How is Tea Fermented?

by on Thursday, March 22, 2018 8:56:00 AM

We love having the pleasure to sit down with people and talk about the processing of tea. It’s part of our passion and it also makes a tea drinking experience feel authentic when you have the chance to learn why the tea you're drinking tastes the way it does.

Our Tangerine Blossom Red Tea is one of our most popular teas in our shop and it gets a lot of attention. While sampling this tea we explain how our red tea is a fully fermented white tea leaf. That simple sentence alone provokes a lot of questions. How do you ferment tea? What does the fermentation process do to the leaf? First, let us start off with saying a lot of beverages consumed everyday are fermented to promote a unique flavor and potential health benefits. Those beverages include and are not limited to beer, wine, cider, mead, and even tea. One process of fermentation does not always work with all beverages. For example, the fermentation process in craft beers is not the same as the fermentation (oxidation) process for tea. Here we will break down tea, and the fermentation process.

Tea is fermented/oxidized by using a hot, humid environment. The tea leaves are spread on bamboo racks to wither for a few hours immediately after they are harvested. When they become soft enough, they are rolled and placed in a cloth-lined bamboo basket. The baskets are taken into a small room, at the center of which is a charcoal stove and a pot of simmering mountain spring water. This arrangement maintains a hot and humid environment in which the leaves can ferment/oxidize for several hours. During this time, the tea is periodically sampled to observe the color and flavor change, as the day’s weather may affect the pace of the process. The colors change all the way from light green to yellow, brown, and finally red. Once the tea has reached the proper state, it is removed and gently shaken, and then spread on the bamboo racks to cool and rest for a few hours. Our tea leaves are then finished over fir and fruit tree charcoal at a medium/high temperature. This slow process maintains the integrity of the young leaves, while the nearly odorless flames from the sweet woods impart a clean aroma. We are one of the few producers left in the region that still uses a traditional charcoal oven to cure teas. Most farmers have switched to electric or gas powered processing factories to save time and money, though many will finish small batches for their own collections over charcoal. For us, the clean taste of the tea and the sustainable management of the land are worth the expense.

We have a few teas in our shop that we ferment/oxidize. All of our Red Teas like Bai-Lin Kung-Fu, Tangerine Blossom and Golden Needle are fully fermented tea leaves. Meaning they have fully absorbed the extra oxygen created in the air through the humidity and heat. Also, the abundance of heat and moisture in the air has promoted good bacteria growth aiding the fermentation/oxidation and creating the unique flavor we hope to achieve. Also our Wu-Long Teas are slightly fermented. Meaning they go through almost the exact same processing as the Red Teas only we slightly process the leaves until they reach about 30-40% fermented/oxidized. These teas are very special and unique and they are great examples of tea culture.

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