Tea and the Fermentation Process

by on Monday, February 8, 2016 6:30:00 PM

We love having the pleasure of sitting down with our customers to talk about how tea is processed and crafted into the beautiful leaf that unfolds in your cup. It is 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 are drinking tastes that way it does. One of our most popular teas in the store is the Tangerine Blossom Red Tea, and while we are sampling this tea we explain that the tea is a fully fermented leaf. This provokes a lot of questions, such as "How do you ferment tea" and "What does the fermentation process do to the tea leaf?"

First, let us start by saying that a lot of beverages consumed everyday are fermented to promote a unique flavor and potential health benefits. Those beverages include, but are not limited to, beer, wine, cider, kombucha, 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 break down tea and the fermentation process.

Tea is fermented/oxidized within a hot/humid environment. The tea leaves are spread on bamboo racks to wither for a 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 over 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 ourred teas like Bai-Lin Kung Fu, Tangerine Blossom, and Golden Needle are fully fermented tea leaves. 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, because they go through the same processing as the red teas only we slightly process the leaves until they are 30-40% fermented/oxidized. These teas are very special and unique, and they are great examples of tea culture.

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