When you’re enjoying a cup of your favorite loose leaf tea, you’re probably giving little thought to the process those leaves went through on their way from nature to your kitchen. The journey of your loose leaf tea, from plant to brew, takes several years and a lot of work. The family of plants used for tea, Camellia sinensis, grows mainly in tropical and sub-tropical regions, where it can be cultivated either by seed or by cutting. Unlike the plants or flowers in your garden, it takes years for a new tea plant to bear seed, and at least 3 years before that same plant is ready for harvesting. Once a plant is mature enough to harvest, workers pick the flushes (the leaves from the top 1-2 inches of the plant). Because loose leaf tea is comprised of the premium quality tea leaves, hand-picking is the only way to ensure that the quality of the leaves isn’t compromised during the harvest.
Once the leaves are painstakingly harvested and the best of the harvest are selected, the processing begins. Because most teas (with the exception of herbals) come from the same plant, the processing is largely responsible for determining which variety the tea will become. For all tea varieties, the process begins the same way; leaves are laid out, often in the sun, for wilting (also called withering). This important first step allows for the leaves to dry out a bit, concentrating and strengthening their essential oils and flavor. If the leaves are to become white tea, the process ends here; white tea leaves are then dried, rolled, packaged and ready for shipping. For other varieties, there is still much work to be done. The leaves begin the next step, fermentation (or oxidation); the reaction of the leaves when they are spread out and exposed to oxygen allows the leaves to brown. It is this step in which the leaves will adopt the unique color and flavor familiar to tea drinkers around the world. Different varieties of tea require different lengths of oxidation; leaves that will become black tea are left to oxidize the longest before moving on to the next step.
Because the length of oxidation is so important in determining the final variety of the tea, oxidized leaves are then heated and dried to stop the oxidation process. Green tea, which requires no oxidation, skips that step and goes straight from wilting to heating and drying. Finally, dried leaves are graded; only the finest, most perfect large leaves will go on to become loose leaf tea. Leaves that have been broken or don’t meet the strict standards of loose leaf tea will be sent for grinding and packaging as bagged tea.
Throughout the years-long process, tea leaves are meticulously supervised to ensure proper color and flavor. From the plant to your cup, you can be sure that your loose leaf tea has been carefully cultivated and diligently monitored so you know you’re enjoying only the highest quality loose leaf tea brew.