Part of earning “geek status” in the tea world is learning a bit of the specialized jargon that goes along with it. As in any specialized field of industry or study, jargon can be problematic, especially when that jargon takes the form of using words that already exist in everyday English and applying new meaning to them. Perhaps the most frustrating example of this is the word “theory” which in everyday English means “a guess”, but in science means essentially the exact opposite—“a broad explanation of something that we’re really certain about”. The lexicon surrounding tea is no less confusing. In this series, I’m going to explore the jargon behind two different processes important for tea production that are both sometimes called “fermentation.” I’m also going to dive into the biology and chemistry behind steps of tea processing and suggest some new terms that could make the biology and chemistry even clearer.
In part one, I’m going to be tackling the problem of what to call the processing step that makes green tea leaves into black tea. In the tea industry, this is often called “fermentation” which is a direct translation of the Chinese fājiào. This is the process that makes green tea leaves darken in color to produce oolong or black tea.
What’s going on:
Almost all plant parts contain a suite of chemicals called catechins, one group of a larger family of compounds called polyphenols. They all share a similar structure that includes several alcohol (-OH) group sticking off of them. Catechins are colorless and have a variety of functions in plants including acting as antioxidants to snatch up DNA damaging free-radicals. They are generally kept in a compartment called a vacuole inside the plant cell. Plant cells also contain an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. Like all enzymes, polyphenol oxidase is a large (relative to the catechins), protein machine designed to speed along a specific chemical reaction. Polyphenol oxidase is kept in a separate compartment from catechins, called a plastid, and it can only do its particular job when a plant cell is damaged, like when tea leaves are bruised during the production of oolong or black tea.
When the leaf is damaged, polyphenol oxidase mixes with the catechins and speeds along a reaction converting catechins into quinones by removing the hydrogen atoms (H) and some electrons from those alcohol groups (-OH) with the help of oxygen from the air (O₂). Quinones are then able to bind with other quinones or other polyphenols forming larger, more complex polyphenols that tend to have a reddish brown color.
However, if you apply heat early on in tea processing, the enzymes (being made of protein) “cook”, which makes them inactive. Thus, if the leaves are heated before they are bruised, this chain of events never happens even though the catechins and oxygen are present. The simple version: when a leaf is bruised, the contents of two compartments mix and a chemical reaction occurs that creates a reddish brown pigment. If you heat the leaf enough, this reaction won’t happen. Or I should say, the reaction won’t happen quickly since catechins can oxidize without polyphenol oxidase present; it just takes a lot longer¹.
What to call it:
In English, “fermentation” always involves microbes in some way, so when English speaking tea geeks first learn about the lack of microbes in this step, they generally switch to using the term “oxidation” instead as a more correct, scientific alternative. Unfortunately, this term has some jargon issues as well. In everyday English, “oxidation” is a reaction that happens when things are exposed to oxygen. Rust formation, the Statue of Liberty turning green, and apples browning might all be called “oxidation”. In chemistry though, “oxidation” has a different meaning.
An oxidation reaction is any chemical reaction where something loses some electrons. That’s it! It doesn’t even have to involve oxygen! So for a scientist, calling this step of tea production “oxidation” isn’t terribly helpful since that word can describe so many different chemical reactions going on all the time. A food scientist would probably call this process “enzymatic browning,” a term that I’ve surprisingly never seen come up in any discussion about tea². If you read about browning of fruits and veggies though (which is exactly the same chemical reaction), it becomes clear that “enzymatic browning” is the most precise term for what’s going on here without going into a full on description of the exact enzymes and chemicals involved. It’s unclear to me why tea scientists and tea industry professionals have tried to reinvent the wheel with the terminology for this process, since “enzymatic browning” appears to be already widely used and understood in food science.
When deciding on what to call this process, it’s important to think of who your audience is. If you’re talking to tea professionals who are already familiar with tea processing, it probably makes sense to call it “oxidation” or maybe even “fermentation” (as long as it’s clear you’re not talking about real fermentation). However, for neophyte tea geeks, “fermentation” is often a very confusing term, and I would avoid using it entirely (with the exception of warning them that other people might use it). If your audience is scientifically minded, please at least avoid using “fermentation”, and why not use “enzymatic browning”? It’s clear, concise, and it lets you tap into a large established body of food-science literature.
¹ For this reason, I believe it’s unnecessary to invoke the “partial kill-green” theory of what makes raw puer different from green tea. Catechins oxidize over a period of years just fine with no enzymes present. It is, however, entirely possible that higher temperatures in processing kill the microbes present on fresh tea leaves and slow or prevent the ripening of raw puer tea because of reduced microbial colonization.
² Tea scientists seem to be as confused as everyone else. They sometimes use “fermentation” with an explanation that this step doesn’t actually involve microbes. Other times they use “oxidation”, but explain what specific chemical reactions are going on. Still other times they use these terms without any explanation that they have a different meaning than the scientific one!