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From Picking to Packaging: 7 Steps to Oolong Tea

Chrissy DeBartolo
By Chrissy DeBartolo - June 28, 2017

Have you ever wondered how things are made? It amazes me the processes and machinery involved in creating objects we use everyday, food packaging, candy, electronics, or even the machines that make the machines! It's no wonder there is a TV show dedicated to how things are made!

Brewing my tea this morning, I wondered how our tea was produced and what steps were involved. Have you ever wondered how such an amazing, delicious tea can make it into your tea cup?

I did some research and, boy, is it a complicated and timely process! 

As you may or may not know, we get our Oolong Tea straight from Anxi County in the Fujian Province of China.

Why is this so important?

Anxi is known as the Tea Capital of China. They grow some of the highest quality tea in the world. What’s more, this particular place is famous for its specific variety of Oolong Tea!

For hundreds of years, the oolong tea process was kept secret by tea makers in China and even getting a glimpse into the intricate inner workings was virtually impossible for outsiders.

Therefore, the art of making oolong tea is little known outside China.

Nowadays, even though most of the steps are public knowledge, aspiring imitators still find it hard to master ALL of the skills needed to make truly GREAT oolong tea.

Oolong tea can be machine or handmade. Premium grade oolong teas (like all 3 of our Oolong Teas) are ALWAYS handmade.

Generally speaking, there are 7 major steps in processing oolong tea...

 

1. Harvesting (Cai Qing - Picking Tea Leaves)

Cai Qing-Picking Tea Leaves

Oolong tea leaves are picked 3 to 4 times a year in spring, summer (once or twice) and autumn/winter depending on the local climate conditions.

Oolong tea is made from more mature leaves consisting of one bud with 3 or 4 leaves.

They are picked when buds at the top of bushes mature to half the size of a fully grown leaf.

Quality varies with the season - spring and autumn/winter teas are higher quality than summer tea. Leaves picked during early spring are generally considered to have the highest quality because of the cooler weather. 

A popular picking technique is to face the hands upwards, hold the stem between the index and middle fingers, then break the stem gently using the thumb. Only a properly trained tea picker knows how to gather the leaves in a way that maximizes their potential.

Picking Tea Leaves

 

 

 

2. Withering (Wei Diao - Soften the Tea Leaves)

After picking, the fresh oolong tea leaves are immediately transferred onto large wooden plates to be dried. Most leaves are dried both indoors and outdoors to balance the effects of heating and cooling, as too much sun can cause over-heating.

The level of moisture determines how quickly tea polyphenols oxidize.

As moisture vaporizes, fresh leaves soften and lose their natural springiness and luster, but this is not a cause for concern. In the later stage (bruising), the leaves will regain their elasticity.

The general principle is to go "from thin to thick". Initially the leaves are spread out thinly on a bamboo mat to prevent too much heat from accumulating inside the leaves.

In the later stage, the leaves are spread out more thickly. The process also involves stirring, which distributes moisture evenly across the leaves and speeds up the oxidation process.

Wei Diao-Soften the Tea Leaves

 

 

 

3. Bruising (Zhuoqing or Yaoqing - Removing Moisture from the Tea Leaves)

This is the most important step of the process. Bruising determines, to a very large extent, the quality and taste of oolong tea.

A variety of techniques are used to bruise the leaves, including shaking and tumbling. Bruising is usually repeated many times to achieve an ideal level of oxidation and should be seen as a continuation of withering. (The bruising process removes moisture and grassiness.)

During withering, leaves lose their suppleness. Amazingly, they are able to regain their elasticity towards the end of bruising.

Tea makers shake withered leaves in bamboo baskets and hand press them using a bamboo tube to implement this process. The friction bruises edges, exposes tea juices to air and speeds up oxidation.

The leaves are then spread out to slow down oxidation and other chemical changes. This shaking-resting process is then repeated several times.

The length and intensity are adjusted to allow for variation in wind speed, light intensity, temperature and humidity on that particular day.

In the later stage, the heavily bruised leaves experience a resurrection. Moisture travels from stems to leaves, causing them to regain their suppleness.

The process ends when leaf edges start to redden and aroma substances form.

Zhuoqing or Yaoqing-Remove Moisture from the Tea Leaves

 

 

 

4. Fixation (Sha Qing - Kill Green)

At the precise time when aroma substances have started to form and the tea leaves start to take on a red color, bruised leaves are pan-fried at high heat to kill the enzymes and stop the oxidation process.

This process is called fixation or Kill Green (Kill-green is a literal translation of the Chinese phrase for “stopping the oxidation”) and lasts only a very short time. If it lasts too long, the leaves will lose too much moisture.

Sha Qing-Kill Green

 

 

 

5. Rolling and Shaping (Rounian or ZhuoXing - Shaping the Tea Leaves)

During this step, oolong tea leaves are rolled and rubbed into the right shape. Depending on the varieties, oolong tea can be either long and curly, semi-rounded or fully-rounded.

After the tea has been rolled, it is heated, then rolled again. This process is repeated several times.

Rounian or Zhuoqing-Shaping the Tea Leaves
 
 
 
 
 

6. Baking (Hong Pei - Drying the Tea Leaves)

Bruising “releases” the taste of oolong tea leaves and this second round of drying strengthens what has been released. Both high and low heat are used to completely remove moisture from the leaves and finalize their chemical profiles.

There are two parts to this process.

Mao Hong (General Baking) - In the initial fast-baking process, high heat is applied for a short period of time. It removes moisture, stabilizes chemical profile and freezes external shape.

Hong Pei-Drying the Tea Leaves

Zhu Hong (Drying Tea Leaves in Bamboo Basket) - Low heat is applied for an extended period of time.

For some types of aged oolong tea, this step will be repeated on a yearly basis.

This is an important stage where the tea-maker decides how much "fire" goes into the tea. The additional slow-baking also improves the color and aroma of the tea liquor.

Wonder why oolong tea lasts for many more infusions than green tea? Slow baking makes oolong tea last longer.

Zhu Hong-Drying Tea Leaves in Bamboo Basket
 
 
 

7. Sorting, Cooling and Packaging

Tea leaves are sorted to remove sub standard leaves and twigs before they are transferred for packaging. This step is always done by hand by skilled inspectors who pick out inferior leaves.

Some of the tea leaves may need to be re-heated later, then cooled and packaged.

Sorting, Cooling and Packaging
 

PHEW! What a long and intricate process to land our high-quality tea into your cup at home. Knowing the journey definitely makes me appreciate my oolong even more and I'm elated that I'm able to get such a high quality tea here in the United States...especially one that is free of pesticides, fillers, GMOs, and artificial colors/flavors. It puts my mind at ease knowing that only the highly skilled tea-masters in China are handling my tea leaves. :-)

Now that you know the amazing process our tea goes through, make sure you stock up on the highest quality Oolong tea and share it with everyone you know!

 

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Yours in Health & Happiness,

Chrissy

 

 

 

 

References:

http://www.esgreen.com/info/oolong-tea-processing/

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