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Friday, August 6, 2010

Green Tea: Production Process

Baby tea buds and leaves on the tea bush



Fresh budsets after picking

Machine production (1)

Machine production (2)


Firing and shaping the tea leaves by hand

Longjing (Dragon Well) tea ready to drink

Would you like a cup?

To be able to appreciate the aroma and flavor of tea from little sips is a great pleasure; to understand a little of the art of tea manufacture definitely enhances the experience of drinking.

In general, green teas are produced by one of four methods: pan-firing, oven-drying, sun-drying and steaming (炒青、烘青、曬青和蒸青). Each of these methods incorporates the same underlying processes: plucking, primary drying (called sha qing [lit: "killing the green"] in Chinese), rolling, and drying (採摘, 殺青、揉捻、乾燥).

1. Plucking
There are three main methods to pick (or pluck) fresh tea leaves: hand-picking (single-hand-pick and double-hand-pick), knife-picking, and machine-picking. In terms of efficiency, a double-hand-pick is roughly two times faster than a single-hand-pick, knife-picking is about 10 times faster than hand-picking, and machine-picking is about 80 times faster than hand-picking. The single-hand method of picking is only used for the highest grades of green tea or for tea harvested for personal use by local growers (e.g. my family). The knife-picking and machine-picking methods are more popular and appropriate for big tea companies.
A nice tea education (It reminds me of my childhood)
This reminds me of my own childhood experience of tea production. When I was about 10 years old, I helped my parents and neighbors to pick fresh tea leaves; I was responsible for lighting the fires and preparing everything for the pan-firing process; I selected the best-quality tea leaves for rolling (to help shape and dry the tea - of course, my mother was my teacher and demonstrated this technique to me). It was a hard job, and just picking tea leaves was enough to demand all my energy. I used the single-hand-pick method, in which the left hand holds the tea stem while the right hand picks the tea leaves. My eyes was busy for looking for baby budsets with one bud and one leaf.  I picked about 3 pounds in about 4 hours. (To put this in perspective, 1 pound of dry loose tea needs more than 5 pounds of primary tea leaf. To make 500g of the best quality Biluochun [Green Snail Spring] requires about 68,000-74,000 fresh baby buds,while around 30,000 baby buds are needed for the same amount of the best Longjing [Dragon well]. Why the difference? The buds used for Longjing are bigger.) After a day's work during the tea harvest, everywhere on my body was hurting. I was exhausted, hungry, and thirsty. Yet, I still enjoyed it.

2. Primary Drying
A family hand-processing tea (I miss my parents' tea)

This process is the key to maintaining the natural green color of the tea leaves and liquor. Heat (either dry heat from a pan, tumbler or oven, or steam - which is commonly used in Japan) is applied to arrest any further activity of the enzymatic compounds in the primary leaf and thereby prevent oxidation. This process not only keeps the leaves green, but also increases leaf flexibility, thereby creating a better condition for the next procedure - rolling. Moreover, it helps to remove any grassy odor from the tea and enhance its fragrance.

A special high-grade green tea must be produced by hand in a basket or large wok, but most green teas produced commercially are made largely by machine.

3. Rolling - Shaping                                                                

This process imparts a distinctive shape (such as flat or twisted) to the tea leaves and breaks the cell walls inside each leaf, to reduce the bitterness and astringency of the tea.

4. Drying

This not only removes the moisture from the tea leaves, but also stabilizes the shape, appearance and quality of the tea, and helps to develop its aroma.

There are three common ways to dry green tea in China: pan-firing, oven-drying and sun-drying. The most famous pan-fired green teas are Longjing (龙井) and Biluochun (碧螺春), mentioned above. The most famous oven-dried green teas are Huangshan Maofeng (黄山毛峰 "Yellow Mountain Fur Peak") and Taiping Houkui (太平猴魁 "Great Peaceful Monkey Chief"). A typical Sun-dried green tea is Dian Qing (滇青 "Yunnan Green") from Yunnan.

In summary, each of these process can be done by hand, partly by hand and by machine, or entirely by machine. The quality and character of any given tea really depends on the technique and taste of the production master, whether produced by hand or machine. Of course, the best quality tea is usually produced by hand.

Since green tea is a fresh product, it should be enjoyed while it's still fresh and full of the life and art carefully brought out by the artisans who produced it. That's why I'm almost out of mine! I'll just have to survive on Pu'er and Oolong until next spring. Later, I'll write something about how their production is different from that of green tea. Bye for now!

About Me

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Seattle, WA, United States
I grew up with tea, and it continues to fill my life with so much beauty and discovery, pleasure, peace and friends. It is always leading me toward a greater understanding of culture, nature, myself and others. It is my hope to use this space to share the joy of tea and tea culture with you.