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Tea Plant - Cultivation, Processing and Classification

Camellia Sinensis is indigenous to China and parts of India.  Tea is now grown
throughout the world including
Japan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, Pakistan,
Argentina and Australia.  In the tea trade, Sri Lanka and Taiwan are still
referred to by their former names of Ceylon and Formosa, respectively.  Tea  
can reference either the plant itself or an infusion made by steeping the dried
leaves or buds of this evergreen shrub in hot water.  The word tea is also
loosely used to describe infusions made from herbs, spices, and dried fruits.  
Examples include:
rooibos, honeybush, or chamomile & mint tea.  Herbal
varieties do not contain actual tea leaves and are referred to as tisanes or
herbal teas to avoid confusion with beverages made from the actual tea plant.  

This page is dedicated to the tea plant
Camellia Sinensis and the process to
convert the tea plant to dried leaf suitable for consumption.  The wild tea plant
can develop into a tree as high as 30 meters.  Under cultivation, Camellia
Sinensis is kept to a height of approximately 3-5 feet for easier harvesting and
increased yields.  Tea from individual plantations develop their own
characteristics, depending on soil type, amount of sunshine, rainfall, and even
the weather conditions at the time of plucking.  Tea character is also affected
by which leaves are used, direction of the growing slope and the altitude the tea
is grown.  

Tea is classified into three basic types:  
1)  Green tea
2)  Black tea
3)  Oolong tea.

Black tea is fully oxidized and often yields a full-bodied amber brew.  It
undergoes five basic manufacturing stages: withering, rolling, fermenting, firing
and sorting.

Green tea does not undergo the oxidization process.  It has a herbaceous
flavor and is green or yellowish in color. The leaves are sometimes steamed
after which it is rolled, fired and sorted.

Oolong tea is partially oxidized and prepared by withering, rolling, fermenting
and then drying.  The oxidization process continues for a predetermined time
based on the master's skill and knowledge.


Cultivation, Processing and Classification
Cultivation        
Young plants are raised from cuttings obtained from a mother bush and they are
carefully rooted and cared for in special nurseries until they are 1 to 2 years of age.
The mother bush is carefully selected for propagation based on individual properties
and yield. The tea plants can then be transplanted out in the tea fields.  This process
is known as cloning.  Tea can also be grown from seed, however, due to the degree of
difficulty, cloning is the most widely used method of cultivating tea.  Tea bushes are
planted from three to four feet apart and planted in rows which follow the natural
contour of the landscape. Tea is also grown on specially prepared terraces to help
irrigation and to prevent soil erosion.

Pruning and Plucking        
When the tea plants reach a height of about one to two feet above ground, it is cut
back and pruned to within a few inches off the ground.  Trimming back encourages
new shoots to form and increases yield.  Regular 2 to 3 year pruning cycles
encourages a fresh supply of new shoots and further increases yield.

Harvesting fresh young shoots from the mature tea bushes is known as plucking.  The
location of the leaves relative to the tea bush greatly determines the quality of the
finished product.  The youngest emerging buds are often reserved for the finest
quality teas and are graded as flowery pekoe or more commonly known as tips.  The
next set of leaves from the end of the growing stem are  classified as orange pekoe
and pekoe respectively.  The older and largest leaves closest to the main stem are
called souchong.  Although this initial grading during the plucking phase can
determine the final product value, it is the handling and manufacturing techniques that
will weigh in the most when determining market price at auction.  

Harvesting is carried out throughout the growing season and is referred to as the
"flush" of a particular tea.   The flush of a particular tea is determined at the time of
plucking.  "First flush" is known as the early spring plucking of new shoots.  "Second
flush" is harvested from late spring through early summer, yielding teas with more
body and fuller flavor.  While autumnal flush is the late season harvest.  Harvesting is
a skilled job traditionally carried out by women and done by hand.  Expert care is taken
while plucking the shoots. The leaves are carefully pinched and twisted when removed
from the tea bush.  Handfuls of shoots are then placed into the carrier baskets resting
on their backs.  After the tea is harvested in the fields, it is brought directly to the tea
factory where it is further processed.


Withering and Rolling        
The withering process begins by evenly spreading the shoots out on trays, or fine
meshed screens.  Withering takes place in open air room utilizing the effect of natural
breezes to wilt the leaves or, in special facilities with controlled heating and ventilating
equipment.  Regardless of the facilities used, the withering process effectively reduces
the moisture content to about 50% of its natural state.  The leaves become limp and
flaccid,  and are now suitable for rolling.

The purpose of rolling is to rupture the cells.  During this process, plant enzymes are
released and begin a chemical reaction when exposed to oxygen.  This process can
be done mechanically or for high grade teas, rolling is still done by hand.  A wide
range of equipment can be used for this process, including the traditional orthodox
method or the C.T.C method.  After rolling the tea leaves are prepared to go through
to the next stage of processing.  This is the point at which tea classifications such as
green tea, black tea, and oolong tea differ based upon the amount of time allowed for
the plant enzymes to chemically react with the open air.  This chemical reaction is
known as oxidization.

Oxidization        
Oxidization, commonly referred to as "fermentation", is the most important stage in the
manufacturing of oolong and black teas.  This process makes it uniquely different from
green tea which is not allowed to oxidize.  Green tea skips this process and proceeds
directly to the firing ovens to reduce the moisture content.  Oxidization is carried out in
custom designed facilities.  Depending on the temperature, technique and the style of
tea desired, oxidization time can range from 45 minutes to many hours.  The
characteristic color and aroma determine the completion of this process based on
tradition and knowledge.  Great skill is needed during this phase because it can
dramatically affect the finished product if proper timing and air circulation are not
followed.


Firing and Sorting        
Firing halts the oxidization process by subjecting the leaves to a stream of hot air.  
Temperatures between 190–210 degrees Fahrenheit are required for about 20-30
minutes to produce black tea with a moisture content of 2-3 %.  The dried tea is sorted
into different grades by passing it over a series of vibrating screens of different mesh
sizes.  The passage of teas through this system produces a number of grades with
evenly sized particles.  Teas are then packaged according to particle size and sold as
dust, fannings, broken leaf, or whole leaf grades.


Tea Tasting        
Exporters are provided samples from tea brokers in preparation for auction.  Specific
lot numbers reference each plantation's product for traceability purposes.  The teas
are judged based on appearance, aroma, and flavor.  The samples are carefully
examined by professional tea tasters.  Each lot of tea is sampled before leaving the
factory.  The visual appearance of the leaves is judged before tasting begins.  Now the
tea is brewed and ready to taste. The brewed leaves are set on top of the brewing
cups so that their color and aroma can also be observed.  Aroma plays a major role in
the sense of taste. The tester inhales the bouquet of the freshly brewed tea before  
tasting it.  The tea is then swirled in the mouth and then spit out.  Specific
tea terms
have been adapted to describe the teas in various stages.
Tea Processing Flow Chart
Tea Resources: Tea Types, Brewing Tea, Health Benefits, Tea Grading, Tea Terminology, Tea Glossary
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