The most important thing to know about tea is that it is a natural product. It is a tea leaf plucked, withered, shaped, fermented (or maybe not) and dried out. But it is how this is done that makes every tea unique.
There are two types of tea bush; the Camellia Sinensis var. sinensis is a native of China and the Camellia Sinensis var. assamica is a native of Assam, India. The Chinese type has a smaller leaf and is the predominant type found in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Ceylon and South India whereas the larger leaf Assam bush is found mainly in North India, and across Africa.
The bush is pruned and trained to produce as many growing points as possible and when the pluckers move between the bushes they will ‘pluck’ the fresh growth. If the aim is to make a top quality end product, only the top ’two leaves and a bud’ will be plucked, as further down the stem the leaves become harder and coarser.
The leaf needs to shed some of its water content before it can be shaped and to do this it is usually laid out on a wire mesh in large troughs. Air circulates through the leaf and water evaporates. Depending on the weather this might take 14 hours before the garden manager judges it to be ‘just right’
There are two main methods used to shape the leaf. The first of these is known as the Orthodox method and involves rolling the leaf across raised battens on a circular table. This makes each leaf curl in on itself and results in a long, thin, wiry end product. The other way is to let the leaf fall between rotating, grooved cylinders which Cuts, Tears and Curls (CTC) the leaf giving a round granular end product.
Whether it is the Orthodox or the CTC method that is used, the leaf is now wet with the juice that has been squeezed out. Exposed to the air it starts to oxidise and change from bright green to brown. This is known as Fermentation (although there is no alcohol produced). This process needs careful watching as it is here that a lot of the subtle flavours develop. Typically this part of the process takes 30 to 45 mins but it will depend entirely on the ambient temperature and humidity.
Once the fermentation is deemed to have reached its optimum point, the fermentation is stopped by drying the leaf out to about 2% moisture in large ovens.
In both Orthodox and CTC manufacture, no matter how careful the process, some parts of the leaf break off and these need sieving out – they can be used in tea bags!
The last thing to do is to pack the tea. Not many tea gardens still use tea chests; instead the tea is packed in 4 ply paper sacks, which saves a lot of trees.
And that is it!
Within 24 hours the plucked leaf has been transformed into the tea we know and love, just waiting for someone who cares, to take time, sit down and enjoy all the effort that has gone into producing it.
The basic difference with Green Tea is that it is not allowed to ferment. It goes straight from shaping to drying