On the flow of work for different tea categories

by Lydia Kung

I give here one example of the work flow for oolongs, that of making Single Trunk (dancong) teas, and it explains why I have not seen the entire process from start to finish in one sequence at one site but only witnessed various steps of the processing.

Plucking begins late morning and lasts till mid-afternoon as workers clamber onto ladders to reach the leaves. There are 3 Don’ts: no picking when it rains; no picking when dew is still on the leaves in the morning, and no picking in the evening.

Withering outdoors when (good) weather permits: about 15 minutes to half an hour. When the leaves are brought indoors, they are spread about so that the leaves are not piled but somewhat separated. Duration of indoor withering will vary, from one to two hours.

Bruising to initiate oxidation: begins around 7 pm. The leaves are tossed so that as they fall, the edges break down and oxidation can proceed. This “agitation” of the leaves may alternate between vigorous and gentler movements, and this is done about 5-6 times, depending on the desired oxidation result and on the type of tea that is being processed. The extent of oxidation for two recent arrivals, White Peach and Persimmon Blossom is about 50%, with a lower baking temperature used for finishing the latter, and this is reflected in the lighter cup color of the latter.

Fixation or de-enzyming: using gentle heat to halt the oxidation at the desired level. This usually begins in the morning of the following day.

The next steps are rolling and shaping; the kneading and using pressure to twirl the leaves into the desired shape only lasts about 15 minutes, and for dancong, the batches are small. Contrast this with the many more steps of rolling that TiKuanYin requires, which we see as tight to very compact leaves in dry form that only unfurl gradually with each infusion. The dry leaves of Single Trunk oolongs are long and open, indicating much less rolling time, yet they too yield flavorful cups through several infusions. With the final baking step, it is late afternoon on the 2nd day. The remainder of the work is to inspect the tea and hand sort for any old leaves or roots. Depending on the tea, a 2nd round of baking may be required to bring out more aroma.

In sum, in considering the flow of work in processing these various teas, we might envision time spent in the following scheme:

Green teas: from plucking to finished tea, can be accomplished in one morning or a full day. Chunmee and Gunpowder teas demand more time due to the added step of baking.

White teas: even less processed than green teas, White teas actually take longer to finish because much of the early portion of “processing” is a passive stage rather than one of active manipulation – – – letting the leaves dry naturally, with monitored air circulation, which may take up to 36 hours. Then mechanical drying follows.

Oolongs: because oxidation is introduced in the manufacturing process, time is perforce longer due to alternating periods of shaking the leaves and resting. How extensive the rolling and how many times this is done depend on the type of Oolong. Then for some teas in this category, there is post-manufacture baking with the intent of drawing out even more flavor from the leaf. Hence the consensus that oolong teas are fussy to make, with monitoring required throughout the time consuming repetitive steps.

Because oxidation for Black teas is generally less nuanced than for oolongs, the time elapsed between withering and final drying is generally shorter.

In retrospect, I put this comparative scheme together because as usual, I don’t accord jasmine teas the respect this category deserves. As I was mulling over which teas were scented first and why, I arrived at a better notion and appreciation of the time frame involved in scenting.