Tea production is an almost magical process. It can turn fresh tea leaves into malty black tea, complex oolong tea, or grassy green tea in just a few steps. At Zest, we are advocates of natural and non-GMO produce, so we select high quality teas for our energy blends. We also add an extra step to the production process, so we can boost the levels of caffeine in your morning cup of tea.
This article will take you through the main steps used to process tea leaves and create the many different types of tea available.
The birthplace of the tea industry and the process below is China. Even matcha, which many people recognize as the iconic Japanese drink, was first created by Zen Buddhists in China.1 The first tea drinking recorded in China dates back to the 3rd century AD, when it was consumed for medicinal purposes.2 Many plants have been consumed for health benefits throughout history by numerous civilizations, however the tea plant that produces caffeinated tea leaves originates in China. This is an important distinction because herbal teas and traditional tea go through different processes to become the hot drink that we enjoy today.
Traditional tea, made in a tea factory or hand-produced at an artisan tea garden, goes through a complex process with multiple steps. Herbal teas on the other hand, tend to be simply picked, dried and packaged.
Originally, records indicate that tea was sold as compressed bricks. The loose leaf tea (including the leaf that is found in teabags) was first produced during the Song dynasty, 960 to 1279.3
Learn more about the history of tea in our article A Complete History of Tea.
How we process the tea leaf determines what type of tea it becomes. Regardless, it all starts with just one tea plant.
The Camellia sinensis plant is the 'tea plant' that produces the caffeinated tea types we consume today; black, oolong, pu-erh, yellow, green and white teas. The first step to making tea is growing tea plants in a tea plantation.
Many tea plantations, particularly those that produce Chinese tea, have been established for centuries. The location is an important deciding factor for which type of tea is produced. For example, the Yunnan province of China is where most of the pu-erh tea is grown and produced.4
The variety of tea is also important. Camellia sinensis sinensis is mostly grown in China, and Camellia sinensis assamica is mostly grown in India, for example.5 There are also numerous cultivars that can be grown. Some cultivars are only used to produce one or a few types of tea, for example the Japanese ‘Okumidori’ cultivar is primarily used to produce gyokuro green tea in Fukuoka, Japan.6
How the tea is grown is also an important part of the process. Using fertilizer and insecticide impacts whether it can be certified as an organic tea, plus the growing method can actually impact the flavor too - shade-grown green teas are very smooth and mellow, as shading the bushes reduces the tannins in the leaves which otherwise create astringent flavors.
The next step is harvesting the tea leaves. Tea harvesting may occur several times during one season. Whether a machine is used to pick the leaves or they're picked by hand (see orthodox and CTC method below), usually only the top unopened buds and first 3 or so leaves are picked. This harvest is called a 'flush'.
When the tea plant has regrown, which can happen as fast as 2 weeks for some cultivars, the leaves can be picked again for a second flush, and so on. Next, the tea leaves will be sorted by grade. This is how you can have fine loose leaf teas and commercial tea bags made from the same tea leaves - the broken leaves are lower in quality while the whole leaves and buds can be reserved for fine specialty teas.
The whole and broken leaves need to be sorted quickly, as they won't stay fresh forever. While herbal infusions can simply be dried en masse, cut, then packaged, traditional tea needs to be sorted.
Sorting may simply mean sifting out the twigs so it can be processed with the CTC method. Or, if the orthodox method is used, it means sorting out broken leaf, whole leaf, and buds so that different teas can all be made from the same plant. The broken leaf may end up in grocery store teabags, while the whole leaves are rolled into oolong and the buds are reserved for white tea, as an example.
Orthodox teas are made with the orthodox method, which relies on tea masters to hand pick, carefully sort, and roll the tea leaves in the following steps. By taking each step slowly and with care, the integrity of the leaf is maintained. Even when rolling machines are utilized, the final result is a high-quality tea that provides a complex flavor that's favored by tea artisans.
The crush tea curl (CTC) method follows the same withering, oxidizing, and drying process as orthodox tea, however it's a completely automated process. Instead of carefully sorting the leaves and rolling them out, all the leaves are pulverized and crushed into small, uniform pieces. From here, the oxidation and drying process moves along at lightning speed.
The end result is a fine, dusty tea that is only suitable for commercial teabags. It's a common process for standard black tea production.
Once the leaves are sorted, they need to be withered to make them more malleable for orthodox processing. For CTC processing, they'll wither and dry quickly after they're crushed.
Whole and broken leaves, however, need to be laid out and aerated regularly to wither them. Once withered, they are more pliable and can be shaped. If the leaves were not withered, they would easily snap or crumble during the oxidation process.
