Tea leaves undergo various processing steps, and an important one in the drying step. It “cures” the tea for sale, that is, halts any further oxidation or moisture loss and can even add flavor to the tea. Higher curing temperature can add honeyed-like sweetness or smoky caramel to the aroma. The curing temperature is also varied depending on the tea master to allow a wide spectrum of additional flavors.There are a number of methods used for this, but here I will look at only three commonly-used ones.
The technique of baking tea leaves is the most common and was showcased recently in a presentation at the World Tea Expo by Master Huang coordinated by Thomas Shu and others. (Thomas, a tea expert from Taiwan who now lives in California, is dedicated to tea and all it’s wonders.) Baking time must also be precisely controlled. Experience and steady focus on the task at hand are needed here. White teas such as Pai Mu Tan are often baked. There are modern ovens like the one Thomas posted (shown below) that have mostly replaced traditional “cauldrons” (wicker baskets sitting atop a stone base that holds charcoal ash); these modern ovens take a lot of the guesswork out of baking, but do not totally negate the need for that expertise (which is why who does the baking matters). Leaves are baked multiple times, varying with the type of tea produced. Phoenix oolong, for example, is usually baked four times.
A review of a roasted tea was posted not too long ago by one of my Facebook buddies. It’s mostly photos and doesn’t elaborate on the roasting technique, so I’ll do that here. First a note that roastings are repeated and add layers of complexity to the tea. Aged Lishan is a great example. Sometimes roasting is part of the processing before the final drying. During that process the leaves can be handled in ways that help form the leaves into twists or other shapes. The final roasting is key. And it is gaining in attention among tea drinkers, with articles such as this one appearing about how to roast your tea at home. Technically, there seems to be little to distinguish baking and roasting. You have a wicker basket sitting on a heat source. Modern ones are electric. There are also roasters that use racks like in your kitchen oven. Ti Kuan Yin is roasted and can be light, medium, or heavy (sort of like coffee where you have different degrees of roasting). The roasting gives the dry leaves a nutty and slightly smoky aroma and a flavor that has caramel and dried fruit notes.
Frying is also known as “panning.” It is often done in a large wok over open flame with the worker stirring the leaves by hand (with or without heat resistant gloves) in certain manners to achieve a certain shape to the finished leaves. Used a lot for Chinese green teas such as Long Jing (Dragonwell) and for white teas. Again, expertise here matters. So, a Long Jing from one vendor can taste quite different from the same tea by another vendor.
Drying is an important step in processing tea leaves and can vary the flavor and aroma of the tea greatly. If you find a source that you like, stick with them. Be aware, though, that there will be natural variation due to other factors.
See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.
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