Tea Growing and Processing

Brief History & The Plant
Tea Types:

Brief History

Tea is one of the oldest beverages known to civilization. It is widely believed that tea was first discovered as a beverage in 2700 B.C. It was Emperor Shen Nung who sat serenely by a pot of boiling water, when leaves from a wild tea bush flew into the kettle. The ensuing aroma aroused the Emperor's senses to the point that he sampled a cup of the exotic brew. To his delight, it tasted wonderful, and he never again drank plain water.

Tea first reached Europe by 1609, gaining particular popularity in France, Holland, England, and Russia. By the mid-18th century, tea was being exported in great quantities to the colonies in America. Despite the huge taxes levied on tea in 1773 by the British crown and the subsequent dumping of tea in Boston Harbor during "The Boston Tea Party," tea drinking ramained, as it still does, a popular and relaxing activity.

The Plant

All true teas come from a single, lone plant - Camellia sinensis! Even though there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of different teas out there, they all come from this plant (unless it is an "herbal" tea). How could this be?

Tea is a shrub which, in the wild, grows over 30 feet tall! However, when cultivated for harvest, the average tea bush is kept trimmed to a height of 4 - 6 feet. Plantations of tea shrubs are commonly called "gardens," which hints at the care and respect that is taken for these precious plants.


There are over 3,000 varieties of tea from around the world, and they take their names from the districts in which they are grown. The best tea leaves are small and young, and plucked from the tip of the tea bush (this is known as "Orthodox" method).

Here are some categories of leaf size used as deciding factors for picking:

Flower Pekoe - Tiny shoots and unopened buds are picked.
Orange Pekoe - Youngest opened leaves are picked.
Souchong - Older, coarser leaves closer to the trunk of the shrub are picked.

Another factor in the picking of young leaves is call a "flush." This is when there is a sprouting of new buds and leaves on a plant. These fresh young leaves and buds are then picked. A tea plant may flush more than three times within a single growing season. There are even parts of tea-growing world in which there is no cold season. In these regions, the tea plants can continue to flush all year round!

Here is a general guideline of steps taken in processing tea leaves:

Tea leaves are spread on racks or troughs to reduce their moisture content.

Tea leaves are rolled in order to break down their structure and release their natural juices and enzymes. This begins the fermentation process.

Takes place when tea is spread on trays in a cool, humid atmosphere to oxidize the leaves. It changes the chemical structure of the leaf, and allows the tea's characteristic flavor to emerge. The longer a tea is allowed to ferment, the stronger flavor it will have and the darker it will become. Some teas are not fermented at all.

The leaves are dried and the fermentation process is retarded. In this stage, the leaves move through hot air chambers to stabilize the leaves and lock in the flavor.

This is the final stage before longer leaves, such as orange pekoes, are used for loose teas. The left-over fannings and dust leaves (see Tea Terminology) are used for tea bags.

Tea Types

Once the leaves have been plucked they are processed in one of three ways (also see Processing - above), producing either Green, Black, or Oolong teas.

Green Teas

Green teas are steamed or "pan-fired" (see Tea Terminology), which kills the enzyme which would otherwise cause the leaves to ferment. They also become soft, pliable, and easier to work with. The leaves are rolled on heated trays to break down its structure, and bring out the flavor juices. After this is done, the leaves are dried or "fired" until they retain only about 2% of their original moisture. The tea is now ready for packing and export.
For centuries, only green tea was known and used as a beverage!

Oolong Teas

Oolong, which in Chinese means "black dragon," is relatively new compared to green and black teas. Oolong teas are only partially fermented, which denotes a tea that is stronger in flavor than green teas, but softer, lighter, and more subtle than black teas; it has characteristics of both. The leaves are processed in the same manner as black teas (below), but they are not allowed to ferment as long.

Black Teas

Black tes are not steamed like green teas; instead they are placed in a room for about a day to wilt or "wither." By the end of this time, the leaves are soft enough to be rolled, by hand, into little balls. This breaks the cells in the leaves, releasing enzymes that cause them to ferment. The rolled leaves are then spread out, and left to ferment for a number of hours until proper smell and color are achieved. Next is "firing." This dry heat halts the fermentation process by killing the active enzymes. During this firing, the leaves turn dark (actually brown, not black), and lose all but about 2% of their moisture. If the firing is not done correctly, and the leaves are too dark, the resulting cup of tea will taste weak (This type of tea is common in commercial teas in our part of the world). The tea is now ready for packing and export.

Flavored Teas

Any number of things can be added to a tea to change flavor of the final cup. Many teas have some form of flower or petals in them, adding an aromatic delight to the cup (like Jasmine Blossom, or Orange Flower). Other times, flavor oils which are chemically identical to natural fruits or berries are added, giving the tea a delicious, fruity flavor (like Raspberry or Mango). In addition to these, there is practically a limitless number of other things which can be added to a tea to give it specific and unique characteristics; creativity is the only limit!

Herbal Teas

Herbal teas are made from leaves, flowers, and roots; basically, anything that isn't from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). They differ from true teas in their range of flavors, from fragrant and flowery to spicy and pungent. They are especially popular due to their medicinal qualities as well as for their unique and fresh flavors.

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