Tea Processing: The Different Shapes of Tea

Posted by Path of Cha on

Once brewed, most loose leaf tea ends up in the beautiful big tea leaf shape we all know and love. But not all loose leaf starts out that way. The process of transformation from its dry form, unraveling into the final shape is one of our favorite things to be aware of while taking part in gong fu cha or casually enjoying some grandpa style tea.

But what influences the dry shape of tea? The simple answer is that it all comes from the way the tea is processed. Sorry to announce, pu-erh doesn’t grow in shapes and Milk Oolong doesn’t grow in curled up balls.


What Are The Different Shapes of Tea?

  • Whole leaf — some teas come in their pure form. You can find both minimally-oxidized white teas as well as highly oxidized black teas in the pure whole leaf form. White teas in particular are so delicate straight from the picking process that they usually aren't processed any further than air drying for the leaf buds to stay intact.


  • Rolled leaf — this shape is very common amongst oolongs. The tea leaves are each carefully hand rolled into a ball-like shape (although sometimes a special rolling machine is used). This method is used to get the tea leaf’s natural oils and juices to seep out, enhancing the final flavor. The other advantage of rolling teas is to make them more compact for storage purposes.


  • Pearls — these are hard to produce and are quite prized in the tea world. Only the skillful hands of an experienced tea master can elegantly role the leaves into the iconic pearl shape. The most popular of these teas is Jasmine Dragon Pearls Green Tea


  • Shou Mei — longevity eyebrows, another elegant form of a final loose leaf product. These teas are almost always handcrafted and are highly prized in China not only for their delicious taste but also for the auspicious meaning of the tea’s shape.


  • Cakes and other compressed shapes — most often we see this shape when we purchase pu-erh, although some white and black teas also come in cake form. This processing method was initially used for fermentation, allowing for the tea to last a long time, and for ease of transportation. You can read more here


Aside from the above-mentioned shapes, other unique variations exist, for example, chenpi teas — tea leaves that are stuffed into hollowed out citrus peels. These teas are refreshing and unique, offering both the benefits of tea and traditional Chinese medicine.

Do you have a favorite shape of tea you like to drink? Do you vastly notice the difference of the tea's flavor based on its original shape? 

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