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How Tea Is Made – 15 Steps of Traditional Chinese Tea-Making

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How is tea made? First, with love. The rest is work—a lot of it.
How Is Tea Made
How Is Tea Made
How is tea made? First, with love. The rest is work—a lot of it.

Today, tea is the most popular beverage around the world, second only to water. Have you ever wonder about tea’s origin and how loose leaf tea is processed?  The traditional tea-making technique was steeped in mystery ever since Europeans started drinking tea in the 1600s, but the ancient tea-making process remained a well-guarded secret until the mid-1800s.

The question: How did the Chinese tea-making secrets get out made a fascinating chapter in the film 9 DRAGONS TEA. In this article, we’ll discuss how tea began in China and the 15 major steps in traditional Chinese tea-making that fascinated Westerners for more than 300 years.

Tea’s origin

Tea originated in ancient China. Made from the amazing plant – Camellia Sinensis – tea began as a southerner’s drink. Then this beloved beverage spread to the northern regions of China, where the capital was located.

The art of Chinese tea-making has evolved over thousands of years, passing 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. Tea was an art form, a currency. Tea was infused into every aspect of Chinese culture.

Fun Facts

In the world of tea, there are six 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 from Camellia sinensis.

So what makes each cup of tea you hold different is how the tea leaves are processed. Amazing, right? Which tea is the most complex to make? Oolong tea.

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6 Types of Tea

How Tea is Made

In Chinese culture, the tea-making process has evolved and refined over thousands of years. Traditionally, Chinese tea-making had always been artisanal and hand-crafted, consisting of 15 essential 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 may 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 full picture of all the significant efforts involved, I’ve included extra steps to make Oolong tea.

15 Steps of Traditional Chinese Tea-Making

  1. Cultivating

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.

  1. Sowing

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.

  1. Irrigating

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 to keep the soil moist.

  1. Picking

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.

  1. Selecting

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.

  1. Withering

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.

Fun Facts

Withering looks from women hurt! That’s not a fun fact! But it’s true. Properly withered tea leaves HEAL. Perhaps you ought to consider offering her a warm cuppa🍵 first instead of asking what is her zodiac sign? 💘

  1. Shake Green

Shake Green is an extra step in Oolong tea-making. The shaking motion bruises the leaves’ edges, triggering fermentation.

Shake Green gives Wuyi Rock tea, or Wuyi Oolong tea, the signature “green leaves, red edges” element.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Drying

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.

  1. Sieving

Using bamboo sieves, workers sift tea leaves to remove dust and other impurities.

  1. Packing

Workers pack the well-prepared tea leaves into bamboo baskets for sellers in town.

  1. Selling

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.

  1. Packaging

Tea merchants arrange to transport tea barrels to the warehouse for repackaging and exporting to various European countries.

  1. Shipping

Workers load the tea chests onto the ships for exporting to European countries.

As you can see, a single cup of tea takes a great deal of work. In the 18th century, tea took about 12 months to arrive from China to London via tea clippers, also known as “East Indiaman” or tea wagons. Tea traveled a very long journey from China to Europe.

“So cherish each cup of tea. Cherish each sip.”

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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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About the Author

Christy Hui

Brimming with childlike ZEST. Consummate cultivator of ideas from sparks to seedlings to fruit-bearing ventures. I love pursuing worthy adventures that elevate the human spirit. 

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