Plucking tea leaves
The growing season of Camellia lasts five times a year, from April to December. The plucking passes approximately every 50-60 days, at high altitudes it takes just four times. The spring crop has obtained from late March to early May, the summer crop – from late June to early August, the autumn crop – from late September to early November, the winter crop – from late December to early February. Picking is done by hand exceptionally, often in hard-to-reach mountain plantations. For oolongs, winter harvest is usually best, though highland farmers believe spring harvest is the best. Spring harvest and autumn harvest are good. Tea picked in summer season use for making cold bottled drinks, fruit mixes, flavoured teas. But for a black tea, the summer season exactly gives the highest quality raw.
As well in summer only, the teas are produced, oxidation of which is started by green-leaf hoppers. For some varieties second and third leaves are picked, for other varieties flushes (young shoots) of 2-4 leaves are picked. Buds are either cut off or left to grow. The entire plucking takes 10-15 days, upwards to a plantation, because there is hotter below. From one plant the leaves picked only once in a season. The day of pickers begins at 5:30 in the morning. The process of picking goes in 3 sets per day for four hours each and there is an intermission for two hours between sets. The best age of tea plant is 4-10 (sometimes up to 15) years. Plants under 4 years pickers don’t disturb.
After picking there is the wilting process under the Sun, and that is the start of oxidation. Tea is spread evenly under the direct rays of the morning Sun, whereby moisture reduced, active chlorophyll degraded, a grassy flavour faded away, essential oils exuded, and the process of oxidation and the interaction of substances begins.
Tea leaves lost their bright green colour, so that moment was called “Sha-qing” (“Kill-green”). For the specific microclimate a drying plot is periodically covered, and its side walls are curtained by the net, which protects from direct sunlight. There is continuous careful moisture and temperature control.
Indoor drying and clearing
The next stage is the indoor wilting. This process also called “Return-green”, because tea leaves recovered their green colour when they have been drying out. During such withering excess moisture removed out from tea leaves and inside them the oxidation process has been increasing. The leaves become soft and malleable for further processing.
Then tea leaves are cleared from debris and rot.
Then the very important process of oxidation (fermentation) of tea leaves begins. It occurs in special trays with heating, and, usually, lasts 2-4 hours. The Tea Master should be on duty constantly to check the process. He estimates the appearance and the flavour of tea leaves. Occasionally, he gives a command to turn over a certain tray, so that tea leaves may breathe and cool down a little. And the Tea Maters exclusively decides when to finish the process.
Baking and bruising
After that there is the roasting in a rolling drum, when it is heated to 300-400°C to stop the oxidation process. The Tea Master executes the personal control for the process, because the flavour of the tea is laid just here, which will disclose in future tea drinking.
Then the tea is bruised within a few seconds. While bruising, the cell membranes inside leaves are broken and the leaf juices release. The middle way is very important, because if not to crush tea enough, the juice will not release, and if to crush tea strongly, you may break the leaf. However, in high mountain areas this stage is ignored, due to the particularity of tea leaf, and they go directly to the rolling.
For oolong teas, the rolling is especially important process. There is a difference between ball and strip types of rolling. Such division has been associated with the history of the emergence of the tea in Taiwan from the Mainland China. The tradition, which was brought in central regions of the island by refugees from Anxi, developed the leaf shape that was tightly rolled to a sphere. The same tradition of Wuyi Shan and Guangdong’s people, which manifested itself in the North of the island, maintained the leaf shape in a long thin wrinkled strip. In high mountain areas the ball rolling is used mainly.
The rolling stage is much laborious, it consists of the three steps: first is the rolling itself in large cloth bags and ramming (which especially important to high-grown teas), then there is unpacking and decompression of tea leaves, and finally there is throwing for a few seconds into a drum for kneading (“leaf opening”). After that the whole cycle is repeated from the start. Consequently, there are 40-60 complete cycles of rolling actions.
Sorting and final drying
Further processes are drying, cutting the leaf stem, clearing from debris, and drying again. As a result, we have so called the half-maked tea. High mountain technology doesn’t use further baking, to preserve the original taste of tea, so that tea remains “half-maked”. In total, the manufacturing of one tea batch entirely takes about 36 hours continuously.
At lowland farms there is additional tea baking in the ovens. This is once again related to the feature of tea leaf.