Tea remains the world’s most widely consumed beverage, surpassing the combined intake of alcohol, coffee, carbonated and soft drinks, and chocolate drinks. The origins of tea consumption can be traced back to Southwest China about 3,000 years ago, where the beverage was used for its prophylactic properties. The cultivation and consumption of tea have evolved significantly since then, providing a useful measure of human progress.
It should be noted that the liquor color and flavor of a particular strain or variety of tea are influenced by factors such as soil texture, climate, and altitude. After harvesting, blending techniques and brewing methods play a crucial role in achieving the desired flavor profile. With over 1,500 strains of ‘camellia simensis’ (scientific name of tea) grown in 36 countries worldwide, there is an overwhelming variety of tea available for blending.
The different types of tea plants grown worldwide can be categorized into six main groups: white, black, green, oolong, flavored, and compressed teas.
The Tea Factory: From Plucking to Packaging Black Tea
Tea production is an intricate process that requires meticulous attention to detail. To ensure the best quality, tea leaves are plucked using the ‘two leaves and a bud’ technique, where only the first two leaves and the bud are handpicked. This method retains natural antioxidants and flavor, while picking the last two leaves results in a coarse, bitter taste.
Once plucked, the leaves are spread evenly on large trays and withered at a temperature of 25˚C-30˚C for 12-16 hours. Machines are used to pulverize the leaves, releasing natural juices that absorb oxygen and oxidize. Orthodox machines roll and tear the leaves into sizable particles called grades, while unorthodox machines create smaller CTC varieties by crushing, tearing, and curling the leaves.
After mincing, the leaves are spread on trays in a cool, humid environment to ferment. They are turned over frequently until the leaves turn golden russet, then dried in hot air compartments until they have a blackish or dark brownish appearance. The leaves are then sieved into different sizes, packed in chests, and transported to warehouses where they are tasted for quality assurance and priced accordingly.
The tea factory is washed and cleaned after each manufacturing cycle to prevent contaminants from affecting subsequent processing cycles.
How Green Tea is Processed
Green tea is a popular beverage in countries like China, Japan, and some South American nations. The processing of green tea differs from that of black tea. In green tea processing, the shriveled leaves are fully steamed and turned over before firing.
The steaming process is crucial as it helps prevent the leaf veins from cracking, which can lead to oxidization. After steaming, the leaves are rolled, which also helps prevent oxidation. The goal is to preserve the natural antioxidants and flavor of the leaves.
Once the steaming and rolling processes are complete, the leaves are dried through firing. Green tea leaves are not oxidized, which gives the brewed tea a remarkably pale color. The resulting beverage has a delicate, fresh flavor that is quite distinct from black tea.
How Oolong Tea is Processed
The production process of oolong tea is similar to that of black tea. However, the duration of oxidation is shorter, lasting only about 1-2 hours. As a result, oolong tea is sometimes called semi-fermented or semi-green tea. The tea leaves are typically of the orthodox variety and are characterized by their gentle flavor and pastel yet bright liquor. It is best enjoyed without adding milk.
How White Tea is Processed
White tea requires a careful selection process to ensure that only fresh, unopened buds are picked. The tender leaves are then subjected to an extended withering process to fully dehydrate them before they are dried in hot air chambers. The twisted and whorled leaves have a silvery appearance and texture.
How Compressed Tea is Processed
The production of compressed tea involves heavily steaming bunches of green tea leaves and squeezing them into bricks, balls, bowls, or layered cakes. This tea-making method is believed to have originated in China.
Blending Tea: The Creation of Popular Tea Brands
In the UK, the majority of tea sold (about 90%) is made up of blended tea brands, which are made by combining up to 30-35 different varieties. These blends are popular due to their consistency in flavor, character, and quality, and are readily available in most stores. Each brand has a unique recipe, which is fiercely protected as a trade secret by the owning company.
To ensure quality, the tea blender or taster, who has extensive experience in tasting teas, is responsible for creating blends that meet all quality parameters. They sample teas purchased from auction houses, where tea chests from processing factories are delivered. The art of blending tea involves a careful selection and combination of different teas to create a harmonious flavor and aroma.