Question: How do you make tea from the Camellia sinensis bush?
G.D., Santa Ana
Answer: Tea is made only from the bush's flush of new-growth shoots, which regularly appear year-round.
There are three main kinds of regular (not herbal) teas: black, oolong and green. These are not products of different bushes but of different processing methods.
For black tea, leaves are spread on shelves (withering racks), where air circulates around them to remove moisture, leaving them soft and flexible. The leaves are then crushed, fermented and briefly dried in ovens.
Oolong tea is processed by drying the leaves on racks, then partially fermenting them and drying again after fermentation.
Green tea results from steaming the leaves in large vats, then crushing and drying them in ovens.
Tea leaves can be plucked from late spring to mid-fall, generally every seven to 15 days, depending on growth. Take only the top two or three leaves, and be sure the shoots are tender. Tough leaves do not make good tea.
* To process black tea, spread a thin layer of freshly plucked leaves on a clean, dry surface and let them wilt for 12 to 24 hours until they are soft and flaccid with a texture like soft leather. Do not allow the leaves to become dry and brittle.
Place several large handfuls of the wilted leaves on a clean, smooth surface and crush them with a rolling pin. Then gather the leaves and knead them as you would bread dough for about 10 minutes.
Now roll them, gradually increasing the pressure until the leaves take on a twisted appearance and juice begins to show. The tighter you roll the mass, the more flavor. If no juice develops and the leaves appear somewhat dry, add a very small amount of water. This entire process takes 25 to 30 minutes.
Next, press the leaves into a ball, cover with a moist cloth and place in a cool spot for about six hours. The cured leaves take on a coppery color and develop a pleasant, fruity odor.
Spread the cured tea in a flat pan and allow to dry in a barely warm oven with the door ajar. Turn the tea occasionally until all of it is very brittle. The tea is now ready to use, or you can store it in an airtight container.
* Processing oolong tea requires some experimentation.
First, dry the leaves slightly and finish the wilting in a barely warm oven. Then crush and roll as for black tea, but for only 10 to 12 minutes. Gather into a ball and cover with a moist cloth for two to three hours. Then dry in a barely warm oven for a short time.
If you wish to store oolong, you may have to dry it a little more to prevent mold.
* To process green tea, do not dry the leaves first. Place the fresh leaves in a double boiler, cover and boil from seven to nine minutes until the leaves are soft and limp. Then crush with a rolling pin for 25 minutes and place immediately in the oven to dry as you did with black tea.
To make a cup of tea, regardless of the type, steep for three to five minutes for best flavor.
--Written by University of California Master Gardener Pat Whatley of Laguna Hills
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