Tea Preparation – From Field to Home
Tea preparation is quite different from tea production. The production is the picking of the leaves and buds of the cultivated tree native to China and the sub tropical areas of Southeast Asia. This specific species, Camellia sinensis, can grow in the wild up to thirty feet, but careful trimming can keep it to a waist height bush, which is far easier to harvest.
From Field to Processing
The timing of picking the upper one to two inches of the branches is done during the height of the growing season. The age of the leaves, called flushes, affects the strength of the flavor of the finished product. Flushes re-grow roughly every ten days, depending on conditions in the area. The process involved is careful managed to prevent over harvesting of any single plant.
Workers traverse the tight rows between plants, using a fast snapping action of the wrist to pick the flushes without bruising the stems. The goal is a clean break that helps prevent damage and allows the new leaves to grow the same as the harvested ones. The leaves then go into a large wicker basket on the workers back, with a single tree being able to produce up to three thousand leaves. This may seem plentiful, but processing the leaves into marketable tea means that these three thousand leaves ends with approximately one pound of product. The reason finer teas are still hand picked is because machine picked teas then to have more stems and heavily bruised leaves than traditionally harvested methods. This results in a lower quality tea, and amazingly, the majority of drinkers are unaware that they are having machine-harvested tea.
Once picked, workers separate flushes according to the time of year that specific leaves are picked, which elevation they are grown at and even where in the plantation they are grown. Some plantations have been in production for so long that experts can discern the subtle flavors produced. The grading and special attention paid during the preparation of the leaves is what creates the different types of true tea that we are so familiar with.
The steps involved after tea harvesting depend on desired flavor or combination of flavors desired. With black tea and Oolong tea step one is oxidation. The tealeaves are allowed to wilt naturally, which causes the green chlorophyll to release tannins and become progressively darker. Careful control over humidity and temperature in conjunction with this process is what creates the multiple types of teas from one plant.
The timing of the oxidation is the key to not only the production of dried tea for use as a beverage, but for use in cosmetics, as a dye and in some methods of treating leather. In order to stop oxidation tea may be steamed, which is a very old and traditional approach, or pan fired (a process that began in 17th century China). For those gardeners who might like to grow their own tea bush, you can learn these processes fairly simply.
Processing Tea at Home
For green tea, harvest young tea buds and leaves and leave them to dry in a shady place for 2 hours. Steam them as you might a vegetable for about 3 minutes until lightly wilted, or roast them in a skillet for the same amount of time, then dry them in a low heat oven for 20 or so minutes. Oolong tea also comes from young leaves and buds, but wilt the leaves in the sunlight for about 40 minutes. Bring into the house and leave them to cool, stirring every hour for two hours. You’ll know you’ve done this correctly if the leaf edge begins to turn red. Now you can dry the tea in the oven as you did the green tea.
For black tea a little more work is involved. Roll the leaves in your hands until they begin to turn red. Put these on a drying try in a cool area for 3 days before drying in the oven. While your final tea may not be “perfect” by commercial standards, the freshness makes a difference too. Store your processed tea in an airtight container out of the sun in a cool, dry area as with other herbs.
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Here are some other related resources.