A popular breakfast staple, tea comes from steeping dry Camellia Sinensis leaves in hot water. Global tea consumption is at an all-time high and is predicted to reach 289 billion liters in 2020. In this article, we explain how this world’s favorite beverage is produced so stay tuned for 101 in how tea is made.

Tea leaves undergo a number of steps from planting to harvesting to oxidation and drying. There are two ways to make tea, the orthodox method and the crush-tear-curl or CTC method. We’ll look into the steps for both methods. But first, let’s find out where tea leaves come from.

Where did tea leaves come from?

Native to East Asia, Camellia Sinensis can grow up to 6 meters tall in a controlled environment. Its height is typically kept at around 1.2m in order to make the leaves more accessible. There are two main varieties of Camellia Sinensis or Tea Leaves:

  • Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis. This is a small-leaved variety. This type of tea has a bright, fresh, malty, and rich taste. These plants usually grow in mountainous regions with cold climates such as China, Taiwan, and Japan.
  • Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica. These plants make teas that taste mellow and grassy. This is a large-leaved variety. It’s usually grown in countries with tropical weather such as India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya.

What’s the Ideal Growing Conditions for Tea Leaves

Tea can grow in both controlled and wild environments but thrives best in humid and warm climates with at least 40 inches of rain a year. The Camellia Sinensis plant grows healthier in acidic and airy soils.

China is credited with having originally produced tea. However, tea is often used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India. That said, tea has long been part of Japanese and Western cultures.

Where do Tea Leaves Grow?

Making tea begins with growing and harvesting and the quality of the tea depends on the location where it was cultivated. While tea grows all over the globe, flavors may vary based on the area where it was planted. Likewise, the terrain impacts the taste of tea, just as grapes from Australia are distinctly different from those from Italy or France. The changes in climate, soil quality, and surrounding plants and vegetation have subtle effects on its flavor.

Here’s a list of countries where tea is currently grown, planted, and harvested:

  • China: Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang, Fujian, and Hunan 
  • India: Kangra (Himachal Pradesh), Nilgiri, Munnar (Kerala), Sikkim, Assam, Darjeeling
  • Sri Lanka: Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Uva
  • Taiwan: Taibei, Xinzhu, Nantou, 
  • Japan: Kyoto, Kagoshima, Shizuoka
  • South Korea: South Jeolla, Jeju, South Gyeongsang 
  • Turkey: Rize Province
  • Vietnam: North Vietnam
  • Nepal: Dhankuta, Ilam Valley
  • Kenya: Nandi Hills, Kericho, Nyeri County
  • Indonesia: North Sumatra, Java
  • Thailand: Doi Mae Salong, Chiang Rai
  • United States: Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas

Seeding and Planting the Tea Leaves

Seeds of Camellia Sinensis are usually left in the sun for 24-48 hours, sometimes even longer. When their shell splits, seeds are planted around an inch deep in airy soil. The ‘Hilum’ or eye of the seed is planted facing upwards. Since the seeds have not yet developed enough hardness for harsh conditions, they are usually left in controlled environments. Once they reach a height of 12inches, they’ll often be planted outside, in a field with shady trees nearby to protect them from direct sunlight. Tea leaves require plenty of water and a well irrigated and great drainage system.

Tea plants take around three years to produce leaves suitable for tea making. It can reach 50 feet in height, but most are grown at waist height, making it easier to harvest leaves. Shorter shrubs produce more shoots and tea leaves for higher and faster production of tea.

How are tea leaves harvested?

Harvesting Tea Leaves

During the harvest season, tea leaves are plucked from around one to two inches of the tea plant’s top. These are called flushes. They are usually produced every 7 to 15 days.

A tea producer typically works with farms and farmers to hand-pick the tea leaf from the garden or plantation. Once the tea leaves have been plucked, the full basket is brought to the tea master. For large tea producers, these are inspected and weighed to ensure consistent quality. Broken or burnt leaves, and or leaves with water damage are thrown out. Of every 100 kilograms of harvested leaves, only half is used in the production process.

