Do Tea Leaves Have To Be Dried? Reasons And The Alternative

Tea leaves are commonly dried before you use them for brewing. The origin legend of tea tells the story of a fresh tea leaf slowly falling from a tea tree into a cup of hot water. Fortunate fo the lucky traveler with the tasty beverage we all love.

The obvious question here is: Can you make a good tea from fresh and unprocessed tea leaves? You might be surprised that the answer is different for Camellia based tea and herbal teas.

Tea leaves are plucked straight from either bushes or trees, depending on the age and size of the tea plant. Many people from around the world process their tea and herbal teas from self-gathered leaves. Do you need to dry these?

SHORT ANSWER – Do You Have To Dry Tea?

Both herbal teas and teas made from Camellia Sinensis can be brewed from fresh tea leaves. The drying process is necessary for long term storage. In regular tea production, initial drying (withering) is necessary for the processing. Tea from fresh tea leaves tastes different than processed dry tea.

Furthermore, I try to explain why tea leaves are dried and when they do not need to be dried. I have also included information on the traditional drying process and a quick guide on how you can dry tea leaves at home.

Do You Have To Dry Tea Leaves Before Making Tea?

Why Are Tea Leaves Dried?

To find the answer to the question of the necessity of drying tea leaves, you need to understand why tea leaves are dried in the first place. The drying of tea leaves is common practice and fresh tea leaves are quite hard to find outside of tea growing regions.

Every tea you commonly find at stores is dried tea. Shelf-life is an important factor in the tea industry, as it allows for longer trade routes and less loss due to decay or growth of micro-organisms. 

Trading fresh tea leaves in the western world is not a viable idea in terms of profitability and risk. The shelf-life of fresh tea leaves is only a few days long, just as you see with fresh produce.

The shelf-life of plant material and derived products is far greater if you store the dried form. Just like dried herbs can be good for years, dried tea will not turn bad quickly at all.

Depending on the country you live in, the best-before date will be two to five years after the packaging of the product. The dried tea leaves will be good for years on end. For this, you must store the tea leaves in a cool, dark and dry environment.

Storing tea leaves dry will keep the growth of micro-organisms at a halt. Avoiding higher temperatures and light or sunshine will slow down the decay of the leaves. Tea leaves, that are not meant to be consumed immediately, need to be dried for storage.

Necessity Of Drying In Tea Production

With the traditional production of tea, the drying process is one of the few processes that all tea productions have in common. The fresh tea leaves are dried before the main processing and completely dried afterward.

Through the initial incomplete drying process, the hard leaves become soft and flaccid. The fresh leaves are sensitive and fragile and would break if processed directly.

During this process, the tea leaves lose small amounts of water. This stage of tea production is called withering. The tea leaves must not be dried too much during this stage as the tea would otherwise be unusable for frying, roasting and other methods desired.

After the other processing steps, the tea leaves are fully dried for the reasons mentioned above. The prolonged shelf life allows the tea masters to sell and offer their tea for longer. Only this way they can earn an income with tea production.

Can You Use Fresh Tea For Tea?

So the reasons for drying tea leaves in traditional productions are only related to shelf-life and the processing itself. Does that mean that you can enjoy a cup of tea from fresh tea leaves if you do not desire to process the tea leaf or store it?

With herbs for herbal teas, the processing that is used to make various kinds of Camellia tea is not necessary or desired. Herbal teas can be brewed with fresh leaves without question. To make fresh tea from mint or nettles, there is no reason to dry that tea beforehand.

You may want to store herbal tea you have grown and/or gathered yourself, you will need to dry the leaves for this purpose. If you do not dry the leaves your tea will go bad quickly by either the growth of mold or bacteria. Dry tea leaves are somewhat safe from this.

If you have grown or otherwise acquired actual Camellia tea leaves and want the best possible tea from these leaves, you will need to process this tea. After the processing steps, the complete drying is only necessary if you want to store the tea afterward.

Brewing fresh Camellia Sinensis tea leaves is possible and safe. The problem with this is the taste profile of unprocessed leaves. While the young shoots and buds taste somewhat close to green tea, the likelihood of bitterness is far greater. 

Through roasting, steaming, frying and oxidation tea leaves become less bitter, astringent and pungent. Sweet, fruity and floral notes often come from heating and oxidation processes in the same way that roasted vegetables tend to have a sweeter taste to them.

Tea Leaves Drying Process

The Traditional Drying Process

Depending on the production facilities, tea leaves are dried with different techniques. The oldest methods involve bamboo trays that can have the diameter of an average person’s height. Tea leaves are spread evenly on these trays and left in specially designed shelves which allow for airflow to remove the humidity.

More modern facilities will use one of two machines to dry their tea leaves. With continuous production lines, a conveyor belt made of a metal grid will be used. Warm and dry air is blown through the leaves from below the grid to quickly dry the leaves.

The second machine used to dry tea leaves in large productions are drying drums. The tea leaves are dried in a slowly rotating drum while warm air is passed through the drum to remove the humidity.

How Do You Dry Tea Leaves At Home?

If you want to dry tea leaves at home a common method would be closely related to the described traditional methods. You want your leaves to be evenly spread out with as much air contact as possible.

Spreading your tea leaves flat on towels or paper towels allows for additional leaf surface to be in contact with the air. Furthermore, any liquid absorbed into the towels will aid in the drying process. Instead of towels, you can use anything that allows for air to come through and is neutral in taste and smell.

I have written a more in-depth guide on drying tea leaves with various methods from traditional to modern which you can find here.

You can dry bundles of herbs or tea leaves the traditional way. Drying with this method is far easier! As long as the herbs you intend to dry for later tea brewing still have some kind of stem, this method will work for you. Without a step, you should use methods closely related to the traditional drying process for tea.

Some guides recommend using a dehydrator or using the oven. I do not recommend using these methods to dry your tea leaves as both quick-drying and heating can cause decay. The traditional method does best for the taste of your herbs and tea.

You will need to take a bunch of your herbs and bind them together at the bottom with a long piece of string. The other piece of string can be connected to the ceiling, high on the wall or a door frame.

The leaves will dry slowly over time while the water still contained will flow to the leaves and evaporate. Cultures all over the world used to and continue to dry their plants, herbs and even flowers with this method.

There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.