for specific teas. Pu-erh teas generally skip the second round of oxidation in favor of fermentation.
    2. Japanese methods use steam heat to wither and oxidize its tea. Most Japanese techniques use a dehumidifying or cooling process before heating to combat the moisture from this method.
  4. Heating
    1. The method varies; Japanese green teas are (usually) steamed, while Chinese green teas are generally fire-roasted with a wok, pan, or rotating drum. 
    2. Taiwanese teas are often heated, stirred, and compressed multiple times over several days, compared to other methods that heat the leaves once for a shorter period. Additionally, many Taiwanese tea methods eschew the roasting process entirely unless specifically requested.
  5. Drying
    1. This method also varies; some use charcoal roasting, while others (like white tea) use an extremely gentle, gradual roast.
  6. Sorting
    1. The leaves are sorted and packaged for sale.
  7. CTC*
    1. Following the sorting process and before packaging, tea producers that use the CTC method will grind coarser leaves for use in Chai teas and tea bags. This process is used for many of the world’s most popular bagged teas.

*This is a method primarily used in India and Kenya.