There are two methods involved in tea production: Orthodox and Unorthodox. Orthodox involves using the whole leaf that is carefully shaped keeping its integrity. When re-hydrated, the rolled tea leaves unfurl revealing themselves whole once again. Unorthodox process involves feeding the tea leaves through a machine and pulverizing them into small particles called fannings which are used for tea bags.
Plucking: Fresh leaves are either hand-picked or mechanically-picked. The parts that are picked can include the bud, leaves, and even stems.
Sorting/Weighing: Leaves are sorted according to size, broken leaves, whole leaves, stems, and weighed. This procedure may occur again near the end of a processing cycle by either hand or machine.
Withering/Wilting: Tea leaves are spread on flat bamboo trays allowing them to wilt in order to reduce the moisture content. Wilting can take place outside under the sun or indoors and perhaps even a combination of both. Withering allows the leaves to become soft and pliable.
Shaking: The leaves may be tossed on the trays or through a machine causing the leaves to bruise, releasing their juices, and breaking their cell walls allowing for oxidation to occur.
Oxidation: This is a process where the leaves react to the oxygen causing chemical changes that result in the teas unique aroma, flavour, and colour.
Fermentation: This is similar to oxidation but involves microbial activity occurring in the absence of oxygen. Think of it like composting. Pu-erh is a perfect example of a tea that goes through a process of oxidation and fermentation.
Steaming: Some teas are steamed. Steaming applies light heat to the leaves to help halt the oxidation. This provides very distinct aroma, flavour, and colour to certain teas. Some green teas are noted for their grassy scents as a result of steaming.
Rolling: The soft leaves are rolled either by hand or machine to give each tea their unique shape. Some leaves are made into round pellets, whiles others are folded into long strips or needles. The leaves may crack causing further oxidation and the release of essential oils. This results in additional flavour and aroma development.
Shredding: For unorthodox teas, the leaves are fed through a machine and pulverized into small particles. These are called CTC (crush-tear-curl) teas.
Firing: In order to preserve the composition and remove any remaining moisture, heat is applied to the tea leaves. This can be done by roasting, baking, or pan-frying the leaves.
Flavouring: Some teas may be flavoured during the final firing stage. Jasmine, rose petals, mint or other ingredients are added to the tea leaves to create their flavour profile.
Quality Assurance: The tea undergoes a taste test, evaluation, and grading.
Packing/Shipping: The final product is packed and shipped ready for the market.
Remember, not every tea will go through all these steps. White teas, which are very delicate, are just allowed to wilt. Oolongs are semi-oxidized while black teas are fully-oxidized in order to provide a richer flavour and darker colour. Pu-erh goes through a very interesting aging process. Matcha is another special case in that the leaves are grind into a fine green power after the final drying. You literally consume the whole leaf.
From freshly picked tea leaves all the way to your cup! I’ll get into more detailed process methods that apply for the type of tea when I start discussing them individually.