Traditional Chinese Tea-Making Secret
For over 400 years, the question “How tea is made” had been shrouded in mystery ever since Europeans, especially the English, first took a sip of tea in the early 1600s.
Westerners loved tea so much that they commissioned paintings to illustrate the tea-making process, demystify tea, and promote tea sales in Europe. Despite all the fancy paintings, drawings, and illustrations, the Chinese tea-making tradition remained a well-guarded secret until the mid-1800s.
How the ancient Chinese tea-making secrets got out made a fascinating chapter in the film 9 DRAGONS TEA, as our story unearths a long-buried case of industrial espionage. In short, the most incredible tea hack in history involved a Scottish botanist, aptly named Robert Fortune, who infiltrated China on the behest of the British East India Company. How did Robert Fortune pull this off when foreigners were forbidden to enter China in the mid-1800s? You’ll have to watch the film and find out.
For now, let me take you on a tea journey and share some tea facts. Who knows, this may give you something to chat about with your friends in your next tea / Dim Sum gathering.
In ancient China, tea began as a southerner’s drink, then spread to the northern regions. The Chinese tea-making tradition has evolved over thousands of years, passed down from generation to generation. By the mid-7th century, or Tang dynasty, tea became a national drink in China. A countrywide cottage industry, tea-making was a way of life, an art form, a currency of trade. Tea was infused into every aspect of Chinese culture.
In the world of tea, there are six major tea types: White tea, Yellow tea, Green tea, Oolong tea, Black tea, and Pu-er (or Pu’erh, aka Dark tea or “Hei Cha” in Chinese). All of these teas are made using the same plant, Camellia sinensis. So what makes each cup of tea you hold different is how the tea leaves are processed. Tea manufacturing is an ancient art-form and can vary between tea regions in China. What’s the most complicated tea to manufacture? Oolong tea.
15 Steps of Traditional Chinese Tea-Making
In Chinese culture, the art of tea-making had evolved and refined over thousands of years. Traditionally, Chinese tea-making had always been artisanal and hand-crafted, consisting of 15 crucial steps.
It’s worth noting that major tea-producing countries, such as Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Africa, all adopted the traditional Chinese tea-making techniques. Some of these original methods were further evolved, giving us unique teas that we all love today—the Japanese shaded Green tea is an excellent example.
Note that some of these steps do vary depending on the type of tea being produced. For example, White tea and Green tea are relatively easier to make than say Black tea or Oolong tea, and therefore some steps are unnecessary. To give you a complete picture of all the significant efforts involved, I’ve included extra steps to make Oolong tea—the most complicated tea to make. Learn more about the six types of tea here.
Tea farmers must remove the weeds and plow the field to loosen the soil, preparing for the seeds’ good growing conditions. This step ensures their roots can reach deeper for better absorption of moisture and nutrients.
Farmers divide the field into strips of plots separated by furrows. Then they dig small holes, placing three to five seeds into each hole and covering each hole with soil.
Farmers water the field twice daily, in the morning and at night, until the seeds start to root. Afterward, the seedlings are to be watered every couple of days just to keep the soil moist.
Tea picking happens during the spring. Plucking is done by pinching the plant between the thumb and the index finger. The higher the grade, the fewer the leaves beneath the bud are plucked. For example, for ultra-fine tea, only the bud is plucked.
The more leaves below the bud, the lower the grade of tea. There are usually up to five leaves.
Depending on the growing districts, there are multiple pickings. For example, first picking, or the first flush makes the finest tea as tea pickers pluck only the bud. Then it moves downward in second picking or second flush, etc.
Tea pickers remove all the impurities, such as withered, yellow leaves, and stalks, keeping only the tender leaves and buds. Young girls and women traditionally take up this job.
Workers spread out the leaves for natural drying. This step removes moisture while activating the leaves’ enzymes to stimulate the chemical reaction to produce tea juice.
- Shake Green
Shake Green is an extra step in Oolong tea-making. The shaking motion bruises the leaves’ edges, triggering fermentation.
Shake Green is what gives Wuyi Rock tea, or Wuyi Oolong tea, its signature element known as “green leaves, red edges.”
We captured this critical step on camera for the film 9 DRAGONS TEA. Tea’s sweet scent filled the entire chamber during the Shake Green process. What a delightful moment that was.
- Stir Green or Kill Green
Tea master stir-fries the tea leaves in a large wok. This process deactivates the enzymes to cause oxidation, thereby preserving the leaves’ green color. It also brings out tea’s natural aromas.
Also known as Stir-Green, or Kill Green, this is a defining moment for tea-masters. When to start Stir Green or how long to pan-fry the tea leaves? These are the things that make a “Shifu” or “master” in Chinese.
- Kneading or Rolling
Rolling the withered tea leaves breaks down the cellular structures within the leaves, causing fermentation. The constant pressing and twisting action gather the tea juice onto the surface of the leaves. When done well, this is what gives the tea its integrity in taste and flavor profile.
This step is crucial in Oolong tea-making. In Wuyi Oolong, this action turns the leaves into thinly twisted form, giving rise to the name “Wu Nong”, meaning “black dragon” in Chinese. No surprises there, as the Chinese are really into dragons.
The tightly twisted tea leaves are placed in bamboo containers sitting atop an oven. The room is temperature-controlled. Tea masters toss the tea leaves inside the bamboo box until they are dried.
Using bamboo sieves, workers sift tea leaves to remove dust and other impurities.
Workers pack the well-prepared tea leaves into bamboo baskets for sellers in town.
Traditionally, tea is transported by river from the growing regions to the sellers in towns or cities. In China’s ancient days, bamboo rafts were the go-to choice for transportation. There, farmers and agents made tea deals to sell the tea.
Tea merchants arrange to transport tea barrels to the warehouse for repackaging and exporting to various European countries.
Workers load the tea chests onto the ships for exporting to European countries.
As you can see, a simple cup of tea takes a lot of hard work. In the 18th century, tea took about 12 months to arrive from China to the West via tea clippers, also known as “East Indiaman” or tea wagons. Tea traveled a very long journey.
“Next time you have a cup of tea, cherish each sip.”
Tea for your thought: If you find anything in this article that’s interesting, please do share. We’d love to hear your thoughts as this will help guide us in writing future articles.
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