4. The Essential Steps in Tea Factory Mass Production Xinzhu, Taiwan - Austin Yoder, 17th Aug. 2012

This past Friday, I was fortunate enough to travel to Xinzhu, Taiwan, with Mr. Hsu of May Zest Tea Co. (http://tea-ok.com.tw). Mr. Hsu has been in the tea industry for over 30 years, and has built up an impressive list of clients in countries in Europe, and massive countries like Russia.  His insider knowledge of the tea industry is complemented by his ten years of experience conducting business online. Though he has become quite successful by leveraging the internet, his on the ground connections are wide-ranging.

On Friday, Mr. Hsu introduced us to the two largest tea manufactories in Xinzhu, Taiwan: the Formosa Black Tea Co., and King Tai Tea Co. I was fortunate enough to get two multi-hour tours of the factory equipment, the in-house museums of both factories, face to face conversations with the owners of each factory, and a full introduction to the tea making process, and all of the steps involved in it.

I have never visited a large-scale tea production factory before, and was absolutely blown away by the level of complexity, and sophistication that goes into the manufacturing of tea.

When we visited the King Tai Tea Factory in Xinzhu, owner Roger Luo pointed out fourteen essential steps in the process of tea production for the vast majority of teas made in Taiwan. He has a giant in-house museum to explain the steps back to back to all of his visitors, and is then able to walk them through the full gamut of tea factory equipment, diving into as much detail as you are possibly able to remember, and then some.

The size and volume of Mr. Luo’s equipment (all manufactured in the 1940s, and still totally operational), was stunning.

What follows is an overview of the steps used in producing teas in Mr. Luo’s King Tai tea factory, a common model for many large scale tea factories in Taiwan.

1. Hand picking or machine picking of young and tender leaves

The first step in tea production is, of course, picking the tea. Taiwan is home to thousands and thousands of tea estates which produce white teas, green teas, wulong teas, and black teas like Pu’er. Without carefully picked tea leaves, the millions of dollars of factory equipment which Mr. Luo had stocked on his factory floor would sit completely empty. The picture above features hand driers in the foreground, and a portion of the multi-layered massive sized conveyor style tea dryer in the background (the blue behemoth).

2. Solar withering and shaking

Solar withering is the process by which tea leaves are dried in the sun, most
often in large, circular bamboo baskets. This step in the process is intended to
begin the fermentation process, and leaves will be shaken any number of times
based on the type of tea being produced. If the tea in question is a green tea, the
leaves will not be fermented outside at all, as green teas are not fermented. If
the tea is Oolong or Black tea, it will be left outside to produce the appropriate
level of fermentation.

3. Indoor withering and shaking
Because the sun induces tea leaves to wither and ferment at a very rapid rate, and because sometimes the leaves need to ferment at a more controlled pace, leaves are often brought indoors to be withered to continue the process of fermentation while being protected from the oppressive heat of the sun.

4. Insert the tea leaves into the vibration &withering machine
This is a large machine which turns the tea leaves around and around inside, almost like roasting a giant turkey in an oven. As the leaves spin inside of this machine, their edges brush up against each other, and against the sides of the machine in a heated environment, helping to break down the cell structure of the leaves, and release moisture out of the leaf.

5. From the vibration & withering machine, take the tea and put it in the shaking machine. The shaking machine is one of the largest pieces of factory equipment in existence, and looks like a giant cylindrical clothes dryer. The shaking machine is much like the vibration & withering machine, in that it continues to break down the cell structure of the tea leaf, allowing moisture to escape, and continuing the process of fermentation.

6. Panning in the panning machine.
The panning machine adds increased levels of heat to the leaves which have just been shaken to continue the withering and fermentation process.

7. Rolling Machine

The rolling machine is one of the most fun machines in the entire factory. In order to use the rolling machine (whose purpose is to take loose leaf tea and shape it into balls), you must lay a giant towel out on the ground, lay the loose leaf tea down inside of the towel, pack it all up like you’re going on a trip, and put it beneath what is essentially a giant vise. You click the “on” switch, and the rolling machine can roll up to four large balls of tea simultaneously. Each ball is approximately 15kg of tea, so you wind up with around 60kg of loose leaf tea all balled up.

-Picture of a row of “Rolling Machines” taken from above. These puppies pump out 60kg of rolled loose leaf tea per use.

8. Continuous dryer (the biggest piece of factory equipment in the entire factory)
This piece of equipment looks a little bit like a droid ship out of Star Wars, and has a continuous running conveyor belt with more than 450 moving pieces to ferry tea through a massive oven-like dryer. The tea goes in and is funneled through about eight layers of drying, where the most humid portion of the dryer is located at the top of the machine, and the least humid portion of the dryer is located at the bottom of the machine. When you look at the continuous dryer head on, you truly get a sense of the massive scale on which tea production takes place each and every year for domestic consumption, and export.

9. Tighten ball of cloth, and apply pressure to it once more.

It’s important to maintain consistent pressure on the balls of tea being rolled in order to get a consistent size, and shape – some of the factors judged in tea competitions locally in Taiwan.

10. Roll, and repeat.

Did you think you were done rolling? Not even close. You get to repeat this fun step 21 times over before you can pass “go” and collect $200. Rolling is one of the most time intensive steps in the tea production process because it must happen so many times. In the olden days of tea production before they had rolling machines, each one of these balls had to be hand rolled using wooden planks to apply pressure, dramatically increasing the time and labor costs associated with hand picked tea production.

Roll. Dry. Roll.

Repeat.

Roll. Dry. Roll.

11. Mass breaking and shifting machine

Similar to the panning machine, the breaking and shifting machine continues the fermentation process for semi-fermented teas like Wulong tea, and fully fermented black teas.

12. Hand operated drier

Once the tea is through the breaking and shifting machine, it is passed down a trough like this one below, collected in baskets, and placed in a hand operated drier. Once inside the drier, the tea sits and dries for a specific period of time based on which type of tea is being produced.

13. Electric roasting machine

This is where a lot of the magic of Wulong tea occurs. While light and fragrant Wulong teas like Alishan and Lishan teas are delightful to sip and taste by themselves, and often have a superb, delicate, and wintry mouthfeel, roasted Wulong teas tend to be complex and rich in ways which appeal to tea drinkers used to something a little heavier, a little more bold.

14. Packaging and full on production of Taiwan tea.

Once your tea is fermented appropriately, dried, rolled, rolled again twenty additional times, broken, shaken, dried again, and roasted, it is finally ready for the vacuum pack. The vacuum pack protects the tea, which has just gone through a laborious and time intensive process of production, from light, air, pollutants, and any other external elements which might interfere with the tea’s flavor.

15. The Most Crucial Step: Drink & Enjoy

Of course, the most important step in the process of tea production is… DRINK IT!