New Zealanders love their cuppa. For breakfast, morning tea, afternoon tea; in cafes, at work and in the home, it’s the beverage of choice for hundreds of thousands of us. In fact, we rank around seventh in the world for tea drinking with an annual consumption of about 1kg of dry tea per capita.
A Versatile Plant
Tea is produced from the Camellia sinensis plant. This evergreen shrub, native to Southeast Asia, can survive under a wide range of conditions and is grown across the world. Major producers of tea include India (the world’s largest producer), Sri Lanka, China, Kenya, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. The differing climatic conditions in the world’s various tea growing areas influence the quality and taste of the various teas.
Types of Tea
White tea, green tea, oolong and black. All these different teas are produced from the same Camellia sinensis plant – the differentiation comes from the type of processing the tea leaf undergoes after picking.
Black tea is categorised by growing region (Ceylon, Assam etc.) and district (Darjeeling, Dimbulla, Dooars etc.) and then by blend (English Breakfast, Earl Grey) and tea house (Twinings, Dilmah).
Beyond geographic variations, certain other influences play a role in determining the characteristics of a particular tea. Primary amongst these are the pluck and the flush.
The “flush” refers to the crop of new buds the tea plant produces. In warmer climates with extended growing periods a tea plant may go through several flushes each year.
Often the first flush after winter produces teas of greater subtlety and delicacy and is therefore considered by some to yield the finest quality tea. It should be noted, however, that geography is a great influence on the quality of a flush. In areas with very hot summers, for instance, better tea is produced after the August rains have cooled the ground. In these areas autumnal (northern hemisphere) flushes yield superior tea.
As a general rule of thumb the later the flush, the more body and colour the tea will carry.
A tea’s flavour also depends on which leaves are plucked. Broadly, there are three grades of pluck.
- Fine pluck – only the buds of the flush are picked. As these are the younger, fresher parts of the plant they yield a more flavourful tea.
- Normal pluck – the traditional pluck where the bud and the two leaves immediately below it are picked.
- Coarse pluck – older, coarser leaves further down the stem are plucked, yielding a tea of lesser quality.
Black Tea Manufacturing Process
There are four steps to the production of black tea.
After plucking, the leaves are first withered. This process involves laying the leaves on wire or bamboo grids for about 20 hours in order to relieve them of moisture. Withering leaves the leaves partially dried and a darker shade of green.
The leaves are then processed by roller machines which break the leaf cells, thereby releasing enzymes and exposing the leaf sap to the air, facilitating the next stage – oxidation.
After rolling, the leaf is allowed to sit, exposed to air in cool, humid rooms. The action of oxygen on the various chemical constituents of tea causes the leaf to oxidise. During this process the leaf changes colour from green, through red and brown, to black. The timing of the oxidation process is critical to the final colour and flavour of the tea.
If the oxidisation step is omitted the resulting product is what we know as green tea.
Once oxidation is complete the leaves are dried under hot air blowers to stop oxidisation and to remove any remaining moisture.
Black tea is sorted through a series of sieves and graded according to the size of the leaf or leaf particle. The four grades are:
- Whole leaf
- Broken leaf
Whole leaf teas are teas of the highest quality. The larger leaf size slows the brewing process and contributes greater subtlety to the finished drink.
Broken leaf teas, with their greater surface area, brew faster, result in a more robust brew and are commonly sold as medium grade loose teas.
Smaller broken leaf teas are used in teabags along with fannings (the smallest leaf particles) and dusts. The smaller the leaf particle, the faster and harsher the resulting brew will be.
A Complex Process
So, next time you drop a spoon of tea in your pot or a bag in your cup, spare a thought for the lengthy and exacting process needed to bring you your favourite drink. From the kind of leaves selected, to the complex production process, to the careful blending undertaken at the great tea houses of the world, there’s a lot more to that delicious brown drink than meets the eye.
Learn more about black tea production in this video.