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The Processing of Chinese Teas

Just as the cultivation of the tea tree has a long tradition in China, the processing of the leaves is an art that the Chinese mastered many centuries ago. This experience, acquired over time and through trial and error, has spawned a wide variety of processing methods, so much so that it would be easy to believe that every region now has its own specific process. In fact, that would not fee too far from the truth. Chinese tea production is based on the agricultural traditions of each region, and so different methods of processing have been adopted by each region, which has given rise to new types of teas. As well as being recognized as the birthplace of the six great tea families, China has developed methods to produce several hundred different types of teas.

Before the processing methods were refined, the leaves were brewed when freshly picked. However, since they spoiled very quickly, growers decided to first dehydrate them in the sun in order to preserve them for longer. This idea was probably at the root of tea processing, because the heat of the sun on the leaves also created a natural chemical reaction that affected the taste and properties of the tea. Overtime, the Chinese have learned to take advantage of this reaction.

As most of the teas produced in the world are marketed in tea bags, the different methods of production, from picking to processing, are almost always industrialized. These techniques are only efficient in the case of high volumes, so large-scale producers need to emphasize quantity over quality. And yet it is still the small-scale traditional methods that are characteristic of Chinese expertise: it is also these methods that are best at bringing out the distinctive characteristics of a tea from a specific terroir.