The making of Oolong is a complicated process. From picking to packaging, all the steps have to be done with 24 hours in order to produce a pot of Oolong with the best colour, aroma and taste.
Step 1: Picking
In tea crafting, only the tender leaf or the new shoot (tip) are picked. Depending on the type of tea, there are one-tip-one-leaf, one-tip-two-leaf and one-tip-three leaf, three options. The quality of the tea depends on the condition of the picked leaves. It is most important in tea crafting that the harvested leaves are complete, without damage. This is the main reason tea artisan still prefers hand-picking over machine harvest.
Step 2: Wilting
Freshly picked leaves are spread out on bamboo trays and left to dry under the sun or in hot air drying machine. In this first drying stage, water in the leaf is lost and fermentation starts. The leaves start to darken in colour and become softer.
Next, the leaf is moved indoor for second stage drying. Here, artisan gently mixes the leaves in the bamboo tray back and forth, making them rub against each other, to enhance the fermentation process.
Step 3: Fermentation
Fermentation determines the taste of tea. When leaves lose its water too fast before fermentation can take place properly, the tea will be tasteless. Likewise, when leaves dry too slow, the tea will taste bitter.
The skill of the artisan in mixing the leaves in stage 2 is crucial. He needs to be sure all the leaves are mixed to only break their edges for proper fermentation to take place. However, not too hard that breaks the middle of the leaf, which will affect the taste, too.
Step 4: Stop Fermentation
The fermentation is stopped when it reached desired percentage. Artisan stop fermentation by roasting or steaming the leaves. The high temperature will break the enzyme in the leaves, and the fermentation is stopped. During this termination process, the leaves lose the unpleasant fermenting oder and start developing the pleasant aroma of tea.
By now, the leaves have lost its rigid structure of fresh leaves, becomes soft and lightly ‘sticky’.
Step 5: Press n’ Roll
To make the content in leaves dissolves easily while steeping, they are pressed and rolled in this step. The loose leaves curl and bind together, and covered in the squeezed out content from the leaves.
The amount of press and roll varies from tea to tea. For teas require more pressing and rolling, leaves are round up in the cotton clothe like a ball and repeatly pressed and rolled by hand or with help of machine to form ball or ‘strip’ form.
Step 6: Drying
After press and roll, leaves are dried to reduce volume and to stop any remaining fermenting enzyme. The leaves are spread out on trays and dried in oven in two stages. Fisrt, The leaves are taken out to cool down after they are 70% to 80% dried. Then they are dried again in the oven until whater content is less than 5%. At the end of this stage, leaves are called rough tea.
Step 7: Refine
The unwanted bits, like stem and broken bits of leaves are removed from rough tea. Then it is sorted by shape, form and size into different grades.
Step 8: Roasting
The refine tea is then gently roasted to bring out its aroma. The amount of roasting varies from tea to tea. The resulting tea, depending on the amount of roasting, are categorized into, rare tea(light roasting), half cooked(mid roasting), and cooked tea(strong roasting). Light roasting(row tea) brings out more aroma in the tea. Cooked tea’s aroma does not match that from rare tea, but it has more character and depth in taste.
After roasting, the tea is ready.
The basic steps of tea making are the same for all tea artisans. Apart from the cultivation factors, the distinct character of each artisan’s tea comes from their individual variations in the technique of executing steps.