Sorting the Tea Leaves

In sorting the leaves, the tea master looks at their size, type, and appearance. Some are organized by size, while others are sorted by the area where they were cultivated and grown. Following this, each tea leaf is sorted according to its variety: green, black, pu erh, and oolong; we’ll examine these tea varieties in more detail later on.

What is the Orthodox Tea Production Process?

The orthodox tea production method is the most commonly used by most producers. This is the most common way of how tea is made. Tea made using this process goes through four stages:

  • Withering
  • Rolling
  • Oxidation
  • Firing or Drying

Each step is necessary and helps to produce the flavor profiles associated with darker varieties of teas.

Withering Process for Tea Leaves

When fresh tea leaves arrive at the factory, they are often full of moisture. Withering also know as the first stage of tea processing, is critical as it reduces the water content of the plant to around 60%-70%. Tea leaves are laid out in large troughs to dry out and usually take between 12-17 hours to complete. To speed up the process, some tea processing plants leave the leaves in a warm, dry place.

Once they lose moisture content, tea leaves also lose their green color, which means that the chlorophyll has broken down. During this process, the chemical composition of the leaves begins to change. The polyphenol oxidase enzyme becomes active, signaling that oxidation is will soon start.

Also in withering, the caffeine content is released and the various flavors more pronounced. Now the leaves are ready for the next stage: Rolling.

Rolling and Oxidation of Tea Leaves

Before leaves are rolled, they’re placed in troughs or on tables and left between 30 minutes and two hours in a room with a 26°C temperature.

Originally, tea leaves were rolled by hand. Today, most tea producers use rolling machines. The machine rotates horizontally on a table, and the twists and turns make the leaves thin and wiry-looking. Tea leaves are rolled, pressed, and twisted during this stage.

The cell walls of the tea leaf are broken and as a result, the remaining liquid is wrung out. This stage is where enzymes and essential oils are exposed to oxygen and the oxidation process begins.

Oxidization determines the type of tea produced. Tea with a high level of oxidation must go through a process called multiple bruising. For tea with a lighter taste, producers stop the oxidation process when leaves are light brown.

Firing and Drying of Tea Leaves

The last step to making tea is firing. This stops the oxidation process. The drying process varies depending on what kind of tea you want to make. The different ways to dry or fire your tea includes:

  • Sun-drying
  • Pan-firing
  • Charcoal-roasting
  • Baking

The drying process greatly affects the flavor of the tea. Charcoal roasted leaves are usually more flavorful. Gradual baking of the leaves produces something lighter.

During this step, the leaves are heated to 100°F in order to reduce their moisture content to just 2-3%. This step ensures the quality of the product is shelf-stable and ready for sale. The leaves are now packaged in individual bags, boxes, and are ready for shipping.

The CTC Method of Tea Making

CTC, or crush-tear-curl production, is another method of processing tea. It follows the same steps as Orthodox, except it’s done much faster.  In the Second World War, this process was developed to increase the amount of tea that could be packed into a sack or chest. CTC processing was developed to save time and money for the black tea industry.

A CTC rolling machine in a tea factory has hundreds of small, sharp teeth which cut and curl the leaves, producing smaller granules. This is important to note as the Orthodox Method’s longer and slower rolling and bruising process. 

Why do tea producers prefer rolled to curled leaves?

It preserves the essential oils, which contribute to the delightful aroma of the drink. Rolled tea leaves also preserve better. This was crucial in the early days of the tea trade when shipping took months, if not years. 

Wondering what’s the most expensive tea available? Check the previous article we’ve written on the top 12 most-prized tea around the world.

What Makes The Difference in the Types of Tea?

With modern machinery and global trade, we are able to drink more kinds of tea. Each type varies according to the leaves used, the variety of processes it has undergone, and how and where it is grown. 

