Tea leaves are plucked at specific times of the year. For higher quality, only the unopened bud and two leaves are plucked as these are the most flavorful. The plucker grasps the shoot with the index finger and thumb and yanks the leaves and bud. For lower quality teas, broader leaves are plucked and machines can be used.
Withering is done by allowing the leaves to dry in normal air (if it’s not humid) or using a mix of dry and normal air. The enzymes present in tea leaves react quickly with oxygen, resulting in their wilting. During this stage, the leaves lose much of their weight.
Oxidation or Fermentation
During oxidation, chlorophyll in the leaves is broken down to release tannins, similar to the browning of bananas, apples and other foods. Oxidation is stopped at varying times, depending on the type of tea being produced. Only black teas are 100% oxidized (white tea doesn’t undergo this process at all).
This is the process of arresting the oxidation in tea leaves. It’s done by mildly heating the tea leaves to deactivate the enzymes, without damaging the leaves.
The damp, fixed leaves are now shaped into long twirls through rolling – either by hand or machines. In the CTC method, the leaves are fed into large machines where they crushed, torn and curled to break them.
The final step of processing involves preparing the tea leaves for sale. The rolled leaves are dried in a fuel-operated drier for panning or baking. Artisan teas like silver needle or white teas are sometimes sun dried.