making tea…

…and it was done in a hotel conference room!!

Two weeks ago I attended The Specialty Tea Institute’s Level 4 course: Technology of Tea, held in San Francisco.  This course is two days of chemistry and biology—of the tea leaf on the bush; the chemical changes after plucking, but before processing; the chemical changes during processing (of white, green, oolong and black); and the resulting color, nutritional and flavor variances depending on processing and steeping techniques. 


As part of our “practicum” our instructors, Donna Fellman and Bill Waddington, had tea leaves flown in from Hawaii so we could go through the steps of making tea and witness the leaves’ chemical changes first hand.  The big surprise to all of us though—including Bill and Donna—was our great fortune to have Michelle Rose, tea maker and owner of Cloudwater Farm (Kuaii, HI) actually present there to help us make the tea!  Michelle had signed up for the class as part of her own continuing education efforts.

Tea Leaves

The first step--a short wither


We had three bags of tea leaves—roughly three pounds of fresh leaves and by the time we pulled them out of the bags they were already three days old.  Given that most tea makers begin processing leaves the day they are plucked, we already had quality challenges on our hands, but with Michelle’s skillful lead, we endeavored to make white, green, oolong and black tea.


The leaves were separated into four piles.  The leaves were the standard pluck of two leaves and a bud and the unfurled leaves were bigger than I expected—about 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches long.  The first pile was carefully laid out on a surface to naturally air dry—our white tea.  The second pile, for our green tea, was given a short wither to soften the leaves and prepare them for pan-firing later in the day.  The third pile was gently laid out on my table with instructions to our group of four to gently “fluff” them over the next 20 hours (carefully initiating some bruising and oxidation).  The fourth pile was laid out for a 12 hour wither to soften the leaves and allow the chemical changes necessary for black tea, prior to the rolling and oxidizing process.

 Making Tea

To pan fire the leaves for green tea, Michelle used a wok on top of an electric burner.  She alternated firing the tea leaves with rolling them in a cheesecloth sack—reducing the moisture, de-enzyming the oxidative properties, and shaping the tea.  Much of her timing for the firing was based on the “feel” of the leaves.  After the completion of this phase, the leaves where put into a small electric air dryer (like a fruit dryer)and allowed to further dehydrate.


On day two we endeavored to make our oolong and black teas.  Our oolong tea was alternately rolled and then fired over a course of several hours, after which it was put into the electric air dryer for its final drying.  The black tea was rolled for a prolonged period of time, then left to oxidize and finally pan fired to stop the oxidation.  It was dried in the hot air dryer much like the previous types of tea.  The smell of the tea as it was going through its various processing was amazing, but the biggest surprise was the taste of each of the teas.  The white tea was sweet
and light like a Shou Mei.  The green tea was also sweet with a little toasty note.  The oolong tea was amber in color and exhibited well developed caramel flavors, while the black tea tasted like Golden Monkey.   Much of our success with the tea is credited to Michelle and her skillful processing techniques.


After our Final Firing


This tea-making experience really helped reinforce the chemistry discussed in The Technology of Tea manual and gave us all an excellent perspective on the craft and labor required to successfully make tea.  In my next blog post I’ll discuss the Hawaii Tea Society, the growers on various islands, and their tea-producing outlook.