What's Healthy About Tea? - From the Leaf to the Cup

A glimpse at the journey of tea.

In the print version of “The Everything Healthy Tea Book”, I included the following comment:

 

Understanding the basics of growing, harvesting, exporting, and selling teas can help one select the best quality and value. The care with which your tea is handled, beginning at the source, ultimately determines its benefits and your best choice.

 

Donaldson, Babette. The Everything Healthy Tea Book: Discover the Healing Benefits of Tea (Kindle Locations 370-373). Adams Media. Kindle Edition.

From the Leaf to the Cup

(Page 17 – 19 in the print version)

Beginning on page 17 of the print version of The Everything Healthy Tea Book are a series of short sections about the newly harvested tea leaves making this international journey. Now that I look back, there are several things I failed to include and some factors that I did not stress as strongly as I would like to do now. Thank you for sharing this opportunity to revise and edit the original.

Small Farms & Large Plantations

In the original version I did not describe the difference between small farms and large, commercial plantations or the relationships between them. When I wrote this in 2014, we relied on traditional distribution. Over the last four years, this has changed dramatically and we consumers now have the opportunity to get to know small farmers and even to order directly from them. We may assume that this direct order is more beneficial to then – giving them a higher price per pound for their product. What is not always so obvious is the crucial relationship between these farms and larger corporate operations.

It is the guarantee that the individual farmers can sell a known quantity each year that keeps them more secure. The percentage that is held back for the more hand-crafted teas and sold directly is usually a small percentage of the entire crop. The farmers need both the security and the creative freedom to thrive in these new markets.

Of particular note: As domestic markets in tea producing countries develop, there is likely to be much less outreach to and reliance on Western markets. The result may be that we will not have access to the very best teas.

Orthodox & CTC

In the original version I did not adequately introduce the major difference in overall tea production. The publisher’s editors wanted to avoid technical jargon.

CTC – Cut/Tear/Curl  is a method for making commodity tea. Wikipedia defines it as: Crush, tear, curl (sometimes cut, tear, curl) is a method of processing black tea in which the leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of sharp teeth that crush, tear, and curl the tea into small, hard pellets.  It is by far the greatest volume of manufactured tea. The process is entirely mechanized. Even if the field. Machines can harvest huge quantities of fresh leaf and pour it directly into a system that requires very little human interaction.

Orthodox is the term that we use to refer to handcrafted, whole leaf teas where more traditional methods of production are part of preserving the original leaf during manufacture. It may be that broken leaf is also part of orthodox methods. But this is not the same as the mastication of CTC.

When fields are selected and planted, it is almost always known in advance which kind of tea product is intended.

 

Beginning in the field, the variables include soil, temperature, season, rainfall, pests, and pesticides (or the lack thereof).

Donaldson, Babette. The Everything Healthy Tea Book: Discover the Healing Benefits of Tea (Kindle Locations 365-366). Adams Media. Kindle Edition.

Considerations for Harvest

Fields are closely watched to select the beginning of seasonal harvests. These vary greatly with the weather – and more now than in past decades when climate was more predictable. Since we use only the new leaves for tea, the number of times that leaves can be harvested varies greatly by regions. Colder climates and higher elevations may have only one harvest. Most have 2-3. But Equatorial regions enjoy year-round “flushes” with new leaves sprouting and then being plucked every few weeks.

Flavors of tea from the same bush also changes throughout the year. Spring teas and the first emerging leaves are nothing like those that sprout after heavy rain. The value of these seasonal teas is also variable.

By Hand vs. By Machine

Harvesting tea by hand is highly labor intensive and requires practice and a precise, gentle touch. The majority of people who do this kind of work are women. But hand harvest is also critical for teas planted on steep hillsides and also in groves of ancient trees. Depending on the size of the leaf, a pound of dry, finished tea may require between 7,000 and 70,000 plucks.

Tea pluckers are usually paid by the amount of tea picked. Baskets of fresh leaf are filled and weighed before they are taken to the area where they will be laid in the sun to wither and soften.

Only slightly more mechanized than hand picking is a simple tool that looks like a pair of hedge clippers with a cloth bag attached. The blade of the clippers snaps a swath of dozens of shoots, which then fall into the attached collection bag. It is the most basic form of machine harvest and is certainly a more rapid method than breaking each stem one by one. Another simple version of the machine harvester operated by a single person has a small gasoline-powered blade. Increasingly larger versions exist, such as a wheeled one that moves through the rows of plants, operated by four to five workers, replacing the work of fifty people.

 Donaldson, Babette. The Everything Healthy Tea Book: Discover the Healing Benefits of Tea (Kindle Locations 400-404). Adams Media. Kindle Edition.