We recently began offering our customers the chance to order some of our white and green teas ahead of the harvest (shipments expected to go out starting in early May and late May respectively) with a great goal in mind: assuring that you get the freshest versions of these teas possible. There are advantages to getting that freshness, as we mentioned in this article and this one here on the blog. But quite frankly there are some teas where fresh is not the best. See details below.
How Fresh is Fresh?
Fresh, when it comes to tea, isn’t like walking out to your garden patch and picking those pole beans and taking a bite. From the time that bud, or leaf set, or full leaf is plucked from the tea bush to the time it ends up steeping in your gaiwan, teapot, or even steeping glass, weeks and even months could have passed. The steps needed to process tea will vary in type and complexity, and therefore time needed. Doing the various steps by hand versus a machine can also make the time much longer. White teas are very generally speaking the shortest since the fewest steps are required. Green teas are next since they are withered, rolled, and then dried. Oolongs need some oxidation, and black teas (what the Asians call “red tea”) need to be fully oxidized. The leaves can take hours or even days to fully wither (one site claims 16-20 hours as a general rule, but there is a lot of variation based on the tea leaves). The rolling needed to start oxidation can take an hour or so, the oxidation can go for 90 minutes or longer, and then the drying can take hours over a hot wok or in an oven or even by spreading out bamboo trays in the sunlight (or for some teas the moonlight). The finished tea has to be packaged, and this can vary from small packages of several kilos to larger packages that go to a distributor who breaks it down into smaller containers. Shipping times have to be taken into account, too.
Some Teas that Need a Lot of Processing Time
Oolongs can be very labor intensive, including a tight control over the oxidation process and when the right moment has arrived to stop it. It starts with the withering and then goes to the bruising stage. Wuyi Rock tea can take up to 10 hours to bruise properly to remove more moisture and that grassy character and to allow the right amount of oxidation. Then, the leaves have to be dried, with various methods used according to the type of oolong being produced and the tea master doing the processing. A large wok is one possibility, but so are large ovens that still require a careful and experienced eye to keep the tea leaves from getting burnt. Then comes rolling and shaping, often by hand, then heating, then more rolling and shaping – actually, this process can go back and forth several times before the proper result is achieved. Then baking: first Maohong (a fast bake in high heat for a short time to remove more moisture and stabilize the chemistry in the leaves as well as fixing the final shape), then Zhuhong (a low heat applied for a longer time period lasting as much as 7 hours for such classics as the Wu Yi Rock previously mentioned). Then there is a final sort before cooling and packaging.
Black teas have to be fully oxidized, so they need to sit long enough for that to happen, with the leaves being stirred occasionally to keep the process even through the batch (often laid out in a long, shallow, narrow trough) – this process can add a few hours to the processing time (starting with the withering). Post-fermented teas (the majority known to most tea drinkers are pu-erhs) are another category, and they can need aging for years just to be palatable.
Some Teas that Need Aging
Tea can teach us patience. Waiting for the tea plants to come out of their Winter dormancy and put forth that new flush. Waiting for the tea harvesters to do their part and the tea processors to do theirs. Waiting for the tea to get to you, either directly or through your favorite tea vendor. But pu-erh is a tea that requires an even higher degree of patience, with a wonderful reward in terms of superior aroma and flavor at the end. Ripe and raw pu-erhs both benefit from some aging. Some experts say about five years for the raw and a year for the ripe (although some claim it is drinkable immediately due to the “cooking” process that mimics natural aging). You can buy these teas very young and then store them safely at home, office, or elsewhere. Or you can buy ones that have been properly aged by reputable tea factories or dealers. Either way, you will definitely benefit by these teas not being fresh.