Tea is one of the oldest drinks in the world. In Europe and Asia, its existence dates back over a millennia. In fact, even today, China and India are still the world’s largest producers of tea product. It is a brewed drink that comes from the dried leaves of the tea plant. Despite its popularity and commonality, the methodology behind creating tea is still a mystery to most of the human population. Here, we will make an examination on how tea is produced and what processes make it the drink that we know today.
Tea originates on farms that are commonly referred to as ‘tea gardens’. However, the term garden would be a complete misnomer, as most tea comes from vast farms that can stretch for thousands of acres. The tea is planted from seeds that are cultivated from the white flowers that grow along with the tea leaves. It typically takes each tea plant somewhere in the neighborhood of five years to mature (at which time it may be up to five feet in height). When the leaves are ready for harvesting, workers pick them (still by hand) and send them to the next step in the system for processing. The idea of tea leaf pluckers may evoke images of women holding baskets on their heads, which would not be inaccurate because this is still how it is often done.
The next step is where the types of tea start to be differentiated. If the tea leaves are sent to be steamed, they will then be air dried and become a white tea (the least oxidized version). Otherwise (for all other types of tea), the leaves are sent for rolling. This exposes the leaves to oxygen and helps to dry them out for the upcoming processing procedures. After rolling the leaves, another decision must be made. From here, the tea will either be pan fried or further oxidized.
If the leaves are sent for further oxidizing (which occurs by putting them on racks in warm rooms or bins), they will then be heated further by expansive dryers and become some of the black teas that are more common in western society. This is the most oxidized form of tea. If the leaves go from rolling to pan frying (which is a step that operates just like it sounds, the leaves are placed into heated pans and fried to help oxidization), there are still two possible outcomes. After pan frying, the leaves may be placed into dryers and become green tea. This is the second lowest oxidization level of tea. This low oxidization level makes it the most commonly used for health purposes (such as weight loss) as green tea is considered by many to have a much more pleasant (tea-like) taste than the lowest oxidized white tea. If, after pan frying, the tea is is sent for hand finishing (which involves further rolling and customization depending on the preferred final outcome), it will become an oolong tea.
The overall process for tea is pretty standard, with various aspects changed to affect the oxidization levels which give us the different varieties available today.
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