Oolong tea, known for its distinctive taste and aroma, sits gracefully between green and black tea in terms of oxidation. This partially fermented tea variety offers a delicate balance of flavors and carries a rich history of craftsmanship. In this blog, we'll take you on a journey through the intricate process of manufacturing oolong loose leaf tea, where tradition and expertise converge to create a truly remarkable brew.
Picking the Leaves
The journey of oolong tea begins in the tea gardens, where skilled harvesters carefully pluck the tender tea leaves by hand. The timing of the harvest is crucial, as it significantly impacts the tea's flavor profile. Generally, the best time to harvest oolong leaves is when they are partially open, displaying their signature red edges.
After harvesting, the freshly plucked leaves are spread out on bamboo trays or cloth to wither. This process allows the leaves to lose some of their moisture, making them more pliable for the next stages of production. The duration of withering can vary depending on factors like weather conditions and the desired characteristics of the final tea.
Bruising and Oxidation
After the withering process, the leaves are ready for oxidation. The objective is to allow the natural enzymes in the tea leaves to interact with oxygen, which triggers a chemical reaction and initiates the oxidation process. This step is crucial as it determines the level of oxidation and ultimately influences the tea's flavor, aroma, and appearance.
- Bruising: Oolong tea leaves are bruised to encourage oxidation. Traditionally, this was done by rolling the leaves in baskets or rubbing them gently between the palms. Nowadays, modern oolong producers may use machines that simulate this rolling action.
The bruising of the tea leaves breaks down the cell walls and releases the enzymes, which come into contact with oxygen in the air, initiating the oxidation process. The timing and intensity of bruising are carefully monitored, as they directly impact the degree of oxidation and the final tea characteristics.
- Oxidation: After bruising, the tea leaves are spread out in a controlled environment, often on bamboo trays or in shallow baskets, to allow for oxidation to occur. This stage is where the magic happens - as the leaves react with oxygen, their color changes from green to various shades of brown.
The oxidation process is time-sensitive, and oolong tea masters must keep a close eye on the leaves to achieve the desired level of oxidation. Depending on the type of oolong being produced, oxidation may last anywhere from 20% to 80% completion before the process is halted.
Fixing and Firing
To halt oxidation at the desired level, the tea leaves undergo the fixing or firing process. This step involves applying heat to the leaves to deactivate the enzymes responsible for oxidation and lock in the tea's unique flavors and aromas.
- Fixing: Traditional oolong tea producers use a wok or pan-firing method to stop oxidation. The leaves are heated rapidly at high temperatures, which halts enzymatic activity and prevents further oxidation.
- Firing: After fixing, the leaves may go through a final firing process to reduce their moisture content, ensuring the tea is shelf-stable and ready for packaging.
Rolling and Shaping
After fixing and firing, the tea leaves may undergo rolling and shaping. This process gives oolong tea its characteristic curled appearance. Hand rolling is a traditional method, but machines may also be used for efficiency.
Drying and Final Processing
The final step involves drying the rolled and shaped tea leaves to achieve the appropriate moisture content for storage. Once dried, the tea is sorted to remove any broken leaves or undesirable particles, ensuring a high-quality loose leaf oolong tea.
The entire process of manufacturing oolong loose leaf tea requires precision, skill, and an understanding of the desired flavor profile. The art of crafting oolong tea is a testament to the dedication of tea artisans who strive to create a beverage that tantalizes the senses and captivates tea enthusiasts worldwide. So, the next time you savor a cup of oolong loose leaf tea, remember the journey it undertook, from tender leaf to perfectly brewed delight.
Enjoy your time with tea!