The Art of Oolong Tea Making

by All Day Tea Club

The art of Oolong Tea making.


In the last blog post where we explored “what exactly is oolong tea?” We learned that the difference between Oolong tea and other non herbal / floral tea (Camellia Sinensis) is the level of oxidation in the tea leaves. We will be exploring more of the Oolong Tea making process and showing you why it's so special.

Aside from the production of the tea, the maintenance aspect of the tea plantation is extremely crucial, and can often be underestimated. Tea farmers are constantly studying, experimenting, and managing different things, such as soil type, acidity, humidity levels, fertilizer types etc. 


Since it requires a lot of specialized knowledge to produce the best tea leaves, tea farmers are often not the same as tea makers. Both require very particular mastery in their craft and this division of labor is exactly what makes the tea we drink so unique. 

 

A tea making artisan will make frequent visits to the tea plantations for closeup observations during harvesting season, though each season has its difference and unique properties but one thing in common is that for making the best oolong tea; the optimal timeframe for harvest is often times down to a day or two, and quite commonly down to the hour as well. A tea harvested during the morning period could end up producing an entirely different taste note compared to the same batch of tea that’s harvested in the afternoon instead.

Ultimately, the art of oolong tea making is the balance between oxidation level and the tea leaves’ humidity level, and the difference from a novice tea maker to a master is their ability to “read” the leaves.



Typically the process of oolong tea making consists of up to 9 steps, some specialty ones could even range up to 13 steps. We will share the fundamental 9 steps with you in the following:


  1. Harvesting
Step one, picking the tea leaves, the simplest and most crucial part of the procedure. The timing of the actual harvest often could affect the final result greatly, since the moment the leaves are picked from the tea plant, its physical and chemical properties begin to change immediately (oxidation). 

     

    1. Withering
    Withering is the process when tea makers allow the tea leaves to simply lay under the sunshade with good ventilation so that the water content of the leaves can gradually evaporate and reduce from 80% down to 70-65%. With reduced water content the naturally existing enzymes will start to oxidize. For consistency purposes many larger tea producers will allow their batch of leaves to wither a second time in a controlled room, with delicate humidity and temperature controls.


      1. Tossing
      After initial withering, the leaves will be gently tossed to induce some breakage within the cell walls of the leaves which enhances the release of the Catechins, Polyphenol oxidase, and Peroxidase. The intensity of the toss will dictate the initial levels of oxidation, this is when the tea maker can start to shape the taste of the tea. 


        1. & 5. Fixation & Rolling
        The procedure of fixation and rolling is an intertwining process, where rotation between the two happens multiple times until the desired taste is achieved. The leaves are rolled - which breaks down the cells of the leaves and allows them to further oxidize. Meanwhile, the enzymes are baked under high heat for some “caramelization” which provides sweet notes in the taste.


          By the end of this phase, the tea leaves have generally reached a desired water content, and initial levels of oxidation are set with the tone and taste notes of the tea are predominantly decided. 

          The repetitive heat treatment will gradually seal and lock up the state of the tea, preventing it from further oxidation.

           

          1. Cloth rolling and shaping
          After the heat treatment, the leaves are being rolled again. Oolong tea leaves are usually rolled into small balls inside a large cotton cloth which will absorb all excess humidity as well as some of the bitter tasting liquid.

            1. De-stem
              By now the oolong tea leaves are rolled into small ball shapes that one can observe within our tea bags. At this phase the tea maker will be able to pick out the undesired stems of the tea plant. De-stemming is an important procedure to the finishing of the tea due to stems not being very flavourful when brewed, and sometimes could even produce undesired taste.

             

            1. Roasting
              The roasting process here is different to the heat treatment during the fixation process. The main function  of roasting is to further secure the tasting notes, and final reduction of humidity to prepare the leaves for storage.

            1. Special characteristic roast
            This procedure is for the tea maker to introduce heavier caramelization of smoky/wood flavours into the tea. Some prominent examples would be the Iron goddess oolong or the Tungting oolong - which have a distinctive taste and slightly heavier tasting notes in comparison to something like the Four Seasons, or High Mountain oolong.

               

              So there we have it, these are some of the fundamental processes of oolong tea making. In each of the processes mentioned above there are no standard procedures, there are no recipes to follow, as each batch of tea, each day, each season can be different. A true tea making master is one that can “read” the characteristics of the harvested tea and work with it effectively, bringing out the best flavour there is...

              That’s it from us for now! Thank you for reading and spending your time with us; go and have yourself a cup of tea!

              Much love,
              All Day Tea Club.