Like wine, a tea’s character is greatly influenced by the environment in which it is grown. A tea garden’s particular climate, soil, altitude and amount of rainfall create subtle differences in the tea’s flavor and aroma. Cloned plants are selected based on yield, resistance to disease and number of plucking points, nurtured in shaded nurseries, and transplanted to the fields after one year. In about two years, the tea bushes are ready for plucking. Many of the tea trees on the plantation are over eighty years old and the plants can live to be over 120.
Workers pluck the tea bushes about every three weeks when new shoots grow or “flush.” Machines, winches and vehicles are used where the land is flatter and more accessible, while on the steepest slopes, individual workers (here, mostly from India and Nepal) use shears to pluck the plants by hand.
After plucking, the leaves are withered to reduce moisture. The plantation uses either troughs with perforated beds through which warm air is blown or bins in which the ambient air is blown through the leaf. The withering process takes 12 – 20 hours and is usually done overnight.
Next, the leaves fed into rolling machines that twist and break the withered leaf, distorting and rupturing its internal cells and liberating and exposing its juices for fermentation. Again, the factory employs a variety of methods, including its original rolling tables that date from 1935 and newer Cut-Tear-Curl machines with interlocking rollers and rotovanes, which are basically huge corkscrews that squeeze and grind the leaf.
Fermentation, or more precisely, oxidation, is a natural chemical process in which enzymes in the leaf are exposed to oxygen. It is at this stage that the leaf develops the right flavor, aroma and color. The leaf enters the fermentation process still green; at the end, it has turned coppery in color. The leaf is either spread on trays to ferment or fed through a series of rotary blades.
During the drying process, the fermented leaf is fed into machines through which hot air is passed. This halts the fermentation action, reduces the moisture content and crystallizes the juices, thus converting the leaf into its familiar crisp, black form. The factory’s furnace is fueled by rubber wood.
After drying, the made tea is graded according to particle size by passing it through a series of vibrating sieves. Each grade of tea has its own density and flavor characteristics. There are four main grades: “leaf” indicates made tea whose whole leaf is intact; “broken” indicates made tea whose leaf is broken; “fannings” are small broken grades; and “dust,” the smallest and lowest-quality grade, is most often used in tea bags because it steeps more quickly.
Tea tasting is an important part of the process, too. The tea taster checks the flavor, aroma and stringency, swilling the tea around the palate to judge its thickness or body. We sampled the plantation’s Palas Supreme tea, which is hand-picked and –processed, so none of the above applied. It was excellent.
Oh, and LOTS more pictures of our exciting adventure in Southeast Asia (so far) are available here:
Happy Father's Day, P!