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Tea harvesting is the most delicate stage in tea processing. At KTIL, It is done all year round in the fields that are ready for harvesting at the time. The rotational harvesting allows for tea bushes to replenish its leaves for the next cycle of harvesting. When harvesting tea, pluckers harvest the leaves diligently to avoid damage. KTIL tea is exclusively harvested by hand.
Withering is the first industrial process in the manufacture of tea. During the stage, tea markers prepare the tea leaves for processing. This is done by softening the tea leaves and expelling the excess water in the leaves. Harvested tea leaves contain between 74-83% of water which withering lowers down to around 70%.
After lowering water content in the tea leaves, the leaves become flaccid which makes it easier to twist and curl them. Withering is a very delicate process in tea processing which tea makers describe its effect as one that “makes or mars the tea”. Since water content in leaves vary with different seasons, a tea maker must set the appropriate withering levels to ensure the production of high-quality tea. To control the withering level, a tea maker usually adjusts the withering to a range of 3 hours- 18 hours.
Disruption is the third stage in the processing of tea. The western culture normally refers it as leaf maceration. During the process, tea leaves are bruised to enhance and promote oxidation. The tea leaves are passed through the rolling process to rupture their cell walls.
When the cell walls are ruptured, they come in contact with oxygen which allows them to mix with enzymes and chemical constituents. This process results in the production of important constituents that determine the tea flavor. These enzymes also trigger the oxidation process and also influence the tea taste profile.
Oxidation is a chemical reaction that involves oxygen. During tea processing oxidation leads to the browning of tea leaves, creation, and unlocking of new compounds. During tea leaves oxidation, leaves are left in a climate-controlled room where they turn darker. The process is accompanied by agitation, that is, the breaking down of chlorophyll in leaves to release tannins. The process is sometimes known as fermentation.
To stop the oxidation process at a required level, the tea leaf is heated. When heat is applied to a leaf, it denatures its enzymes which stops further oxidation. In tea processing, a tea maker moderately heats the tea leaf to maintain its flavor while also removing unwanted scents in the leaf.
The fixation process applies to all tea types expect black tea as the drying process halts oxidation in the tea. Fixations are sometimes known as kill green; however, the process also protects the remaining green color in the tea leaves.
Yellowing is unique to yellow teas; it’s a process where warm and damp tea leaves are lightly heated in a closed container which turns the green leaves to yellow. The process results in a yellowish-green beverage due to changes in the leaf chlorophyll. After yellowing for 6-8 hours, at about 37°C, polyphenols and amino acids in the leaves go through chemical changes to produce a mellow taste and distinct tea briskness.
The damp tea leaves are rolled to form wrinkled strips using a rolling machine which makes the tea to wrap around itself. The rolling action also causes some of the essential oils, juices, and saps inside the leaves to ooze out; this action enhances the taste of the tea. The strips of tea can then be modified to other shapes such as spirals, pellets, balls, cones and other shapes. During oolong tea preparation, the rolled strips of tea are usually rerolled to form spheres or half-spheres. This is made possible by placing the damp tea leaves in large cloth bags and knead them in a specific manner by hand or machine.
Drying is the second last stage in tea processing. The process is vital for “finishing” the tea for market sale. Drying is possible through a myriad of ways such as baking, sunning, panning or air drying. Baking is the most common method and great care must be observed to avoid overcooking the tea leaves. Drying is an integral process in many types of tea such as green tea as its responsible for its new flavor compounds.
Though not necessary in most cases, the aging process improves the drinking potential of the tea. Some teas require additional curing and secondary fermentation to produce their best flavors. For instance, green tea has a bitter and harsh taste before curing. After aging, its taste changes to sweet and mellow. During this stage, tea makers produce flavored teas by spraying them with aromas and flavors.
Tea sorting is the final stage in tea processing. The process is vital especially in removing physical impurities such as seeds and stems.