  • Origin: Where the tea leaves are harvested. The weather, terrain, and soil quality affect the taste of the leaves.
  • Flavors & mixes: Some teas are made using the same tea varieties, but the flavors and herbs are usually mixed. 
  • Herbal Teas: As the name implies, herbal teas are made with a mixture of spices and herbs such as mint or cinnamon.
  • Step in Processing: The process and methods used to make tea determine its flavor because of the level of drying, heat, and moisture it receives. 

What Are The Types Of Tea?

There are many options and types of tea because of the elaborate tea-drinking cultures around the world. Tea is usually sorted and classified according to the color of the drink it produces. Here’s a quick guide to what they’re called.

  • Green Tea: This is made of unoxidized tea leaves. This has a short shelf life, around 6-8 months.  Green tea leaves vary in shape and size. The variety includes flat leaves, needlelike ones, curled, rolled, or twisted.  This is one of the most expensive teas in China. Because of its unoxidized taste, green tea tends to taste a little grassy. Wondering how to make it taste better? Check out these tips we’ve written on how to brew the perfect cup of Green tea.
  • White Tea:China’s Fujian province produces most of this kind of tea. It is the least processed among the tea options, but it also takes 2-3 days to produce. It is withered for two days then baked. It is also considered one of the healthiest options.
  • Oolong Tea: Oolong teas are also mainly produced in Fujian province. This type of tea is only used for mature leaves. This tea undergoes a bruising process before being rolled into pellets. They usually have small, shiny, dark-green leaves. Heavily oxidized varieties are usually twisted and have long leaves. 
  • Black Tea:The teas are usually grown in Kenya, Sri Lanka, China, and other Asian countries. They are common in teabag brands and usually consumed at breakfast or afternoon tea. These teas are usually rich and malty. Are you curious about how it compares to green tea? Read this article we’ve written about green and black tea.
  • Pu erh Teas: Named after the Chinese town in which it originated. It’s also known as post-fermented tea. This type of tea contains microorganisms with probiotic properties. It aids in digestion, weight loss, and immune system strengthening. Tastes chocolatey and woody. An earthy variant.
  • Yellow Tea: Yellow tea is rare in some Chinese regions. Most yellow tea factory is located in Hunan and Sichuan. It is not usually exported, and it is known for its delicate flavor.

How is tea made at home?

Here are some tips on how to get the best taste from the different types of teas. Each with its own recommended brewing temperature and timing.

  • White tea is best steeped at 175 Fahrenheit for about 4-5 minutes
  • Yellow tea is best steeped at 175 Fahrenheit for around 3-5 minutes
  • Green tea is best steeped at 175 Fahrenheit for just 3-4 minutes
  • Oolong tea is best steeped at 195 Fahrenheit for about 3-5 minutes
  • Black tea is best steeped at 195 Fahrenheit for 3-4 minutes
  • Pu erh teas are best stepped around 190-212 Fahrenheit for 3-5 minutes

These are just suggested temperatures and times, adjustments based on your personal tastes and preferences.

Following Tea Drinking Culture Around the World

Because tea is the second most popular drink, here’s a quick guide on how different countries enjoy and consume their tea

  • In China, they have a traditional tea ceremony called Gongfu.
  • In the United Kingdom, since Victorian times enjoy afternoon tea with small cakes and sandwiches.
  • Chai is the most popular tea drink in India and you can get it anywhere, anytime even on streetside stores.
  • In Pakistan tea is called Noon Chair which is usually made with almonds, milk, and spices.
  • The most popular tea in Thailand is called Cha Yen, a blend of Assam or Ceylon enjoyed cold with condensed milk.
  • Taiwan has a big Boba Tea culture which usually includes Boba Pearls.
  • Green or Matcha tea is the preferred tea by the Japanese. These are often mixed with desserts like ice cream and chocolate. 

Conclusion

In the meantime, keep this in mind when choosing your tea: There are many tea brands that follow highly ethical protocols in tea production and farming. These companies make sure that:

  • Tea farmers are paid well and taken care of properly
  • Tea is produced and packed in the most natural way possible
  • Contribute to lessening trash and develop environmentally friendly packaging

Don’t forget these when picking which brand to buy. For now, you can check these best brands available on Amazon 

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