A global ingredient that has been fought over for centuries, tea grows best in certain parts of the world with specific climates. Learn more about how tea is made.
Tea Growing and Manufacturing
The flavor, aroma, and health benefits of tea all start at the seed of the magical plant that gives us tea; camellia sinensis.
As with wine and coffee, the geographic location where a crop is grown plays a vital role in the final epigenetic makeup of a grown ingredient.
This is known as terroir.
Every cup of tea is unique because every crop is unique.
Each tea has a unique terroir that is the result of the region and its climate and soil.
The weather leading up to a specific harvest can cause variations from one crop to another even when grown the same way as previous crops.
The first part of tracing the growing process starts at the harvest level, also known as the "plucking."
How the tea leaves are processed after harvest plays a vital role in the final classification and quality of the tea.
For example, some teas are fermented (black tea) while others are steamed, dried or baked.
Learning the basics of tea manufacturing will make you a smarter consumer and more appreciative tea drinker.
Tea Cultivation and Growing
The process of cultivating and harvesting tea is the most important step in determining the final tea flavor and quality.
A harvest spells the difference between a delicate tasting tea, a bold, overpowering tea, and everything in between.
The camellia sinensis plant typically grows in tropical and subtropical climates at higher altitudes.
The high altitude coastal regions of China have a long tradition of tea cultivation, but as the plant has spread across the globe it has found other suitable regions to thrive in.
The mountainous regions in Japan, for example, are known for their tea. More recently, Indian and European climates have shown strong performance in producing quality tea.
The amount of sunlight or shade the tea plants grow in is one of the foremost considerations in producing tea leaves.
Many farmers will cover tea plants with share for periods of time to stimulate growth of certain chemicals in the leaves, thus altering their flavor and nutritional profiles.
For example: Tecnha, the tea used to make matcha, is progressively covered with shade leading up to harvest to make the leaves fight harder to continue photosynthesis. This makes the leaves tender, which makes them more easily ground into the fine powder you get later on called matcha. The shade also boosts the chlorophyll content of the leaves while improving the amino acid content.
Typically, the shading is created by using a framework of reed screens and rice straw and is continually increased to provide less and less sunlight to the tea as it gets closer to harvest.
Most shade grown teas fall into three distinct categories of shade exposure.
The gyokuro and matcha categories are usually shaded to about 90% shading for 2-3 weeks. Gyokuro and matcha have differences during the drying, rolling, and refining process later, but for the growing process they are the same.
The other Japanese shade grown tea is kabusecha, which is 40 - 50% shaded for 1 - 2 weeks and undergoes a similar processing as gyokuro.
Through selective breeding over hundreds of years, the gyokuro tea is even more specialized. Clonal varieties of tea plants have been developed specifically for gyokuro, which have small, sweet leaves.
Because of this meticulous selection and unique processing, gyokuro is by far the most expensive Japanese green tea and is highly regarded by experts.
In Japan, there is friction regarding the claim to "best" producer of gyokuro. Annual competitions are serious affairs, with Uji and Okabe (in Shizuoka prefecture) most often contending for the the prize.
Plucking The Perfect Cup of Tea
Most plucking happens twice a year during the early spring and early summer / late spring.
In Japan, the first harvest is known as “Ichiban-cha” or “Shincha,” which denotes the highest quality tea from that year.
"First harvest" is a key term reserved for the highest quality green teas in the world. (Our Wild Matcha 1st harvest is one very tea!)
Teas hand-plucked by expert pluckers prevents broken leaves and partial flushes that you get from machinery-based harvesting, both which reduce the quality of a harvest.
For high quality teas, such as gyokuro and ceremonial grade matcha, it's essential to hand pick leaves.
Between competition-grade gyokuro and consumer-grade gyokuro there are subtle differences.
Explained by a man named Maso Kono from Minamiyamashiro village, the competition-grade gyokuro is picked with just the smallest bud or shoot of the tea plant while gyokuro for consumers is plucked one week later and includes a whole single leaf.
Similarly strict harvesting policies are used for Silver Tip Pekoe tea, which is the highest quality grade amongst white tea variations; only one bud and two leaves are plucked and only if the weather is perfect for plucking—sunny days when the air is cool and dry.
After plucking, some of these leaves are left to wilt in a process by which leaves are put out in the sun or a cool breezy room to remove moisture. This process can breakdown the proteins, lead to higher amino acid (and caffeine) content, and change the taste of the tea considerably.
