From Garden To Cup
The journey of tea begins with a plant, Camellia sinensis, a plant with beautiful waxy, fragrant leaves and pristine white flowers, a plant generally pruned to retain waist height to enable easy plucking. (If this is not done, this plant will easily grow into a tree some 16 m high)
Then it comes under the expert purview of the tea harvesters, better known as ‘tea pluckers’ to help the tea take the next step closer to your cup. In Africa the pluckers are always male while in India, China and Sri Lanka, the pluckers are almost always female.
The leaf bud and the first two leaves on each stem (Flushes) are plucked between the thumb and index finger, with a precise rapid movement which makes it look like the plucker’s hands are butterflies fluttering over the tea bushes. In the Rize region of Turkey however, the pluckers use clippers to harvest the tea (which experts say is not the best way to produce quality tea.
Next the tea leaves are processed (transformed into dried leaves for creating the final brew) depending on what tea it would finally be. The final flavour of the dried tea leaves is determined by the variation in the specific variety of the tea bush, the quality of the plucked tea leaves, and the manner and quality of the production processing they undergo.
Once the leaves are plucked, they begin to get limp as all leaves do when picked. In the tea trade they use the term wilting to describe this process. This is when enzymes start to react with oxygen in the air (oxidation) and begin to look brown. This is the same process as a cut apple turning brown.
Excess moisture is then removed from these wilted leaves (withering) by either putting the leaves in a trough through which hot and cold air are blown or just by placing under the sun.
This is a geeky way of saying the leaves are further torn or bruised in order to quicken oxidation. This process does not take place in the manufacturing process of the white tea at all. Instead the leaves and buds that make white tea are immediately baked dry to stop the tea being further oxidised. From here some tea producing areas prefer to slightly roll their whites while some prefer to leave it untouched.
Although the term may bring about happy mental images of you rolling about in the park in the summer while a glass of iced tea awaits, technically this is the last thing that is happening. The damp leaves are shaped into wrinkled strips by hand or machines. This action allows some of the oils and sap of the leaves to ooze out and coat the leaves making the tea yummier. These strips of tea can then be formed into other shapes, such as being rolled into spirals, kneaded and rolled into pellets, or tied into balls, cones and other elaborate shapes.
Oxidation is the exposure of the enzymes of the crushed leaves to the air and fermentation is the action of microbes on the tea leaves itself. Although these terms are used interchangeably in the tea industry, for the sake of clarity, we will talk about both terms as they have been described here. Oxidation involves leaving the teas in a temperature controlled room and letting the leaves turn progressively darker. The process can be controlled and stopped when required depending on the tea being produced. So we have green tea which is left for the shortest time to oxidise; the oolongs left for a longer time and the black teas left the longest until the leaves have turned the darkest. Even in this process, varieties can be created by changing the time the leaves are left to oxidise.
Fixing/ “Kill tea”
This process does not kill the tea as the name suggests, rather it stops oxidation. The various methods for this vary from steaming the tea to baking the tea. In some teas like white teas, fixing is done along with drying. Some regions roll and shape their damp teas after this process.
Finally firing or drying the teas completes the process. This can be done by panning, sunning, air drying in dryers or baking depending on the regions of production. After this stage, Flavoured teas are manufactured by spraying the tea with aromas and flavours or by storing them with their flavorants.
Now there is black, green, oolong and white teas—and then there is Pu-erh. This complicated sounding tea needs to be fermented microbially(using helpful bacteria) and produces the darkest liquor. They are produced and compressed into different shapes ready for the market.
This is the final stage, where the tea is graded according to the size ranging from whole leaves preferred by the connoisseurs, to the unsavoury dust that is used mostly in tea bags. Click here for further info on different grades of tea based on the size of their leaves.
Before finally being sent to the market however, samples of these teas are tasted by a special breed of people known as tea tasters (not too imaginative this lot!) Their job description entails tasting the tea (how much better could it get?) and deciding upon the quality of the tea and setting its price.
They are so good at their jobs that they can identify the garden, conditions of the plucking day and can even suggest adjustments in the manufacturing process all by using a sharp sense of sight, smell, touch and taste while judging the quality of the tea.
Packing and Marketing
Once the prices are decided, the teas are packed and are ready for the market. Some teas are sent to the whole-sellers who then sell it to retailers who then sell it to you. We on the other hand deal mostly with the gardens directly so that we can bring you fresher teas for a better price.
There! You now have the story of how teas travel from the gardens to your cup. Happy Tea drinking!!
Click here to browse through our selection of fine teas.