Once the fresh leaves are withered, the oxidation process can begin. Some tea types, like green and white tea, are either unoxidized or just slightly oxidized. They are swiftly moved on to the shaping and fixing stages below.
For black tea and other richer tea types, further processing is needed. To oxidize the leaves, they are twisted, pressed, and rolled to break down the cell walls and encourage the enzymes and essential oils within each leaf to develop.
This oxidation, or lack of it, is the key difference between black teas and green teas. Green tea leaves are unoxidized, so the withered leaves are dried with minimal rolling to preserve their grassy and fresh flavor.
Black tea processing allows the leaves to fully oxidize. This means that the enzymes which were activated by rolling the leaves are completely exposed to oxygen. As a result, the leaves turn dark brown and the flavor develops from light and fresh to rich and malty.
The other tea types, like oolong teas, fall somewhere between green tea and black tea on the oxidation scale.
Next, the tea producer needs to dry the tea. Regardless of which types of tea are being made, the leaves need to be dried completely. If any moisture content lingered in the final tea, the leaves would start to decompose. They must be completely dry before they're packaged into loose tea or tea bag format.
Depending on where the tea producers are located, the tea leaves may either be steamed or pan-fired to quickly fix them with heat. This prevents further oxidation and removes any lingering moisture from the final tea product.
CTC tea will dry incredibly quickly, as the leaf has been crushed into tiny particles. High quality teas that maintain their leaf shape will take longer to dry and are fired by hand to 'fix' them.
The next step is usually packaging the tea leaves and transporting them across the world to be consumed in your kitchen. However, pu-erh teas take a minor detour. The tea leaves used to create pu-erh are fermented.
A tea master can make pu-erh, post fermented tea, by compressing the dried tea leaves into cakes or briquettes. They are then stored for a minimum of three years to allow the flavors to intensify and develop. Pu-erh is an acquired taste - it can be earthy, bitter and savory in flavor.
But there's no denying that pu-erh is a fine tea. Along with yellow tea, it's one of the most expensive kinds that you can buy.
The last stage moves the dried Camellia sinensis leaves into their final format. For premium specialty teas, they'll be carefully hand packaged as loose leaf. Broken tea leaves are still high quality, albeit broken. They usually end up sold as loose leaf and pyramid tea sachets to a wider audience of tea drinkers.
The CTC leaf is so finely chopped and dusty that it can only be sold in paper tea bags that allow for very quick brewing.
Despite the fact that the tea leaf in loose leaf and tea bags goes through the same production process and may even be from the same plant, many experienced tea drinkers believe that loose leaf is superior.
Here are some reasons that may explain this:
There's a simple solution here - pick tea bags that are pyramid shaped, made from natural biodegradable materials, and are full of high quality tea leaf. That's what we do at Zest, after all.
But there are other benefits to tea bags. For example, they are highly convenient when you're in a rush and they're also great for brewing iced tea.
Once you know the full tea production process, you'll know to judge whether a tea is of good quality by the leaf inside rather than the way it has been packaged for consumers!
At Zest, we use both black and green tea leaves to produce our high-caffeine energy teas. Tea that goes through the production process above is naturally quite low in caffeine, especially compared to coffee. To boost our caffeine content, we use additional tea extract from the Camellia sinensis plant.
Combining full-flavored broken tea leaf with additional tea extract allows us to boost the caffeine while maintaining a 100% chemical-free, natural and plant-powered beverage. We also select some non-GMO flavor ingredients to complement our green and black teas, from spices in our Spicy Masala Chai to juicy fruits in our Blue Lady blend.
Discover the full range of Zest energy teas, available in pyramid tea bags or as loose leaf.
Traditional types of tea from the Camellia sinensis plant are harvested, withered, oxidized by rolling and crushing them, dried, and packaged. The orthodox method of tea processing does this carefully by hand to preserve the whole leaves. The CTC method finely chops the leaves to process them quickly and automatically by machine.
Tea is made from water and dried tea leaves. The tea leaves are grown in a tea garden, then picked and processed using the method explained above. Making tea to drink is as simple as infusing those dried tea leaves in hot water.
For your standard cup of black tea, as well as caffeinated specialty teas like green and white teas, all the fresh tea leaves are picked from the Camellia sinensis plant. It's variations in the processing above, typically during the oxidation stage, that determine what type of tea is made.
Whether you choose loose leaf tea or tea bags, black tea or green tea, it all starts with the tea plant. The leaves are picked and sent to a tea factory for processing. They are sorted based on their leaf grade, withered, oxidized and dried before being packaged and shipped around the world for us to enjoy.
For ready to drink teas, like kombucha or our iced energy teas, the tea leaf is brewed to a unique recipe and bottled before being sold.