The tea plant is an evergreen tree of the Camellia family and although it also bears flowers and fruit, only the leaf is used to produce tea. Tea is now cultivated on all five continents between the 43rd parallel in the Northern Hemisphere and the 27th parallel in the Southern Hemisphere.
Among the 200 species of Camellia Theaceae registered today only the Camellia Sinensis is used to produce tea. The leaves can measure from 1/4 inch to 10 inches in length,
Each region has its own specific agricultural properties so the same tea tree will produce different tasting teas depending on the conditions in which it is grown.
Growing tea used to be done from seeds, however that has since changed to the practise of taking cuttings from selected plants and replanting them on to nursery beds where they remain for 12-18 months. As soon as they turn into young plants they are moved to the main plantation and spaced out in such as way that when they are fully grown bushes they will cover the entire area.
The plant is left for four years before any activity takes place then constant pruning and shaping will help form its required height of 1.20m hence and create what is referred to as "the plucking table". In its fifth year the plant should begin to produce. The pruning will continue every 2 years or so in order to keep the plant at ideal plucking height. A mature tea plants does not normally live more that 40-50 years.
Picking Tea Leaves / Tea Plucking
At the end of the fifth year the tea plant is ready to be harvested. Tea picking or plucking is a simple yet critical activity that involves detaching the young shoots from the plants. In almost all countries this task is entrusted to the delicate hands of women. It is a critical operation because the quantity of aromatic substances found in the leaves varies according to their degree of maturity. This operation which consists of a light repeated pruning of the young shoots is carried out in a 7 to 15 days cycle depending on the growth, the climate and the amount of tea to be plucked.
It takes 5 kilos (10 pounds) of fresh leaves about 12,000 shoots to produce 1 kilo (2 pounds) of tea. A tea picker will harvest on average 30 to 50 kilos (65 to 110 pounds) of leaves per day. Once picked the leaves are processed in six different operations
A tea leaf can contain about 70-80 % water. When the leaves are withered they lose approx 60% of their moisture and are soft enough to handle without tearing. Traditionally withering took place in the open air with the leaves exposed to sunlight but nowadays it mostly takes place indoors in a withering hall. The indoor facility should be well ventilated with both temperature and humidity controls in place. The process can last up to 30 hours and the expertise of the operator who is managing the withering needs to use both their eyes and nose in deciding the moment that the withering process should end.
After withering the leaves will be softened. Rolling is intended to break down the cells to release enzymes. Rolling can be done by hand or mechanically and lasts for approx 30 minutes. It is the length and the force of the rolling that decides the final result in the cup. Lightly rolled leaves give a light liquour, with more energetic rolling producing a more full bodied robust result.
After rolling the leaves will become sticky, curled and often clogged together. If clogged together then they are passed through a special machine equipped with a type of comb which separates the leaves and this is called the riddling process.
The three most important factors during oxidation are humidity, temperature and the duration of the oxidation. The length of time required for oxidation varies from one to three hours and is also dictated according to the quality of the leaves, the time of year, the geographical region and the colour required in the final tea. This is a very specialised skill to monitor the oxidation process. The first "odour peak" or first nose occurs after approx 15 minutes with the appearance of new aromatic compounds especially those responsible for the woody, fruity, spicy and vanilla notes. When the second "odour peak" or second nose arrives then is normally the appropriate time to halt the process. The colour of the leaves also change to red and brown during oxidation and the tea expert should know by looking at the colour when to stop the process.
To stop the oxidation process once the desired result has been reached the leaves must be heated immediately to a temperature that will destroy the heat sensitive enzymes Firing is another stage which demands great expertise, too little drying out and the water content of the leaves remains too high so that they risk being attacked by mould. Too much drying out because the temperature is too high can result in a tea that lacks flavour. After firing the leaves must still contain approx 5% water they should never be 100% dry.
6 Sorting / Grading
Involves the sorting of the tea into broken and whole leaves. The broken leaves may have been damaged in the production process or they can be produced artificially by chopping machines. The whole leaves are graded according to how fine they are and this can be done by hand sieve or by machines. After grading the tea, is put into silos and stored to await packing.
The colours of Tea
It may surprise you to learn that black, green, white, oolong and pu-erh tea all come from the same plant. Have you ever wondered, beyond the obvious differences of taste, what makes black tea black or green tea green? It’s all about when it is harvested and how the leaves are treated after it is picked.
Black tea is a popular choice, with a higher caffeine amount of about 40-50 milligrams of caffeine per cup. Made with the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant (the tea plant), the leaves are rolled and oxidized until black. This produces a robust tea.
Also made with the leaves of Camellia sinensis, the oolong tea process starts with them withering under the sun. The oxidizing period is for a shorter time frame compared to the black tea, as it is stopped once the leaves give off a fruity fragrance (though note that the rate of oxidation in oolong teas varies greatly on the variety). The leaves are then rolled and fired. Generally, there is a lower amount of caffeine per cup – about 30 milligrams. One way to think of oolong tea is half way between green tea and black.
Green tea is made from the same tea plant, but as tea drinkers know, it has a dramatically different flavour. The reason? The leaves are not allowed to oxidize at all, but are heated soon after harvest, allowing them to retain their natural green colour. Green tea can be quite grassy, or “green” in flavour, and is often mixed with other flavours, such as flower petals, peppermint or fruits. This is the most popular tea in many Asian countries. It is lower yet in caffeine with about 25 milligrams of caffeine per cup.
A distinct green tea, this non-oxidized tea is unique because it is made with the whole tea leaf ground into a powder. This powder is then used to make a delicate and antioxidant-rich tea.
Yellow tea is made in a similar way as green tea, but the leaves are dried slower, allowing the damp leaves to yellow (instead of staying green). The tea leaves will be yellow-green in colour, and it has its own unique taste and aroma.
Kukicha or twig tea
This interesting and low-caffeine tea is made with the stems, stalks and twigs of the tea plant. It is low in caffeine and has a sweet, well-rounded flavour. It can be processed like green tea with no oxidation time, or it can be oxidized.
Sometimes described as the dark tea, and instead of being fermented once, it is fermented twice. After it has gone through the normal oxidation process, it is placed in huge covered piles, sprinkled with water, and left to ferment. Natural, good bacteria forms on the tea, much like what happens with yogurt or sauerkraut. Unlike other teas that lose value and flavour with age, a good pu-erh will actually improve in flavour like wine. Like black tea, this is a higher caffeine tea.
On the other side of the spectrum is white tea. Light in colour when brewed, and light in caffeine (about 15 milligrams per cup), it is made with the youngest tea buds and leaves, and is not oxidized at all, but steamed and dried after harvest. Instead of a robust cup of tea, expect a delicate, subtle tea with a natural sweetness.
The above are all true or real teas, made from the tea plant. But there are other beautiful brews to enjoy as well.
Red and green rooibos
This herbal tea is made from a plant belonging to the legume family. The oxidized version has a hearty red colour and sweet flavour. The green version has not been oxidized and has a grassier flavour, much like green tea. It is caffeine-free.
Finally, there are a wide variety of beverages (tisanes) made with herbs, fruits, flower petals, and spices. Whether you want a familiar peppermint or lemon infusion , or an exotically spiced herbal cinnamon, there is a lovely array of herbal infusions, many of which were traditionally thought to have medicinal value, and certainly culinary value.
Don't forget that teas and infusions once brewed can be enjoyed but as a hot or cold beverages.