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.
What many people do not know is that the tea plant is native to Asia. In fact, many people think that the plant originated in South America which is pretty far off base! That said, there are areas of South America, the Middle East and Africa where you will be able to find the tea plant. It should be noted, however, that the quality of tea will differ in terms of taste and aroma depending when you get it, where it was from and how it was grown. At the end of the day you will be able to determine which teas you like best after you have taken the time to sample a few that are from different regions.
Rainfall and the Tea Plant
One interesting fact about tea plants is that the need to have a minimum of fifty inches of rain each and every year and need to be planted at at least 7,000 feet above sea level. If there is not enough rain then there will not be proper nutrition for the plant to survive and produce the type of tea that is expected. On the other hand, if there is too much rain the tea leaves will grow quickly and this will cause them to lose some of their flavor. All of that said, it is very important that the tea leaves be grown under proper conditions and monitored so that they come out perfect on terms of taste and aroma.
More about Elevation
The tea plants that are grown at the proper elevation produce the desired leaves at the correct rate. This means that they will just end up tasting better in the long run. When the high elevation comes into play the tea leaves are often forced to produce more chemicals internally to compensate for being up so high which can result in different and unique flavors. However, it should be noted that the temperature at these high elevations must also be right. If it is too cold, or too hot, then the tea will not have the desired taste. As you can see elevation is very important. The best tea in the world is grown at the perfect elevation.
Different Types of the Tea Plant
There are over 2,000 different types of tea plants out there. The end result of all of these different plants is that there are thousands of different teas all of which are unique to one another. In fact, each and every day there are new types of tea developed as there are always different variations of the plants being grown. The end result is that tea has evolved to the point where there is a flavor for everyone. There are literally thousands of options when it comes to finding the right tea for you.
Getting to know the facts about the tea plant will allow you to have a deeper appreciation of what you are consuming. Now that you know how much care goes into growing the plant you might want to take the time to think about where a really good cup of tea came from. Odds are it was grown at a high elevation with just enough sunlight and water.