Last week we looked at CTC Tea manufacturing. This week look at the other major method of tea production, Orthodox. While the CTC manufacturing process is primarily focused on black tea production, the orthodox manufacturing process is used to produce a much wider variety of teas including white, yellow, and oolong as well as green and black teas. Orthodox tea production varies substantially in the actual steps used but generally features hand rolling of tea or use of a machine which mimics the hand rolling process. It does not seek to cut and tear the tea leaves into small particles used in teabags though smaller pieces can be a byproduct of orthodox production. Production by orthodox methods does not necessarily imply manufacturing by hand and many steps, including rolling can involve the use of machinery. Instead tea produced without a CTC machine is referred to as Orthodox.
After plucking and, depending on desired product, withering of the raw tea leaves, there is an initial firing to halt the oxidation. In the production of green tea one does not want oxidation so leaves are immediately steamed or fired. Black tea, on the other hand is fully oxidized so undergoes withering in order to start the oxidation process. The firing process may be accomplished in a variety of ways. Pan fried oxidation is traditional in China, while steaming is more traditional in Japan, however there are other methods of firing depending on region, and degree of industrialization of the tea manufacturing process.
The actual rolling process involves rolling the tea, breaking up the tea to separate the leaves, and rolling again. Very much like kneading dough for bread, this is repeated multiple times depending on the specific variety of tea being produced. Rolling tea causes the cells within the tea to rupture exposing them to air and allowing the liquids or sap within the leaves and stems to be released. This process helps to produce and enhance the flavor of the tea being produced and can take an hour or more when processed by hand.
The liquid within the tea tends to be sticky and as the tea is rolled the leaves will start to stick together. As a result a step often called roll-breaking is required to break up clumps of tea leaves before it is rolled again. Regional differences and qualities of the tea being manufactured will dictate how much the leaf is rolled and special steps necessary to form specific products like Dragon Pearls, Precious Eyebrows, or other shapes. Hand rolling tea is a specialized skill handed down within families and results in unique tea products not found in other parts of the world.
Hand rolling of tea is time consuming and labor intensive with the resulting product more of a work of art. Production of greater quantities of orthodox teas, at lower prices, is sought through the use of rolling machines. These machines consist of a round table with ribs over which the tea is pressed and rolled in an attempt to reproduce the hand rolling process. Factories can scale production of orthodox tea quickly by adding machines rather than relying on artisans who have spent years learning to roll tea.
Orthodox manufacturing can result in a tea product in a variety of grades. Indeed the processing of tea by orthodox methods can result in fine specialty teas of whole or near-whole leaf all the way down through broken leaves as well as fannings and dust. So, just as orthodox does not necessarily imply hand processed vs mechanically processed it also does not necessarily imply crafted artisan tea vs fine grades in tea bags.
At Dominion Tea we are always curious – Do you look at your brewed tea leaves? What do you see? I enjoy finding a bud and two leaves and thinking about how they can stay attached after being rolled.