All tea comes from the same plant, but the way that it is harvested causes some of the major differences between tea types. Things like the age of the leaf in the growing season, how it is shredded, and how long it is aged all play a factor.
The tea harvesting season is in full swing in Myanmar, and we’ve just got back with some special first flush teas from there. We’ll be talking about them in future posts. In this post, we’re going to talk about how tea is harvested.
In general, tea is grown at high altitudes because it gives better flavor. Once a tea plant is at least four years old, the tea can be harvested without damage to the plant for around 100 years. On many plantations, picking the leaves is still done by hand. Machine harvesting can damage the leaves too much before processing. For special teas like first flush teas, hand-harvesting is a must to preserve the highest level of quality.
Another consideration is which leaves and buds are picked off the plant during harvest. Older leaves have a stronger flavor, so some plantations focus only on getting the top two leaves and buds from each plant for fine flavored teas. Due to the small size of tea leaves, women do a lot of the harvesting because their hands are more nimble.
Initial drying and rolling the leaves
The next step in the process is to dry the leaves. Tea leaves contain a lot of water; as much as 75%-80% of the leaf is water. If this water isn’t removed before packaging, the leaves would mold. However, this water must be removed in stages. First, the leaves are spread out over an area and allowed to dry out for a time.
Once the leaves are dry, they must be crushed slightly in order to release more water for evaporation. This is normally done by rolling the leaves by hand or by machines. Both methods of rolling can impart distinct changes in the final result of the tea. Machine rolling results in a more uniform product, and is used in mass-produced teas.
Fermentation and final drying
After the leaves are crushed, the liquid in the leaf will begin to “ferment”. It’s technically an oxidation process. The leaves are placed in a warm room with high humidity. Depending on the length of time the leaves are oxidized, the tea leaves will change from green tea to black tea. It takes about four hours from the start of fermentation to make black tea.
Once the leaves are fermented, all the remaining water has to be removed. These are done in high-heat rooms that drive the water content down to 4%-6%. The leaves are then sorted by size and packaged.
For more information about tea, take a look through the rest of our blog posts.