Leaf to Cup
Posted: July 1, 2019
Tea sommeliers (experts) don’t hurry and take big gulps. They take time to savor and appreciate their drink. You would too if you knew how much work went into making tea! Boiling water is the easy part.
All tea comes from one plant, Camellia sinensis. Different ways of processing its leaves produce different flavors.
Pruning—Three years of growing and pruning produces a plant of manageable size for harvest workers. It yields the maximum number of leaves.
Plucking—Regularly harvesting leaves keeps the plant in its growth stage. That means the plant won’t flower or produce seeds. A leaf bud and a few tender new leaves are plucked from the end of each new shoot. The best tea is hand-picked. Tea pickers have quick, nimble fingers. They collect just the fresh growth. A few young leaves and a bud at the end of the stem is all they want.
Withering—Leaves are dried for several hours outside on trays or indoors where dry air is blown over them. This reduces water content and weight by up to 70 percent. It makes leaves pliable (bendable) for rolling.
Rolling—Machines are used to roll and scrunch up the leaves. Rolling was traditionally done by hand. Now only rare, high quality, expensive teas are hand-rolled. The rolling process breaks down the cell walls of the leaf, releasing the oils and enzymes that give each tea its unique flavor.
Oxidation—A cut apple turns brown from oxidation. The same process happens when rolled tea leaves are laid out for several hours. The oils that have been released in rolling react with the oxygen in the air, changing the chemical makeup and color of the leaves. White and green teas are not allowed to oxidize as much as black teas.
Firing—Leaves are heated in ovens to halt the oxidation process and lock in the final flavor. Final moisture content is about three percent.
Packaging—Processing is complete and the flavor of a tea is set. But part of the pleasure of tea is in how it is presented. That’s why there are many different beautiful serving pots, cups, trays, and tools. Great packaging and design are also an important part of enjoying tea.