Tea is grown in many regions across the world and enjoyed universally with over 10,000 different teas being manufactured. From green to black, all traditional teas come from the camellia plant. Native to China and India and now growing in many other parts of the world, tea plantations are found in many beautiful landscapes and here is where the ultimate tea journey begins. The question is, how does this beverage travel from plant to our eagerly awaiting tea pots?
Growing Tea Plants
Over 200 species of camellia plants are registered today. However, only one, the camellia sinensis can be used for the production of tea. The most ancient variety used in the cultivation of tea, ‘sinensis’ means ‘from China’ – where tea was originally discovered. Not very resistant to wintery conditions, the tea plant thrives within tropical or subtropical climates. The most suitable climates offer temperatures ranging from 10-35 degrees Celsius and rainfall of between 200 and 230cm a year. Just like us, tea plants have certain elements that enhance their life and the latitude at which they are grown is one of these, having a huge impact on their growth. Plantations are often located at high altitude, on the steep slopes of mountain ranges. However they can also be found growing on plains.
Today planters carefully select ‘mother plants’ for their ability to grow vigorously, give a high yield, resist pests, drought or flooding and produce a high quality leaf. Cuttings and cloned leaves taken from these parent bushes allow planters to produce new stock by vegetative propagation.
Being a perennial plant, tea leaves can be harvested all year round in some regions. In others, the tea plants enter a period of dormancy caused by lack of sunlight. This dormant period is actually highly favourable for the production of good quality tea as the plant awakens in spring, ready for the first harvest of the year with more concentrated aromatic ingredients.
Harvesting the Tea Leaves
A dominant factor that affects the method used for the harvesting of tea leaves is accessibility. For tea plantations set on steep mountain sides with limited accessibility hand picking is the only way. Pickers pinch the delicate shoots between their thumb and forefingers according to the picking style they are following.
To harvest the finest quality teas delicate hand picking is required, often done with the nimble fingers of women. There is even a style known in China as being reserved for emperors in ancient times. This is referred to as ‘imperial picking’ and also known as ‘super-fine’ picking. With this picking style it is the bud and just the first single leaf that are delicately picked.
Tea plantations grown in more accessible locations such as on the plains of Kenya are often fast growing with a heavy harvest due to the humid climate. In these situations a larger scale of picking style is required, even machines are used to harvest the tea. The terrain allows for modern technology to sweep through the neat rows of tea plants, producing a much larger quantity and weight. These large scale harvests mostly make their way into our everyday tea bags.
If the tea is not growing all year round, picking typically occurs twice a year during early spring and early summer. The production process that follows is dependent on the type of tea being created.
Production of Tea Worldwide
Amongst many nations currently producing tea, China and India are the two largest producers, closely followed by Kenya. China produces an average of 1000,130 tonnes a year and India an average of 900,094 tonnes a year. Much of the production in both of these countries is consumed at home whilst Kenya is a major exporter. China proudly produce several varieties of tea including green, oolong, white, pu-erh, yellow, and jasmine teas to name but a few. India exclusively produces the popular Assam and Darjeeling varieties as well as spicy chai blends.
So, just how do we get so many delicious varieties of tea?
Leaves that are to be used for black tea undergo a withering and rolling process. This allows some of the water content in the leaves to evaporate before a rigorous oxidation where they are laid out on racks. This oxidation is the process that turns the leaves from green to the brown and black colours we recognise. Green tea, on the other hand is dehydrated to prevent this process of oxidation occurring. Therefore it retains its ‘green’ characteristics with no chemical change occurring during its manufacture.
Of course, in addition to ‘natural’ teas, we also enjoy teas infused with flavours of flowers, fruits or spices. Some flavourings have been used for centuries but new ones are constantly entering the market and finding new fans.
Today teas are readily available in a variety of different packaging, from foil lined pouches to caddies, tins and boxes. Loose tea can be packaged into branded packets and boxes or often the raw goods are dispatched to a third party to be manufactured for a specific company to retail.
The global demand for tea is constantly on the rise which has of course resulted in the majority of teas exported to the west or elsewhere being industrially produced. Refreshing traditions however, will always remain with rich, cultural history keeping tea production a work of art.
Explore our Teas
Take a journey of your own and explore our huge selection of teas, with over 200 to choose from you are bound to find your haven. Remember when you are brewing one of our delicious teas you are honouring each small but significant step that tea has taken, from leaf to cup.