Growing Tea

Tea growing and processing

Tea begins with the bush, which is of the same family as the decorative Camellia. The full botanical name is Camellia sinensis.

The bush is an evergreen and is pruned to the height of 150cm (5ft). It sends forth its green tender new leaves and buds in what are called flushes, and care and attention is needed to encourage the bush to flourish and produce a quality crop.

The tea bush grows best between the latitudes of Cancer and Capricorn and at altitudes of 300m-2450m (1000ft - 8000ft) above sea level.

Camellia sinensis grows best in regions that are warm and humid, with rainfall of at least 200cm (80 inches) a year. It likes deep, light, acidic and well-drained soil,(clay,peat and sand are all good) The best Assam, Ceylon and Darjeeling teas are high grown in the cool, fresh conditions above 1220m (4000ft).

In a cold climate, like the Himalayas, bushes lie dormant in the winter, sprout in spring and grow throughout the summer, but in semi-tropical Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Africa, they can be plucked all year around, with exceptionally high yields during the monsoon season.

From seedlings to clones

Until fairly recently, tea bushes were grown from seed and planted out in a distinctive swirling pattern up and down the hillside. Once established (taking about 7 years), a tea bush can thrive for 80 years with one hectare producing on average 1000kg (2200lb) of leaves per season, but producers had little control over plant quality.

However, in the 1970s, vegetative propagation (or cloning) - when strong branches were pruned from a "mother bush", cut into short lengths of twig and single leaf and rooted - meant that only the healthiest bushes were used. Careful selection for taste rather than yield, resistance to disease, or increased hardiness is the hallmark of gourmet speciality tea producers at this stage.

The other advantage of this method of planting is that strong horizontal planting binds the soil and prevents it being washed away during the torrential rains of the monsoon. As part of land improvement, larger trees are planted every fifth row to provide shade and cover for birds, and foliage from pruning is laid between the rows to help moisture retention, thereby boosting yield and improving the quality of the land.

Training the tea bush

The tea bush - when left to its own devices - will grow into a fairly substantial tree.

For tea production, it is necessary to train the tea plants into bushes. Great care is taken to create a shape that aids consistent plucking. This is carried out through pruning and sometimes pegging. Pegging is the bending down and pegging of some branches into position. The result of successful pruning and pegging is a relatively flat, consistent surface of trained tea bushes, the plucking table.

The art of picking

Even in the 21st century, tea picking is a labour intensive business. Hand selection of the best Tip and Bud is essential to maintain the superior quality of fine, high-grown teas, and furthermore, it would be impossible to drag machinery onto the steep hillsides.

The pickers move deftly through the bushes, wearing company aprons or jute sacks over their saris to protect them against any twigs and baskets in which the fresh leaves are collected.

Pickers also carry long bamboo canes, which are laid on top of the bushes to help them pick a level field .

At the peak of the season, an experienced picker can harvest up to 35kg of green tea per day, sufficient to produce 9kg of processed tea.

Even in these days of equality, women are considered more nimble-fingered and therefore more efficient at picking, while men work the land and process the leaves in the factory.

In Japan and less hilly areas, some teas are picked mechanically, using giant cutters dragged over the bush tops by men. It may not be as selective but it is efficient - with a good rainfall the harvest can be 4500kg (9680lb or 4.3 tons) per hectare per year.

The equipment

The sheer volume of tea being produced in India required a colossal labour force and the greatest revolution in the tea industry was the invention of machines to process the freshly picked leaves. In 1870, the Jackson Brothers designed the first steam driven rolling machines, which were established by the long-established English firm of Marshall & Son.

Until then, all the rolling, sifting, grading and drying of leaves had been done by hand, and the tea chests were packed down barefoot. The new machines, as well as freeing thousands from menial tasks and increasing output, also standardised methods of production. Tea could now be picked, processed and packed efficiently, ensuring maximum output and consistent quality.

Processing the fresh leaves for black tea

The first stage of processing is called withering. The fleshy green leaves are laid on huge trays and dried with hot air (25 - 30C) to reduce excess moisture - this takes 10 - 16 hours. They are then rolled in a large rotary drum, breaking up the leaves and releasing the natural enzymes which start fermentation (oxidisation) - this takes 3 - 4 hours.

At this stage, the leaves start to lose their green colour, turning the more familiar coppery brown known as Orange Pekoe (or orange coloured leaf). Pekoe is the anglicised version of the Chinese Pak-ho which means white hair or down and now denotes a particular leaf size of tea from any origin - but thanks to Sir Thomas Lipton's ceaseless promotion of Orange Pekoe Tea many people (even today) think it is type of tea.

As the skilfully-controlled fermentation process continues - it is stopped by drying before the leaves become too black and plain - the leaves are rolled into tight twists and graded.

There are 2 methods of processing. The traditional way, often referred as Orthodox, keeps the look of the leaf whatever its size and is used for all China, Darjeeling and most Ceylon and about 10% of Assam teas. In the modern manufactured method, the leaf is Cut, Torn and Curled (hence CTC Teas) rather than rolled, producing strong black balls of tea which release a very strong flavour and colour. It is ideal for small, strong leaf teas which are needed to flow easily through packing and tea bag machines.

Join Us on Facebook
Your IP Address is:
Copyright © 2017 Kingfisher Tea. Powered by Zen Cart