What makes tea, tea? Have you wondered how it transitions from leaf to cup to giving you one of the most cherishable experiences that is filled with aroma and flavor that remains unique with every sip and with every tea.

Not all tea go through the same process and that’s one of the very basics that set them apart from one another. White tea leaves and green tea leaves remain unoxidised leaving them subtle yet delicious, while black teas are oxidised to create that distinct and powerful flavor. On the other hand, orthodox teas are rolled and CTC (base of your chai tea) is crushed. However, there are a few crucial steps that remain common to teas across categories – plucking, withering, oxidation or fermentation, fixation, rolling and drying.


The art of plucking leaves is rooted in tradition. Tea leaves are plucked during specific harvest periods alone and high quality teas are handpicked by tea pluckers. They are naturally gifted with picking those unopened buds and two leaves that are the most flavorful and rich. The plucker gently finds the shot and plucks the leaves using the thumb and index finger, with one swift motion. Quick, gentle and precise if key. This selection requires a human touch however the same is not required when it comes to plucking broader leaves. Plucking of broader leaves, in today’s technologically advanced world, is mostly done by machines. 

Plucking during the spring harvest or the First Flush in Darjeeling.
Plucking during the spring harvest or the First Flush in Darjeeling.


Once the tea leaves are plucked they are withered. Withering is done by allowing the leaves to dry in air (if it’s not humid) or using a mix of dry and normal air. They are spread in long beds that allow them to dry. 

The enzymes present in tea leaves react quickly with oxygen, resulting in their wilting. During this stage, the leaves lose much of their weight, up to 35 per cent for CTC and as high as 60-70 per cent for Darjeeling and Assam orthodox.  


Oxidation or Fermentation

During oxidation, chlorophyll is broken down to release tannins, similar to the browning of bananas, apples and other foods. For tea, this process takes place in a humidity and temperature controlled room. 

Oxidation is stopped at varying times, depending on the type of tea being produced. Only black teas are 100% oxidized while white teas don’t undergo this process.


This is the process of arresting or controlling the oxidation in tea leaves, particularly for green, white and Oolong teas. It’s done by mildly heating the tea leaves to deactivate the enzymes, without damaging the leaves. 


A rolling machine - this one's almost as old as the tea industry in Darjeeling.
A rolling machine – this one’s almost as old as the tea industry in Darjeeling.

The damp, fixed leaves are now shaped into long twirls through rolling – either by hand or machines. In the CTC method, the leaves are fed into large machines where they are crushed, torn and curled to break them.


[bctt tweet=”White and green teas are not oxidized. And while orthodox teas are rolled, CTC are crushed.”]



The final step of processing involves preparing the tea leaves for sale. The rolled leaves are dried in a fuel-operated dryer for panning or baking. Artisan teas like silver needle or white teas are sometimes sun dried.  


Tea leaves drying in the sun.
Tea leaves drying in the sun.

The teas are now sorted, packed and ready to be consumed.

With inputs from Balaji Sharma and Ravi Kothari from the Teabox Procurement team.

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  1. Mary Murtagh Reply

    Informative and fascinating with beautiful photos.
    Thank you,

  2. Pingback: From Bush to Cup: The Logistics of Tea - Tea Stories | Best Tea Blog | Still Steeping - The Teabox Blog

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