How to ferment your own herbal tea

Recently, fermented tea has been gaining popularity among those who enjoy indulging in a flavorful herbal brew. This unique beverage stands out from traditional herbal teas due to a process called fermentation. This chemical reaction transforms proteins and starches in plant cells into simpler compounds that are easier to digest, enhancing the drink's flavor and aroma. Compare a hot infusion made from fresh or dried apple or cherry leaves to one made from fermented leaves, and you'll notice the latter offers a richer taste experience.

Suitable plants for fermentation

Experiments with various plants have revealed that leaves from numerous garden species are suitable for fermentation. This includes apple, pear, cherry, chokeberry, raspberry, strawberry, and even grape leaves. Also, leaves from oregano, blueberry, and hazelnut show promising fermentation results. Advanced enthusiasts of homemade fermented tea also venture into using young leaves of birch or sharp-leaf maple.

However, leaves from lingonberry and blueberry do not fare well in fermentation due to their excessive dryness, nor do leaves from medicinal plants or aromatic herbs like mint or lemon balm, as these tend to lose their unique flavors during the fermentation process.

Tips for harvesting leaves for fermentation

Venturing into the art of fermenting leaves for tea requires not just skill in the fermentation process itself but also in selecting and collecting the most suitable leaves. Here are some expanded guidelines to help ensure you start with the best possible raw materials:

  • When collecting leaves, prioritize areas far removed from the influence of industrial operations, major roadways, and railway lines. The purity of your leaves begins with their environment, as plants in polluted areas can absorb and accumulate harmful substances.
  • Aim for an early morning harvest. This is the golden hours after the dew has evaporated but before the midday sun has sapped the leaves of their moisture. This ensures that the leaves are not too wet, which could lead to mold, and not overly dehydrated, which can affect their taste and fermenting capabilities.
  • Seek out plants growing in shaded or semi-shaded areas. These leaves often retain more moisture than those fully exposed to the sun, making them juicier and potentially richer in flavor. This can significantly impact the quality of your fermented tea.
  • Exercise strict quality control by only selecting leaves that are clean and free from pest damage. Leaves compromised by insects or disease can affect the fermentation process and the overall quality of your tea. 
  • After collection, carry out a meticulous inspection of your leaves. Even with the most careful gathering, unwanted guests like small insects or bits of debris can find their way into your harvest. A thorough check ensures that only the best leaves make it into your fermentation process, setting the stage for a beautifully crafted tea.

Withering the harvest

Initiating the journey towards creating fermented tea, the primary task post-harvest is to initiate a crucial drying phase. 

Spread your freshly gathered leaves on a fabric made of natural fibers ensuring they form a uniform layer about 1 to 2 inches (3-5 cm) thick. This setup should be located in an area that is not only warm and devoid of moisture but also shielded from the direct impact of sunlight. It's essential to occasionally agitate the leaves, assessing their condition for the upcoming fermentation stages. 

Typically, this drying phase unfolds over a span of 10 to 12 hours, though this duration can vary depending on environmental factors. Warm and sunny conditions may hasten the process, whereas cooler, cloudy weather may extend it. Targeting an optimal drying environment involves maintaining temperatures within the range of 68-75°F (21-24°C), accompanied by a relative air humidity level of approximately 70%.

To gauge whether the leaves are sufficiently dried and ready for the next step, conduct a simple test approximately 5-6 hours into the drying phase. Compress a handful of leaves and then release them; if they maintain a loosely cohesive form, indicating they don't separate easily, they are prepared for the subsequent fermentation stage. If managing multiple tea varieties, it's recommended to process each separately to preserve their unique flavor profiles, only blending the finished products if desired.

The process of fermentation

To kickstart the fermentation, it's essential to break down the leaf structure. This can be achieved through:

  • Hand rolling: Gently but firmly roll a few leaves between your palms until they begin to release juice.
  • Grinding method: For a quicker and more efficient preparation, grinding the leaves with a meat grinder can produce a large amount of prepared material swiftly.

Once prepared, spread the leaves in a layer about 2.8 to 4 inches (7-10 cm) thick in a container made of enamel, ceramic, porcelain, or glass, and seal it tightly with a lid.

The ideal fermentation temperature ranges from 71.6°F to 78.8°F (22-26 °C). The duration of fermentation depends on the desired intensity of flavor and aroma. For a mild taste with a strong fragrance, a shorter fermentation time of 3-6 hours is sufficient. For a more pronounced aroma and a moderately bitter taste, aim for 10-16 hours. Black tea enthusiasts may need to wait 20-36 hours. Experimentation within these time frames can help you find your preferred balance, but fermentation should not exceed 48 hours.

The drying process of fermented tea

Once your tea leaves are fermented, slice them finely and lay them out on parchment paper without any grease, aiming for a thickness of roughly 0.2-0.3 inches (0,5-0,7 cm). They should then be left to air dry in an area that's both cool and receives plenty of air flow.

For those in a hurry, bypassing natural drying with an oven is an option. Start by heating the oven to approximately 212°F (100°C), leaving the door ajar to let moisture out. After about 90 to 120 minutes, lower the heat to between 122-140°F (55°C) and wait until the leaves are completely dry.

After oven drying, let the leaves cool before moving them to their final storage containers. Opt for either cloth bags or glass jars to keep them. To ensure the tea develops its full flavor profile, it should be left to mature for a period of one and a half to two months.

The journey of crafting homemade fermented tea encompasses several meticulous stages, from selecting the perfect leaves to the final drying process. By carefully slicing and drying the fermented leaves, either naturally or with the help of an oven, you ensure the preservation of their rich flavors and aromas. Storing these leaves in breathable containers, such as cloth bags or glass jars, allows the tea to mature, unveiling its unique taste over one and a half to two months. This process not only rewards you with a bespoke beverage but also immerses you in the ancient tradition of tea fermentation, blending patience, skill, and a touch of creativity to produce a truly exceptional cup of tea.