What's Healthy About Tea? - A Simple Tea FactoryMany of our finest, hand-crafted teas are produced on small farms with simple factories.
The Large Plantation vs. the Small Farm
We often see lovely images of mountainside tea farms. Tea plants terraced down steep slopes with dozens of workers plucking the tender new leaves. Rows of tea plants as far as you can see. Driving through the tea regions of China, the sight is mesmerizing. And the phrase “all the tea in China” comes to mind as you realized that you cannot even imagine the quantity of all their tea. It is so vast. There are very few photos of the small farms and the family farmers. And yet, some of the finest teas are produced by people who grow, harvest and “finish” their leaves as a family operation using simple, ancient methods. It is here that leaves are roasted in steel woks over wood fire, scenting the leaves with the essence of fruit or pine.
Understanding and experiencing the basic way of making tea helps us better understand the real value of artisan teas.
Like any agricultural product, the final result actually depends on the planning and cultivation of the field. An incredible level of experience and full awareness of the entire tea manufacturing process as well as a sense of partnership with nature is crucial. This is knowledge and a skill often passed down through generations and respected as an art form.
The location of the field establishes the tea’s terroir – the cumulative effects of environmental factors. Even slight variations in soil, elevation, rainfall and temperature dramatically affect the potential flavor of the final tea product. The farmer is already imagining the flavor of a brewed cup as he selects the Camellia sinensis varietal best suited to the field.
Fields are usually planted with clones – cuttings of the parent plant – rather than seeds. Clones are genetic replicas whereas seeds might be a produce of pollination with a different cultivar that would not produce the desired results. Even small fields are designed to maximize the sun and the shade. Tea may be intentionally planted with other crops to protect and enhance the final result. There are hundreds of factors before the harvest that determine what we ultimately taste – including the age of the tea plant.
This is a pluck of a bud and one leaf. Notice that with this cultivar, the bud and leave are very close together so there is only a tiny bit of stem.
Harvesting the Tea
The true Tea Master – someone with tremendous experience and a strong intuitive sense of his fields – makes the critical decisions. Especially about the harvest. The leaves used to make tea are only the new flush. The newest leaves that sprout up on mature plants. When they are harvested by hand, it is referred to as a plucking – not picking. The technique is precise. The stem is gently snapped at the point on the new growth that meets the Tea Master’s instruction. A single bud of an unopened leaf (the highest quality.) A leaf and a bud. Or two leaves and a bud. Each kind of tea requires a certain kind of plucking. A specific set of leaves.
Silver Needles is “bud only”. But rolled oolong teas need the bud and two leaves with the bit of soft stem in order to create the rolled design and the unique flavor.
Withering is an important step after plucking. The leaves are allowed to rest and soften. Since most of the next steps involve manipulating the leaf, they must be able to accept this without breaking.
It is interesting how much this simple step affects not only the shape of the leaf but also the flavor of the final product. Tea Masters and professionals who have the ability to taste these subtle differences are the ones who can make the most informed purchases when selecting for their company and for their customers.
Once the leaves are soft enough to handle without breaking, they are exposed to a heat source for the process that is called “Killing Green”. But it might be more descriptive to call this “Preserving Green”.
By applying heat at this stage, before the leaves begin to brown on their own (like white tea) the natural green color is preserved. You can see this clearly when you brew the leaves, rehydrating them and restoring them to full size as well as color. What we are actually killing with heat are the enzymes that are responsible for color.
For darker teas – oolongs, blacks and darks – the killing green phase is very different.