Oolong tea is one of the most widely consumed types of tea in the world. In Japan alone, more than 11,000 tons of oolong tea was consumed in 2017. Whether it’s due to the belief in the numerous health benefits from an abundance of antioxidants, some which sound too good to be true, or the refreshing taste and aroma of the beverage, it seems to be quite a popular drink.
However, despite this popularity, very few know the process that goes into manufacturing the tea that so many of us consume and enjoy. It takes a great degree of skill and patience to make the right oolong tea and this article will walk you through the steps.
So without further ado, let’s go!
Once the crop is ready, farmers harvest the leaves from the oolong tea plant and leave them out in the sunlight to begin the first step of the manufacturing process. This is called withering, and it removes excess moisture from the leaves. Sometimes this part of the process is pushed along with the use of specially made handcrafted baskets in which farmers shake the leaves around. Withering is what starts the oxidation of the tea leaves, which makes its chemical structure more suitable for usage as tea.
While it may sound simple, a great deal of thought goes into the process as a number of factors have to be taken into account including temperature, humidity, light intensity, and wind direction. In fact, if the leaves dry up too much then farmers might even lose out on the entire harvest as the leaves will no longer be suitable for immersion in water and consumption.
After withering, the leaves are “fixed” by putting them through heat. Fixing halts the oxidation process as the heat kills the enzymes responsible for the oxidation mechanism. This part of the manufacturing process is where tea makers start to build the signature taste of oolong that so many of us love.
Rolling gives shape to the leaves so that it appears more presentable and is more practical for usage as tea. If left in long strands, consumers would have more difficulty in steeping and the mess it would cause would make the entire exercise quite cumbersome. Rolling also lightly bruises the leaves which help further build the flavor profile of the tea by bringing out the essential oils from inside of the tea leaves on to the outside.
The leaves are left to dry after rolling. The repeated attempts at drying throughout the process are due to the fact that any and all excess moisture needs to be removed from the tea leaves. If any excess moisture remains, then the shelf life of the tea will be significantly reduced.
After the rolling is complete and the leaves are dried, the final stage of the process can begin. Aptly named as ‘sorting’, all the leaves are sorted out into different varieties for final packaging and distribution. You have loose leaf oolong, ground leaves, and finally, long strand leaves. The tea is then further sorted into different quality levels, depending on which country or vendor the tea is to be dispatched to.