The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
The Unique Processing Methods Used To
Make China's Exquisite Black Teas
Although China's black teas are some of the finest in the world, they comprise
less than 15% of the annual production totals. These subtly sweet, mellow, non-
astringent teas are made with quality, not quantity in mind, manufactured in a
style unique to China.
Even though the manufacturing
and varieties of
black tea produced
varies widely from country to country and even
from one region to another, there are always four
basic steps; withering, rolling, oxidation, and firing
(drying).

The two main processing methods for black tea are
orthodox, which is traditional whole leaf manufac-
ture with broken leaf grades (includes
whole leaf
and
broken leaf grades),
and
CTC (cut-tear-curl),
broken pieces used in
tea
bags and blends.  China
still uses the traditional
orthodox method of man-
ufacture for its black tea.
It's the variation and amount of "tweaking" done by each individual producer that gives China's
black teas their unique characteristics.  These unique variations begin in the field with the type
of pluck, determining the style of tea.

                                  The Chinese have a preference for sweeter teas which is why their black
                                  teas are loaded with sweet, glucose laden buds.  During oxidation the
                                  buds turn a light golden color, which is why many of China's teas have
                                  the word "golden" in their names (
Golden Monkey, Yunnan Buds of Gold,
                                  etc.).

                                  The plucking standard for black tea is a hand-plucked bud and two
                                  leaves, called a "fine pluck."  When only a small amount of exceptional
                                  quality, limited edition black tea is being produced the pluck may be an
                                  "imperial pluck," of a bud and one leaf.  Because of the limited amount
available throughout the year, buds alone are rarely plucked.  The exception to this is China's
Yunnan Buds of Gold (and
Assam Golden
Tips).

China, in fact, has several exceptions to the
fine-pluck standard.  Different black teas
require a certain leafset to achieve the re-
quired flavor and appearance.  These include
China's mao feng teas with a pluck of a
bud and two leaves, and mao jian teas, the
pluck a bud and one leaf.  Other black teas
require a plucking standard of a bud and
three or four leaves.

After plucking the teas are brought to the
factory to begin manufacture.  China's meth-
od of black tea manufacture is uniquely
theirs, starting with the plucking style and
right on through the four basic steps of pro-
cessing.  The first of these is withering.

China's black teas receive a longer withering, which
deepens the inherent fragrance and aroma, and also
a longer, slower oxidation which strips away the as-
tringency and concentrates the flavor in the leaf.  Chinese black tea producers concentrate on
the end result and the best methods to use to accentuate the finished tea, all directly related to
the pluck and the addition of sweet tasting buds that are rich in amino acids and polyphenols.  
This is one of the reasons Chinese black teas are sweet and mild with very little to no
astringency compared to other black teas.

                                  Some Chinese black teas such as
Keemun Congou or Imperial Sichuan
                                  are made up of small whole leaves or budsets while highgrade black tea
                                  from Yunnan Province are made of large brownish-black leaves together
                                  with an amount of sweet, juicy buds.  Some of the most flavorful are
                                  
Yunnan black teas, called dian hong, made from buds or leaves plucked
                                  from older tea bushes rather than new tea cultivars from newer gardens.

                                  Rather than fixing the tea after harvesting to preserve the green
                                  chlorophyll as is done in
green tea production, China black tea producers
                                  allow the leaves to darken (the same chemical reaction that causes
                                  other fruits and vegetables such as bananas and avocados to brown
when sliced).  During oxidation an enzyme in the leaves reacts with oxygen which creates the
brown colored compounds called flavanoids.

The amount of flavanoids allowed to develop will determine not
only the color of the tea but also the flavor and body.  When oxi-
dation begins, the first flavanoid to develop is called theaflavin.  
This compound gives the tea its light golden color, and brisk, mouth
puckering astringency.

                                                If the tea is allowed to oxidize longer, other milder flavanoids
                                                emerge called thearubigins. These flavanoids give tea its more
                                                mellow body and darkens the liquor to a dark brown or deep,
                                                dark red-russet color.  The longer the oxidation, the milder and
                                                more mellow the tea.

                                                The next step is to very lightly bruise the tea leaves.  This light
rolling step also slows down oxidation by preventing the enzymes from inside the leaf to break
through and be exposed to air.  Next the tea is packed in deep, tightly woven bamboo baskets
limiting the amount of oxygen to further slow oxidation.  It remains in the baskets for several
hours for a long, slow oxidation period.  Packed with thearubigins the tea that emerges is
sweet, mild and well rounded.
After oxidation the tea leaves receive a final rolling.  Almost all Chinese black teas are
machine rolled creating a variety of shapes and flavors.  Lastly, the teas are dried, usu-
ally in ovens, although broken leaf varieties are sometimes dried with a fluid bed dryer
that blows the particles on a stream of hot air, ensuring all the pieces are dried evenly.  
China's black teas are extraordinarily good with a range of flavors from mild and sweet
like Golden Monkey, to their famous chocolaty Keemuns, a favorite in the West for over
a century, to the dark, smoky flavored
Lapsang Souchong (or Russian Caravan), and
deep, earthy
Pu-erhs, there's definitely a tea for everyone's taste.  Enjoy.
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