During tea processing, there are a few phases the tea goes through, from being a leaf on a tree to what you see in your cup. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, but processing varies from category to category. The primary processing steps are taken to ensure that the tea reaches a stable stage. At this point, the enzymes are either: destroyed (they are technically not alive, though colloquially we say 'kill'), exhausted, or the moisture level of the leaves is so low that oxidation and fermentation are virtually halted, so the tea no longer oxidizes. Then the tea enters the refining stage to be perfected to the buyer's intent.
Before a tea goes into the refining steps, it is called Mao Cha (毛茶) or rough tea. This stage encompasses the tea in an unfinished state but after the primary processing. It's a pretty direct translation: Mao translates to rough or primitive, and cha means tea. It is important to note that this point comes at different parts of the processing for different teas. Some teas only need one more tiny step to be completed from rough tea to retail-ready tea, while others require more time and effort. So defining exactly when tea is considered Mao Cha on a general level is a bit difficult.
It is common for people in the tea industry to taste the rough tea while directly sourcing from farms to understand the characteristics and quality of the tea before completion. You can experience this process during our Virtual Tea Trip to Wu Yi Shan when we visit a Mao Cha evaluation session. Evaluating rough tea takes a true expert. The bulk of these characteristics are set by the time tea is considered rough tea; it would be too late to make any drastic changes. But there is still a relatively long way to go from being finished. The roasting, complexity, and fully-formed mouthfeel comes from the skills of fining a tea.
Drinking Mao Cha as a final product is not something that is recommended or praised. At this stage, the tea is not ready for retail. There are instances where people are sold Mao Cha retail as trendy or are told that a tea (usually Sheng Pu) needs time to age to become good. These are things to be cautious of when purchasing tea. For a tea to be called fine tea, it needs to be fined. Fining is an integral step to make authentic true-origin teas. Some of the riskiest and skillful techniques in tea making are in the fining.
Rough tea is dry and stable, so it is at a point where it can travel or be stored. The enzymes in the tea are deactivated, so the oxidation process has been drastically slowed. Tea will often be roasted or finished near the initial processing village, though technically, a buyer can transport the tea to a different location for the fining steps. We are starting to see more and more tea movements during the rough tea stage in recent years.
What Are Fining Steps?
Some of the fining steps that remain for rough tea to become retail ready are sorting, roasting, or short heating (Ti Xiang). Some examples of critical fining steps are:
After Long Jing green tea is processed, it is wrapped in plastic bags and placed in a container with limestone for three weeks to chill the moisture out of the tea.
Gua Pian green tea has a fining step called La Da Huo or pulling the big fire. Twenty pounds at a time, the semi-dried leaves are put on a giant bamboo tray with one man on each side of it and walk the tea over a big sizzling pit of charcoal fire to flash roast the teas. For each batch of tea, this step is repeated for about an hour. It is usually done on a three-person rotation as the locals say no stronger man can handle more than five rounds of the roasting a day. The tea leaves lose about 30% more moisture after this step.
All red teas go through a step called Ti Xiang, a baking technique designed to enhance and purify the tea's aroma without altering its original flavor profile. It is usually done at least three weeks after the tea has been baked. It is a tricky step that many opt to skip because it can quickly ruin an otherwise mediocre tea if not done correctly. On the other hand, sometimes a red tea can be Ti Xiang twice, usually three weeks in between.
For Wu Longs, the stem-picking step is the most tedious in all Chinese tea and takes several months following the rough tea making.
Wu Longs also go through a rigorous roasting process to finish the tea. The "cleaned" teas are charcoal roasted over a very dim ash fire for 6-10 hours. Many teas need to repeat this step, with at least three weeks resting time in between each roasting.
Each tea does not go through all of these processes, but these are examples of a tea's final steps while in the rough tea stage. All teas do go through sorting after they are in the rough tea state. It is necessary for all traditional teas and is to sort out the twigs and yellow leaves. Traditionally this is done by picking them out by hands or sifting using Bo Ji (a bamboo tool).
What About Pu Er Sheng Cha?
It has become common to call any unpressed Sheng Pu Mao Cha. It is misleading, as now both unsorted tea and finished tea that just hasn't been pressed can both be called Mao Cha. If tea is sorted but not pressed and does not have a plan to be pressed, it is the finished tea. If the tea is sorted but not pressed and is waiting to be pressed, it's a rough tea. When there are still steps to be done, it's a rough tea, but if there is no intention for the tea to be pressed, it is finished tea. If tea is sorted, not pressed, and not intended to be pressed into Sheng Pu, but years later is being made into Shou Pu, then the same batch of tea became the rough tea of Shou Pu.
When purchasing Sheng Pu at this stage, we advise being extra aware when evaluating the tea. A good Sheng Pu should be pleasant to drink right away. Aging doesn't improve the quality of the tea, but rather the process of tasting the teas in its aging journey is enjoyable. Only good teas are worth aging; just like one doesn't need to age Yellow Tail wine, one wouldn't age all Sheng Pu Ers.
We hope this helps you better understand the tea-making process and how your tea goes from being on the tree to your cup!