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Understanding tea

Tea is the world’s most popular beverage. It is grown in forty countries, so the differences in classification and terminology can sometimes get confusing. Daoli only sources Chinese teas. So, for purpose of authenticity, Daoli collection reflects the current understanding of tea in mainland China.

Green tea

What is tea?

People often assume that different plants are used to produce green, black, wulong, and other kinds of tea. Actually, all teas come from the same evergreen tropical plant of the Camellia family. What determines the shape and flavor of tea is the way in which it is processed. Contrastingly, various herbal and fruit infusions (rose hip, mint, chamomile, lemon, etc) do not contain any tea leaves and therefore have nothing to do with tea in its original sense.

The tea

The word “tea” comes from Chinese language. China is famous for its numerous dialects that vary greatly in pronunciation but share the same writing system. In Cantonese and Mandarin, the word is pronounced as cha (soft /ʧ/), whereas in Taiwan and China’s southern regions, it was pronounced as tê (harder /t/). The ancient and original way of saying tea was 梌 (tú) or 茶 (tú), and, while it evolved to cha in some regions, it changed its form but kept its original pronunciation in others. This is why the word “tea” in most modern languages tends to either sound like cha, caj or tea, tee.

About the tea plant

Tea plant thrives in warm and humid climate, growing best in light, mildly acidic, and dry soil. Although it can grow at any altitude from 0 to over 2000 meters above sea level, it benefits greatly from growing on mountain slopes where the water always moves downward, washing the plant roots rather than drowning them. Tea propagates naturally by shedding seeds on the ground. Modern farming, however, often involves transplanting and grafting techniques in order to speed up the process. Commonly, tea plants are trimmed on regular basis and kept in form of bushes, which makes tea much easier to harvest. If left untended, however, the tea plant can reach up to 15 meters in height.

The harvest

Four to five years must pass before the plant can be harvested for leaves and buds. In some regions, tea buds can be harvested every seven days, while in others it only happens several times a year. Traditionally, tea was always picked by hand, because that is the only way to ensure the leaves’ integrity. Some countries tried to implement machine harvesting of tea. This made the life of farmers easier, but had negative impact on the quality of tea, causing decline in production. In China tea harvesting is still predominantly done by hands. Skilled tea-pickers can collect around thirty kilograms of tea per day, which can later be converted into about eight kilograms of dry tea at the processing factories.

Making tea

Tea processing simply means turning fresh tea leaves and buds into the final dry product ready for storage, transportation, and consumption. Tea processing  can be as sophisticated as wine making. The factors that determine the look and taste of tea include place of origin, time of harvesting, drying methods, degree of oxidation and fermentation. As a result, you get white, green, black, yellow, wulong, aged, flavored teas, and so on. There are forty tea-growing countries and each one of them has its own traditions, which is why today there are roughly 1,500 different kinds of tea that all come from the plants of the Camellia family.

Types of tea processing

Wilting is the first processing step for many kinds of tea. Freshly picked leaves and buds are left either in shade or direct sunlight. About one fourth of the leaves’ weight is lost during this stage. At that time, tea also begins to undergo slow oxidation.

Disruption. At this stage the leaves are slightly bruised and turned over and over again. As a result, tea leaves release enzymes that accelerate the process of oxidation. Essential oils freed by this process also have an impact on the final taste and aroma of the tea.

Oxidation. When exposed to air for a few hours, tea begins to acquire its characteristic dark-red and brown colors. This happens because the polyphenol oxidase enzyme starts to convert catechins (colorless polyphenols in tea leaves) into thearubigin and theaflavin, both of which are powerful antioxidants.

Fermentation. Constant mixing and rehashing of tea leaves releases even more juices from the leaves, which become fertile ground for the numerous microorganisms (fermenting cultures). It is the activity of these little fellas that, for instance, gives pu’er tea its characteristic smell and flavor.

Fixation. Once the oxidation reaches the desired level, it is stopped or “fixed” by heating tea leaves. Traditionally it is done in a wok.

Shaping. Leaves are shaped into different forms by hand or with the help of special machines. While shaped, tea releases some of its essential oils that make a great contribution to flavor. In order to preserve all that goodness, it is important to minimize the leaves’ exposure to air. That is why, tea often comes in shape of cakes, nuggets, gunpowder pellets, etc.

Drying. Tea is dried in an oven or a wok. Once tea is dried properly, it is ready for storage and packaging.

Aging is a process of keeping tea in open air and exposing it to fermenting microflora. The process can last from six months to several years. Aging is common for pu’er teas. It is believed that the longer the tea is allowed to mature, the healthier and more savory it becomes.

Flavoring and blending. For a very long time, the access to fresh tea in the west was quite limited. As a result, the flavor of the tea had to be enhanced by adding flavorings or mixing higher and lower quality teas together. Neither blended nor flavored teas are popular in China.

Some popular teas

Green teas are produced from unoxidized non-wilted leaves and buds. Green teas can also be “disrupted”. In order to “trap” the resulting cellular juices, individual leaves are often rolled into “gunpowder” pellets. The tea treated in this fashion comes closest to the texture and flavor of fresh tea leaves. Therefore, it is better to drink green tea soon after it was made while its flavor and antioxidant content are still high. Most of the green tea is produced in China.

Wulong (Oolong) is made of wilted semi-oxidized tips. With wulong, oxidation process is stopped shortly before the tea begins to turn brown. Great skill is required to get the timing just right and harness the tea’s potential. Wulong is typically shaped into small spiral rolls. Depending on how long and in what way wulong is treated, it may acquire hints of honey, milk, and other flavors. Wulong tea is a subset of a broad variety of teas referred to  as “blue-green” in China.

Black teas are made from wilted and disrupted fully oxidized buds and leaves. Black tea can come in various shapes. If made and stored properly, black tea can retain its fragrance for many years. In China, black tea is actually called “red”. That is because for Chinese people the point of reference is the color of the infusion and not the color of the leaves. Legend has it that it was “invented” by tea masters and merchants who were looking for a way to extend the shelf life of tea. At the beginning, black tea was considered inferior to green, but now it is the most popular kind of tea in the world.

Aged or Pu’er teas are fermented for an extended period of time with addition of fermenting cultures. Pu’er tea is often shaped into cakes and bricks.  Its loose form is also popular. The aging process allows the tea to change its flavor, often making it more mellow and fragrant. In China, aged pu’er is often referred to as “black tea”.

Flavoured teas are made from black, green, and wulong teas that are enhanced with blossoms, fruits, spices, and artificial flavorings.


This post was written by Miha and translated into English by Roman. Original version in Slovenian is also available (Predalčkanje čajev). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.