Tea: Everything you ever wanted to know (part 2)

by Brooke Davis April 13, 2016

Tea: Everything you ever wanted to know (part 2)

In our first instalment of this series, we introduced you to the wonderful world of tea. We outlined the history of tea drinking, where it comes from, how to prepare it and the health benefits associated with drinking tea.

Now we'll get into the nitty gritty...tea growing regions, how tea is grown, how the leaves are harvested and the processing stage.

Tea Growing Regions

tea production quantities by country

We know that tea drinking most likely originated in China, but there are now more than 40 countries growing tea worldwide. Having said this, only a small number of regions produce marketable quantities, including Argentina, Brazil, China, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Taiwan (Formosa) and Turkey. According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), China is still the world's largest producer of tea, with India following close behind - Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey (in that order) round out the top 5.

Tea Plantations 

tea plantation

If you've ever seen a tea plantation (in real life, or in pictures), you'll notice they all have several things in common...rows and rows (or clumps) of beautiful, lush, green bushes for days. And hilly...very hilly. Of course there are plantations on level ground, however they are traditionally built at higher altitudes, in mountainous/hilly areas. Why? The climate plays a large role in the volume and quality of the harvest. The tea plant flourishes when the climate is hot and humid with rain falling regularly throughout the year. The higher altitudes also improve quality with smaller yields, while the sloping grounds allow for natural drainage. So why in rows? Tea is planted in rows for several reasons, providing space for growth, improved drainage and we suppose it helps with harvesting as well.

Harvesting

tea pickerOk, so we know what you must be thinking...tea is the 2nd most consumed beverage in the world, so that means some seriously advanced technology must be in play to produce that much tea. Unfortunately you'd be wrong. Well, to be fair, not completely wrong. Yes, there are plantations that use harvesting machines, however it's important to note that the machines can damage the leaves before processing, so higher quality teas are garnered through hand picking. The majority of tea plantations still pick leaves by hand, and although leaves are picked often, only a few of the top young leaves are picked, along with a portion of the stem and the bud. This happens continuously throughout the summer and allows the plant to be harvested for as many as 100 years.

Processing

The processing of tea leaves varies by producer, but typically follows 6 stages:

  1. withering/drying: tea leaves are laid out to dry anywhere from 8-24 hours to remove moisture that might otherwise lead to mold
  2. curling/rolling: the leaves are then pressed and rolled by machine, or by hand - this releases compounds and enzymes that will give tea it's unique flavor, and also helps to release more water for evaporation
  3. fermentation: when further oxidation is required, the leaves are laid out again in a warm room with high humidity - liquid in the leaf will begin to ferment (oxidize), and the flavor profile will continue to change
  4. firing/fixation: a final drying process drives water content down to 4%-6%, which helps to preserve quality during long-term storage, and stops the oxidation process
  5. sorting: vibrating sieves separate the leaves into uniform shapes and sizes, and filters out dust-like particles
  6. packing: finally, the tea leaves are packed and are ready for distribution

That's it for part 2 - next we'll talk about all the different types of tea and how the fermenting process creates the unique flavor and aroma variations.

Now...go drink some tea. ;)




Brooke Davis
Brooke Davis

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