Tea dictionary

What means what?

Since usually no one really talks about how tea is processed, it can get a bit overwhelming for a tea novice to understand what is what and why is it there anyway. This small and very simplified tea dictionary can hopefully shed some light to the matter. I'm not a fan of complicated explanations, you should expect this from here either.

Camellia Sinensis - in very easy terms it is the Latin name for the plant that is used to make tea. Camellia Sinensis is the base for both black, green, oolong, white and any other tea. This plant has many cultivars that vary from region to region and in our case even within the plantation. So to give an easy parallel - if the tea was wine, Camellia Sinensis would be grapes. And the cultivars would be the different types of grapes - Chardonnay, Shiraz, Pinot Grigio etc. Our “grape yard” in this parallel would consist of all the sorts you can imagine, everything mixed up together.

Withering - the period of time after leaves are plucked and before they are further processed. Usually, leaves are put onto trays and left to rest. This balances the different processes in the leaf and kind of lets them get used to the new situation of being removed from their plant. Whitering time depends on the type of tea that is made, also the cultivar and outside conditions such as weather and moisture levels.

Playing with the leaves - to keep the leaves from getting too depressed after plucking, the tea leaves need some love and playing during the withering process. This means that they are tossed and turned until they have reached the perfect stage for the next steps. In case of making oolong tea, for example, the leaves need extra playfulness, for green tea, they need to wither less and also don’t need that much playing- that is why the taste is a bit more delicate as well.

Rolling - how do you get a one-dimensional tea leaf into the curled up shape that is looking at you from the tea package? By rolling it :) In addition to the transformation of the shape, this also helps to get the juices of tea leaves flowing and gives the tea stronger taste.

Oxidation - who has some knowledge from chemistry classes can already assume that it has something to do with oxygen, aka air we breathe. As its name is highly chemistry-class related, the process itself is kind of difficult to describe without using words like cells, enzymes and molecules. But since I am not a fan of chemistry lessons, I’ll try. Oxidation is what happens to a fruit when it gets bruised and turns brown. In the case of apples, for example, this does not really do much good to the fruit, but in the case of tea, it gives a whole new taste profile and a darker colour too. So, in case of black and oolong tea rolled leaves are left in a warm and moist place to fasten up the oxidation, enhance the aroma and give more depth to the taste.

Fermentation - this process has often been put into the same category with oxidation and to be honest, we have also spent hours in trying to figure out if we are fermenting or oxidizing our teas. Fermentation happens when you put either bacterias or yeast or some other living organism to work. For example, milk becomes yoghurt in the process of fermentation and oxygen does not really matter in this process. In the tea-world fermentation is used for making pu-erh for example.

Roasting - also named as enzyme kill, is a process where the leaves are quickly tossed in very high temperature. This is used to stop the oxidation (and other chemical reactions) in the tea leaf. Roasting is done in many ways, one way (and prettier to look at) is to do it on a pan (many mesmerising videos of it in YouTube), we do it in a big tumble dryer type of a thing.

Drying - the final step of all the tea making. It is done in a big oven or in some cases under the sun. The important thing here is to get all of the moisture out of the leaf. The lower the moisture levels, the longer the tea will stay good- even a small amount of moisture makes the tea a lovely living place for different funguses and bacteria, and I mean bad bacteria, not the ones that make yoghurt or pu-erh.

Priit and Tomas, playing with tea leaves.

Now that you know the lingo, you can check my blog post about how different types of tea are made HERE. Any other terms you’d like to get an easy explanation for? Let me know via our social media. Also, I bet there are many things some of you might want to correct or add - I am one big ear, after all, it is only my second year in the world of tea :)