Being an ardent chai (find masala chai recipe here) drinker this post comes a bit too late. I thought that it’d be interesting to break down the nature of the chai that I love, starting with the tea leaves of course.
What is CTC?
Is your tea preference mostly partial to sweetened milk tea or chai? Then CTC tea is in its regular spot in your pantry, next to the jar of sugar and milk powder.
The year was 1931. W. McKertcher the superintendent of the Amgoorie Tea Estate in Assam, India invented this 3-letter method.
Processing of CTC tea
The processing of tea leaves plucked from the tea plantation starts with ‘withering’. The tea leaves are laid out either indoors or outdoors and the humidity and temperature of the leaves are monitored over time. This step is to allow for reduction of the moisture content of the leaves thereby preparing the leaf for further processing, usually shaping and rolling (orthodox tea).
The withered leaves are then passed through the CTC machine. It is a device that consists of cylindrical rollers rotating at differencing speeds. This action enables the crushing, tearing and curling of the tea leaves into little pellets that are oxidized (1)
(1) Oxidation is a series of reactions between air and the chemicals released during rolling. During oxidation, the color of the leaves change from copper red to black and the flavor profile of the tea develops its nuances.
The flavor profile
CTC tea is bold and brisk with a reddish tinge in the dark color of the liquor. This tea infuses fast and steeps stronger thereby making it ideal for iced and milk tea.
Grades of CTC tea
CTC teas are generally graded in three categories.
- Leaf – Priced at a premium
- Fanning (small pieces of leftover tea after higher grade tea are gathered for sale) – No premium and mostly used in teabags.
- Dust – No premium and mostly used in teabags.
This is where the question of quality comes in.
CTC tea cannot be compared to Orthodox manufactured tea. As you may know, most CTC tea tastes the same. In the CTC process, the focus is on large-scale production with uniform appearance and taste.
When tea leaves go through the rolling process it assists with preserving essential oils. The unique aroma of tea is from these oils.
The chopping of tea leaves into small pieces in the CTC machine leads to the loss of the above-mentioned essential oils. The process also results in a loss of quality and flavor of the leaves.
Tea should be consumed fresh but that isn’t what happens in most cases. The tea bags that you and I use to prepare our beloved chai may be older than six months.
If you use teabags frequently you could consider trying out whole leaf tea in pyramid tea sachets.
On a concluding note if you are looking for a tea that tastes uniform and fits your requirement to prepare milk tea with a strong blend that cuts through the sweetness and the milk then this is CTC tea. If you are looking to explore the depths of flavor of your cup of tea and to appreciate the fine details like the shape of the leaves and the varying color of the liquor then orthodox tea is what you are looking for.