How Is Tea Grown? The Story of Tea From Harvest to Cup

 

Tea is one of the most sought-after beverages in the world. It is consumed across the globe from Asia to California. There are thousands of different tea cultivars and varieties, and hundreds of regions that produce the leaves, flowers, and spices that make their way into teacups. The tea growing process is carefully monitored and tailored to produce quality tea with specific flavor profiles.

Tea artisans control the tea process from the moment the tea seeds are sown to the instant the aroma hits your olfactory senses. Each step along the way ensures the best tea possible and is essential to producing different types of tea.

What Is Tea?

There are two main categories of tea: true teas and herbal tisanes. True teas are made using the leaves of the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis. Herbal teas are made from a variety of flowers, spices, and herbs, but do not contain any leaves of the tea plant. Flavored teas are infusions of herbal tisanes with true tea leaves

 

There are six types of true teas including white, green, oolong, yellow, black, and pu-erh.

All six types of true teas are derived from the same leaves. The difference in type arises during the production process. For example, some types of tea are oxidized while others are simply sun-dried. These differences result in the significant flavor and color differences we experience while sipping different teas. Tea, like wine, also varies depending on terroir—the notion that region, soil, climate, and growing conditions affect flavor.

Vista of tea plantation

Where is Tea Grown?

Tea plants grow best in cooler climates with rainfall amounts of at least 40 inches per year. These plants prefer acidic soils and can be cultivated at different altitudes. Around the world tea plants are currently grown between sea level and up to altitudes of 7,000 feet. Plants at higher elevations grow more slowly and develop more complex flavor profiles.

Dozens of countries including Taiwan, Indonesia, and the United States cultivate tea. The main producers of tea are China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. There are two principal varieties of the tea plant used in tea cultivation: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and C. sinensis var assamica. The former is typical in Chinese and Japanese teas while the latter is more popular in Indian teas.

True teas are often classified by their growing region. India is famous for black tea varieties including Assam and Darjeeling. Production of these teas increased in India during the period of British colonial rule. It was during this period that tea estates popped up throughout the countryside. India was catapulted into the tea trade and became the main competitor to China in tea production. Sri Lanka is famous for Ceylon tea, which reflects the country’s previous title.

Both the Chinese and Japanese are famous for green tea cultivation. In Japan, the Shizuoka prefecture is the most active in tea production. The most famous Chinese tea production regions include the Fujian, Anhui, and Hainan provinces. The difference in terroir and production processes results in distinctive green tea blends. Chinese green teas are roasted and tend to have a smokier flavor while Japanese green teas are steamed and thus have a more vegetal in flavor.

How is Tea Harvested?

Tea plants must reach an age of three years before leaves can be harvested for tea use. Tea is harvested mainly by hand because it preserves the quality of the leaves. Machines were used for many years, but tea growers found they were too rough and damaged the delicate tea leaves. Harvests typically occur twice per year. The first harvest is known as the 'first flush' and occurs each spring. The second harvest takes place in the summer and is referred to as the 'second flush'.

The plants are constantly pruned throughout the year by picking just the top two leaves and buds. This keeps the plants in early growth stages, promotes new shoots, and maximizes harvest outcomes.

Tea harvesters work by had to remove the tea leaves and place them in large wicker baskets. Once the baskets are full, they are transported to a tea processing plant on the tea plantation. Tea processing centers are located on site because the leaves begin to undergo oxidation as soon as they are harvested. Different levels of oxidation are the key to different types of true teas.

Green tea blends in dishes on a wood table

Tea Production Process

Oxidation is essential in the production of true teas. Oxygen reacts on a cellular level with organic matter and results in changes in appearance and taste. This is the same process that causes bananas to turn brown or metal to develop rust. In tea production, tea experts maintain precise control over the oxidation process to create their desired type of tea.

White Tea

White tea is the least processed of the true teas. The leaves are harvested and simply sun dried. This preserves the chemical compounds in the leaves and results in a light colored tea. The minimal production process results in a delicate flavor profile.

Step 1: Withering

Tea leaves are withered for 72 hours on large bamboo mats. Depending on the type of white tea, leaves are dried in direct sun or under sun shades.

Step 2: Drying

Tea leaves are dried at temperatures of 110 F to stop the oxidation process from taking place. Some white teas are dried using a steaming process while others are subjected to blasts of hot air.

Green tea on a bamboo mat

Green Tea

Green tea is a partially processed tea that is light yellow or green in color. It comes in many popular varieties including sencha green tea and matcha green tea. The flavors of green tea can vary from nutty to grassy depending on the production process. All green teas undergo the following three steps, but steps 2 and 3 can be repeated to elicit certain flavor profiles.

Step 1: Steaming/Roasting

As mentioned, green tea flavors can be altered by using either steam or pan-firing methods. Japanese green teas are subjected to steaming where hot air is applied in a humid environment to prevent oxidation. In Chinese teas, the leaves are roasted in pans over open fires or in large ovens to prevent oxidation.

