Today tea leaves are prepared by being plucked by hand from the tea bushes, dried (either in the sun or in drying pans or ovens), then rolled, and finally heated ("fired") in kilns to assure complete drying. In Japan the tea leaves may first be steamed before drying, which tends to produce a slightly different flavor, one sometimes described as more "grassy."
"… the tea plant yields a crop after it has been planted three years, and there are three gatherings during the year: one in the middle of April, the second at midsummer, and the third in August and September. … The plant requires very careful plucking, only one leaf being allowed to be gathered at a time; and then a tree must never be plucked too bare. Women and children, who are generally, though not always the tea gatherers, are obliged to wash their hands before they begin their work, and have to understand that it is the medium-sized leaves which they have to pick, leaving the larger ones to gather dew. When the baskets are full, into which the leaves have been dropped, they are carried away hanging to a bamboo slung across the shoulders…. The leaves are first spread out in the air to dry, after which they are trodden by labourers, so that any moisture remaining in then, after they have been exposed to the air or sun, may be pressed out; after this they are again heaped together, and covered for the night with cloths. In this state they remain all night, when a strange thing happens to them, spontaneous heating changing the green leaves to black or brown. They are now more fragrant and the taste has changed. "The next process is to twist and crumple the leaves by rubbing them between the palms of the hands. In this crumpled state they are again put in the sun, or if the day be wet, or the sky threatening, they are baked over a charcoal fire. "Leaves, arranged in a sieve, are placed in the middle of a basket- frame, over a grate in which are hot embers of charcoal. After someone has so stirred the leaves that they have all become heated alike, they are ready to be sold to proprietors of tea-hongs in the towns, when the proprietor has the leaves again put over a fire and sifted."
Teas are named both for their place of origin and their mode of production or in some cases the way in which they are served or the shapes they assume when marketed. For example, Silver Needle tea leaves come rolled into tiny, needle-like pieces, while gunpowder tea comes in tightly rolled balls. All tea may be graded for the uniformity of the size or maturity of leaves, the presence of foreign matter (such as stems), whether leaves are broken or not, freshness, and so on. However a fundamental difference in types of tea is based on whether they have been fermented, and if so for how long. Based on fermentation (oxidation), three main types are distinguished: unfermented (green tea, shown here at left), fermented (black tea, at right), and semi-fermented (oolong tea).
Unfermented ("Green") Tea (bùfājiào chá 不发酵茶)
Green tea (lǜ chá 绿茶) is the generic term for a beverage consisting of water which has been boiled and allowed to stand briefly with leaves of the tea plant soaking in it. In China the tea leaves are harvested and are quickly dried before fermentation sets in. The infusion is clear and is yellowish to light green in color.
Fermented ("Black") Tea (fājiào chá 发酵茶)
Black tea (hóng chá 红茶, literally "red tea" in Chinese) is produced by grinding or rolling the harvested leaves and then subjecting them before firing to fermentation (jiào 酵, sometimes also pronounced xiào). The infusion varies from light brown to very dark brown in color, and has a stronger taste than green tea. Black tea is the predominant type produced in India and Sri Lanka, whence it spread throughout the British empire, so that black tea is the predominant type consumed today in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Although most Chinese tea stores stock a wide range of grades of green tea, black tea is more frequently ungraded in China and usually held in little esteem.
Semi-Fermented Tea (bànfājiào chá 半发酵茶)
Oolong tea (wūlóng chá 乌龙茶), literally "black dragon tea" in Chinese, is semi-fermented, that is, the fermentation process is stopped before it has gone as far as it is allowed to go in producing black tea. The provinces of Guǎngdōng广东, Fújiàn 福建, and especially Táiwān 台湾 are particularly associated with Oolong tea, and "Formosa Oolong Tea" is known throughout the world as one of China's prime export commodities.