Updated: Dec 28, 2020
After water, tea is the most consumed drink in the world, and probably everyone on this planet must have had a cup of tea at some point in their life. Tea can taste nutty, sweet or bitter. Its refreshing taste and mesmerizing aroma makes it a perfect drink in the winter season and a means of unwinding yourself after a hectic day.
For tea lovers, tea is not a beverage but an emotion. Whether it is green tea, black tea, or milk tea, this aromatic beverage is savoured across the world from Asia to California. Did you know that there are thousands of tea types and numerous regions that produce flowers, spices, and flowers that are go into a cup of tea?
The entire process of growing tea is tailored and carefully controlled to produce high-quality tea with particular flavour profiles. Tea artisans monitor the complete tea process from the time when tea seeds are sown in the farm to the instant its aroma hits you. Doing so is necessary so that you get the best experience with the tea.
What Is Tea?
Tea can be divided into two main categories – herbal tisanes and true teas. While true teas are produced using the leaves of Camellia sinensis (the tea plant), herbal teas are produced using a variety of herbs, spices, and flowers. Herbal teas do not contain any tea plant leaves. Flavoured teas are made by combining true tea leaves and herbal tisanes.
To know how tea is grown as well as produced, it is the easiest to begin with true teas, which are of four types – oolong tea, black tea, green tea, and white tea. All of these types are extracted from the exact same leaves. The difference in these four teas arises during production process.
The minor differences in tea result in fragrance, colour and flavour differences. Tea, similar to wine, also varies according to the terroir, and the notion is that soil, climate, region, and growing conditions affect the flavour.
Tea is mostly grown in 30 countries but the biggest producers of tea are India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, China. There are two main varieties of tea plants used in cultivation are – Camellia sinensis var assamica and Camellia sinensis var sinensis. The former type is more popular in the Indian teas while the latter one is typical in Japanese and Chinese teas.
How Is Tea Grown?
The ideal location for growing tea is the one that has cooler climate and receives rainfall of a minimum of 40 inches a year. The tea plants prefer acidic soils, as well as can be cultivated at varying altitudes starting from sea level to 7,000 feet. It is noteworthy that although tea plants at higher altitudes grow slowly, the flavour profile they yield is complex.
Before a tea plant is harvested, it must reach the age of 3 years. Tea is harvested by hand because picking tea leaves by hands preserves the quality of the leaves. Earlier, machines were used but tea growers discovered that machines were too rough and caused damage to the delicate tea leaves. Tea harvests occur twice in a year and the first harvest, which happens in spring, is known as the first flush. On the other hand, the second harvest occurs in summer and is called the second flush.
Tea plants are constantly pruned by picking only two top leaves and buds. Doing so keeps the plants in their early growth stage, promotes new shoots, as well as maximise the harvest outcomes. Harvesters of tea work by hand to pluck tea leaves and put them in big wicker baskets. After the basket is full, the leaves are transferred to a tea processing factory located on the tea plantation.
It is important to keep minimum distance between the tea gardens and tea processing centres, which are generally located on site. This is because as soon as the leaves are harvested, they begin to oxidise. And as mentioned above, different oxidation levels are responsible for varying types of tea.
Production Process Of Tea
Oxidation is crucial in the true tea production. Oxygen reacts with organic matter on a cellular level and causes changes in taste and appearance. It is the same process which causes metal to rust or bananas to turn brown.
· White Tea- It is the least processed type of true teas. Once the leaves are harvested, they are simply sun-dried for 72 hours on big bamboo mats. This not only preserves chemical compounds in leaves but also keeps the colour and flavour light and delicate. Leaves can be dried directly under the sun, in sun shades, using the steaming process, or through blasts of hot air.
· Green Tea- It is partially processed and is green or yellow in colour. Two popular varieties of green tea are matcha green tea and sencha green tea. It gives grassy or nutty taste depending on production process. Green tea flavour is controlled by employing different drying methods (pan-firing method, steaming) to prevent oxidation. Then, tea leaves are rolled into different shapes like small pellets, cakes, and long twigs. After that, they are not allowed to oxidise any further to preserve their earthy flavour and green colour. Finally, they are packed for selling.
· Oolong Tea- The basic production process of black tea and oolong tea is same but oolong tea is semi-oxidised, which means it is oxidised only for a short time. After withering them like white tea leaves, the leaves are rolled for releasing more enzymes. Oolong tea comes in a wide variety of flavours because the oxidation levels vary from 8-80%. The next step after oxidation is pan-firing or roasting the leaves to end oxidation process. Then, they are sold.
· Black Tea- This is highly popular and includes Earl Grey, breakfast teas. Amongst the true tea varieties, black teas are the most oxidised. They have a maroon black or dark brown colour and give a bold taste. The process of making black tea is similar – withering, rolling, oxidising, and drying. The only difference is that black tea is oxidised for a longer duration.
So, the next time you are savouring a cup of tea, remember how much hard work goes into the process. The entire production process is monitored right from the beginning until the end just to offer you the best tasting teas.