Step 2: Rolling

Green tea leaves are rolled into shapes including long twigs, small pellets, and cakes or balls. The tea leaves are not allowed to oxidize after rolling. This preserves the green color of the leaves and earthy flavors.

Step 3: Drying

The leaves are immediately dried and sorted by grade and shape for sale.

Oolong Tea

Both oolong tea and black tea undergo the same basic production process. The difference arises in the amount of time during which the leaves are allowed to oxidize. Oolong tea is only semi-oxidized. That means it is oxidized, but only for a short period of time.

Step 1: Withering

The tea leaves are withered just like white tea leaves.

Step 2: Rolling

The wilted leaves are rolled to release more enzymes that encourage oxidation. During this stage, the oolong tea leaves are rolled into distinctive shapes depending on the type of oolong tea. Read more about Oolong Teas here

Step 3: Oxidation

Experts at the tea factories oxidize leaves to predetermined levels. Oolong teas have oxidation levels that range from 8% to 80%. This results in a wide range of colors and flavors. Once the tea leaves reach these oxidation levels, they are subjected to drying.

Step 4: Drying

Roasting or pan-firing the leaves ends the oxidation process. The leaves are then sorted for sale.

Yellow Tea

Yellow teas are processed similarly to green teas but undergo a short period of oxidation before drying. This added step mellows out much of the grassy flavor common to green teas.

Step 1: Withering

Tea leaves are withered in a similar manner as white teas.

Step 2: Drying

The leaves are dried to prevent the enzymes in the leaves from oxidizing.

Step 3: Yellowing

After drying, leaves destined to be yellow teas are drenched in water and wrapped in paper. The leaves are then left in these humid conditions for a few days. The mild post-drying oxidation causes the leaves to turn yellow.

Step 4: Shaping and Drying

In the final step the leaves are shaped and dried one last time before being packaged for sale.

Learn more about choosing the best yellow teas here

Black Tea

Black tea is extremely popular and includes varieties such as Earl Grey and breakfast teas. Black tea is the most oxidized of the true tea varieties. It has a dark brown or maroon black color and offers a bold taste similar to coffee. Black tea is produced through two methods: the orthodox method or the CTC method. The orthodox method is entirely done by hand while the CTC method uses machines. CTC stands for cut-tear-curl, which describes the mechanical process used to process the leaves. Both methods use the same steps when producing black tea.

Step 1: Withering

Freshly harvested leaves are withered in direct sunlight. The leaves are typically spread out on large bamboo mats and left in the sun until the leaves become limp.

Step 2: Rolling

Once the leaves are pliable, they are rolled to release moisture and enzymes that will react with oxygen in the next step. Leaves produced with the orthodox method maintain their complete shape while the CTC method produces tea dust and fannings. The orthodox method involves rolling the leaves on sharp bamboo mats or hard surfaces. The CTC method rolls the leaves in giant metal drums with sharp teeth. The CTC method is often preferred for tea destined for use in tea bags.

Step 3: Oxidization

This is the key step in the process that differentiates a black tea from white, green or oolong. The tea leaves are spread across bamboo mats in a cool, humid environment. They are left to oxidize until the leaves turn deep brown in color.

Step 4: Drying

The oxidized leaves are dried using a variety of methods. Some leaves are steamed while others are roasted

Pu-erh

Pu-erh teas, traditionally produced in the Yunan Province of China, are teas which have undergone a period of fermentation or microbial processing.

Step 1: Withering

Some tea leaves are withered in the sunlight after picking, at the discretion of the tea manufacturer.

Step 2: Roasting, Shaping

Leaves are dry-roasted to halt full oxidation and shaped before being left to dry in the sun. Unlike green teas, pu-erhs are not artificially dried which means mild oxidation can occur.

Step 3: Fermentation

The sun-dried leaves are kept in a warm, humid environment and exposed to controlled bacterial and fungal fermentation for an extended period. Once the leaves have reached “ripeness”, pu-erhs are sent to the factory for packing.

Step 4: Pressing

The pu-erh leaves are next mechanically pressed into shapes such as squares, bricks, or spheres. The tea cakes are often impressed with the symbol of the manufacturer.

Enjoy the Tea Experience

The tea experience does not start when you begin drinking tea. It begins with centuries-old traditions and methods that fine-tune the flavor profiles and appearance of each leaf. The experience is about appreciating how the tea leaves are grown, harvested, and produced in pain-staking processes. Tea isn't just unique based on the plant used to make it. Minor adjustments to the production process can take the same leaves and create exquisite and contrasting flavor profiles. The next time you brew tea, take a second to relish how much time and effort went into your steaming mug.

 

 

November 22, 2020 — Sencha Tea Bar