Tag Archives: Tea bag

Photo of Rolled Tea Pearls

Tea Bags vs Tea Leaves Part 2: Orthodox Tea

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.

Rolling Tea By Hand

Hand Rolling Tea by flickr user spinster cardigan, CC BY 2.0

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.

Photo of Rolled Dragon Pearls

Dragon Pearls

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.

Mechanical Tea Rolling Machine

Tea Rolling Table by flickr user oldandsolo, CC BY 2.0

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.

Happy Holidays!
David & Hillary

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Tea Bags vs Tea Leaves Part 1: CTC Tea

There are two basic ways in which tea is manufactured for the global market, CTC and Orthodox. The process results in very different end products serving dramatically different needs. CTC tea manufacturing produces small bits of tea leaves that are typically found in tea bags while orthodox manufacturing provides a product with larger tea leaf parts on up to whole leaf. In Part 1 we will look in more detail at CTC tea manufacturing, the product derived from this method, and the consumer products that result. When we get to Part 2 we will examine Orthodox manufacturing methods and the resulting products.

CTC Tea Processing

Tea Processing – Flicker by Swaminthan – CC BY 2.0

CTC Tea Explained

CTC tea is defined as “Crush Tear Curl” and is a manufacturing method developed by William McKercher in 1931. By one account McKercher developed this method as a way of producing greater quantities of black tea using more mature, larger leaves which, when prepared with milk and sugar could appeal to a broader market (Srivastava, 2011). Regardless, CTC manufacturing spread widely between the 1950’s and 1970’s as teabags gained popularity.

CTC machines themselves are made up of large steel cylinders, manufactured with U or V shaped teeth in them, placed tightly together and turning at different rates of speed. After withering, tea is often pre-processed with a rotorvane, a machine that takes tea from a hopper and causes some initial tearing and crushing of the leaf before passing it along to the CTC machines. The tea is then crushed, torn, and twisted in passing between the steel cylinders of the CTC machine before falling onto a conveyor belt and moving along to another set of CTC rollers. This process can be repeated several times depending on the desired size of the finished product before finally moving along to be fired.



Finished product ranges in size substantially but is generally small pieces of tea leaf down to dust particles which are then rolled into small balls or pellets. The goal with CTC is generally a black tea product that oxidizes quickly and can be reliably produced with uniform size. CTC manufacturing really took off with the introduction of tea bags, thus it is not surprising today that the product of CTC manufacture is primarily for this market. Today CTC tea accounts for about 80% of the market for tea and is a significant part of production in most countries of the world. This probably should not be surprising since much of the word drinks black tea and CTC is synonymous with production of most black teas.

CTC Tea and Quality Tea

A quick word on quality. CTC tea is a very different product from that of Orthodox manufactured teas. The focus for CTC is much more on high volume, large scale tea production with faster oxidation of the product, and consistent taste and liquor appearance. The goal is normally consistent product such that buyers know what to expect with every purchase. The goal with Orthodox production is often very different where the aesthetics of the finished product is important, a wider variety of taste and aroma is desired, and in many cases it’s acceptable or desired to have product which varies from season to season. Therefore, it would really be unfair to hold Orthodox tea products up as “higher quality”. It’s more a question of what the buyer is looking for and if they wish to have greater opportunities to explore variations in tea or if they are just looking for a consistent cup of tea each and every day.

What is your preference, CTC, Orthodox, or does it matter as long as it tastes good?

Follow me @DominionTea or @DavidSColey

Works Cited

Srivastava, D. (2011, September 23). Methods of Basic Research: Issues of Ethics and Plagiarism, http://www.vecc.gov.in/colloquium/dks_lecture.pdf. Kolkata, India.


Tea Harvesting

Woman Plucking Tea in Assam India

Tea Plucker in Assam by Diganta Talukdar CC-BY-2.0

For centuries the only way to harvest tea leaves was to hand pluck them, and in many countries that is still the primary means of harvest.  This may be intentional or may be due to the lack of capital necessary to purchase the equipment.  For those farms who chose to use modern agricultural equipment there are multiple options from which to choose that can be implemented at various points in the harvesting season.  For example, in Japan, some farmers choose to hand pluck the first flush of a season and use mechanical means for subsequent harvests.

Tea does have a harvesting season, though the length and number of flushes varies widely. In China it is typically in the spring and fall. As mentioned in our earlier blog Camellia Sinensis, season is effected by water, location and temperature.  During a harvesting season the tea is usually picked once every week to two weeks.  In places where harvesting can occur year round, during the peak season, the tea can be picked multiple times during a week.

As you can imagine plucking tea by hand is very labor intensive work where typically, the bud and first two leaves are plucked.  In regions of China, on top of plucking the tea leaves, the pluckers are hiking up and down mountainous terrain to get to the leaves.  In some of the oldest farms, the pluckers are also climbing into the old ungroomed tea trees to pluck.   Pluckers will carry some kind of means to collect leaves as they pluck, often a bag or bamboo basket.  They will add leaves as they pluck and when full they carry their harvest back to the farm before returning to the fields to keep plucking.  In many countries women make up the predominant portion of the plucking workforce.  In China, this is driven by the belief that women have just the right touch in plucking leaves, not leaving the tea tree brushed or damaged at the breaking point.  This is extremely important for future harvests, because the tea tree will not continue to produce leaves on a branch where it is bruised or damaged.

Tea Harvesting by Machine in Japan

Tea Harvesting by Machine by Oli Studholme CC-BY-2.0

Knowing that the tea tree is sensitive to where the plucking occurs, it is hard to imagine how big farm trackers or automatic pruners could to the same job.  However, the Japanese have implemented laser technology to allow their automatic pruning machines to be hand-pulled over the tea trees with cuttings sucked into either bags or shoots that go back to the main staging area for the plucked tea.  This laser guidance allows the pruners to cut at just the right place and angle so the tree continues to grow from the same branch.  Since oxidation begins immediately after harvest it is critical, especially for green tea, to start the manufacturing process as soon as possible and this system allows much faster transport of leaves to processing facilities.  I imagine that other countries, like Sri Lanka, which are experiencing labor shortages on their tea farms as younger generations leave the farm for jobs in the cities, will eventually turn to this technology to allow harvesting to continue.

While many countries still utilize substantial labor to harvest tea, Argentina plantations almost exclusively use large elevated tractors that drive above the tea trees to harvest tea leaves.  Machine harvested leaves don’t usually have the bud and two leaf combination but individual leaves instead, some with and some without stems.  Given that the plantations in Argentina are able to harvest year round, it is not a surprise that they use equipment.

Mechanically harvested tea is not always destined to tea bags.  Quality loose leaf tea can be harvested by machine, you will just not see a bud and two leaves in the tea.  Instead you will find single leaves and buds and in some cases no stems on the leaves with an almost perfectly straight edge at the base of the leaf.  As for whether plucking by hand or machine effects the quality of the end product, it is hard to imagine that it does.  Of course, I am just an American that is accustomed to John Deere tractors harvesting everything from oranges to wheat, so why not tea?

by Hillary Coley

Follow me on Twitter @HillaryColey or @DominionTea