To keep in mind, these plucking standards are reserved for the highest quality tea producers in the world. Much of the tea you find in the tea bags lining grocery stores across the country is not made this way.
Classifying Tea At Harvest
The first part of the manufacturing process starts when the leaves are removed from the tea trees. This is called the plucking.
Most teas are plucked by hand, although some mass-produced tea is plucked using heavy machinery. (Hint: avoid these.)
The more experienced the tea plucker, the better tasting the final cup of tea. If a plucker picks leaves too young or too mature, the tea will have inconsistent flavors due to the differences in size and nutrition content of the leaves as they pass through the rest of tea-manufacturing process.
As far as the camellia sinesis plant goes, the different classes of tea is mostly determined by what happens after the leaves are picked (except in the case of matcha in which the quality is determined by when the leaves are plucked.)
The following six categories comprise the majority of harvested tea from the camellia sinensis plant:
White tea - wilted leaves that remain unoxidized
Yellow tea - unwilted leaves that remain unoxidized (but allowed to yellow)
Green tea - unwilted leaves that remain unoxidized
Oolong tea - wilted leaves that are bruised and partially oxidized
Black tea - wilted (sometimes crushed) leaves and fully oxidized
Post-fermented - Green tea allowed to ferment / compose (Example: Pu-erh tea)
Oxidation & Drying Tea
After tea leaves are plucked, there are two primary processes used to change the chemical makeup and flavor of the tea leaves.
The first process is called oxidation, which starts during the wilting process.
For oolong and black tea, the process is continued until the desired amount of time has passed. The amount of time is carefully calculated to produce the desired level of oxidation.
As you probably guessed, various oxidation levels result in various flavor profiles.
Lighter oolong teas will oxidize to a darkness of, say, 5% - 40% while darker variations, namely black tea and pu-erh, can range from 60% - 100%.
The oxidation adds flavor, richness, and color to the tea.
Once the oxidation process is complete, the drying process is the most common next step.
The drying process is typically the final step in most tea leaf manufacturing before it is packaged and shipped off to customers.
During the drying state, the leaves are either sun-dried, air-dried, or oven-dried with the goal of removing the moisture from the leaves so it can be packed and shelf-stable.
Some teas go through an additional post-fermentation process, where they are fermented a second time. For example, green pu-erh tea must go through a second process to get the mellow flavor or it ends up too bitter.
Your Cup of Tea
While the tea grower and manufacturer has done their job producing the tea, there is more for us, the tea drinker and consumer, to consider for determining the quality and final flavor of our tea.
After the tea leaves are prepared for sale, there are usually a few final steps that determine what form the tea will be sold to consumers.
Most tea is cut and sifted into small particles so it can fit in tea bags.
This is not the tea an educated tea drinker consumes.
What we want is high-quality, as whole ingredient as we can find, loose leaf tea.
And a general rule we note is: the bigger the ingredients, the better.
The smaller the tea leaves or tea ingredinets, the more susceptible to losing flavor and nutrition and the more likely the tea can grow mold, like mycotoxins.
*Note: we are referring to loose leaf dried teas in this case and not finely ground matcha tea, which is a different category of tea altogether.
By the time the tea ends up in your infuser, it has undergone hundreds of processes, each one a direct or indirect decision by the farmer, manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer.
From growing, plucking, drying to shipping, processing and packing, that tea has quite the story to tell.
And after that first sip, you'll know if it's good story or a bad one.
Tea and "Tea"
You'd think the farmers and manufacturers would have more of a say in how their tea is presented and sold to the market, but that's simply not the case.
For better or worse, it's the tea retailers that control the image of tea as it is presented to the public.
As an example, according to digital trends, in January 2014 “matcha” has risen as a popular search term in the United States, showcasing the increase in demand for matcha green tea.
Unfortunately, companies like Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf have made popular matcha drinks using low-grade produced matcha tea combined with milk and sugar.
A sugar and milk-filled matcha latte leaves little room for acquiring—and appreciating—a taste for true matcha.
These same companies have popularized sweetened tea in the form of brewed tea with added sugar as well as blends of tea that have artificial flavors and sugar added to the blend.
These added flavorings mask the true beauty of tea on top of altering the palate and taste perception of the public.
But this doesn't concern you because you are an educated tea drinker and you choose loose leaf tea and prepare it at home with some lemon and a dash of honey!
Next up is Tea and Health... click here.