Plant to market – 4 main stages of tea production

If you are a specialty tea company producing high quality tea, then it is likely to be a long and involved process. There are many steps to take between growing the original plant and putting a box of leaves or teabags on a shelf. If you want to create the best possible product, then you need to fully understand every production stage so you can optimize performance.

What stages should a specialty tea company understand?

1. Growing and Harvesting

You cannot have tea without Camellia sinensis, to give the tea plant its proper name. Of course, there are different varieties of Camellia sinensis, so you need to ensure you choose the one best suited to your needs. Then you need the right soil and climate for it to grow properly. Once you have a mature and healthy plant, you need to pick the leaves at exactly the right time and do so without damaging them.

2. Withering

Then there is the actual processing stage, where the leaf is turned into tea. This has several substages, starting with withering. As the name suggests, this involves leaving the leaves somewhere warm and dry until most of the moisture has evaporated. This may take place outdoors on a sunny day, or inside in a climate controlled room. Some green and yellow teas are not fully withered, but instead “fixed” through a faster, more intense air drying process. The longer tea is withered, the darker its color and more intense its flavor. Obtaining the right degree of withering is a skilled task.

3. Shaping

Withering is followed by shaping. This involves a variety of different actions, most notably rolling and crushing. You may think that this damages the leaves, but the bruising process actually helps break down the cell walls whilst leaving the main leaf intact. It releases flavor. More rolling and crushing also means a larger surface area, which means the tea will oxidize more. The degree of oxidization is the main difference between black and green tea. After shaping, the leaves will be left to dry and oxidize further, causing the flavor to intensify even more as the color changes.

4. Sorting

Once your leaves have been prepared and processed, it is time to sort through them. Leaves can be grouped by size and by color, as well as by overall quality. Smaller, dustier “fannings” will be sent to teabags, whilst the best leaves will be used for loose leaf tea. In some cases, other ingredients, such as flowers, herbs and spices, will be added. Sorting can be done by hand or by machine. Sorted tea is ready to be packed into airtight containers where it can be kept cool, dark and dry until it is ready to be drunk.

These are some of the essential elements of the tea production process. Others may prefer to subdivide it further, or to add extra stages to try and create new and even better tasting drinks. What is certain is that a thorough understanding as to how tea is made is essential if you want to grow, harvest, process and pack the highest quality leaves that are then turned into the best tasting tea.