In Asia, harvesting tea is traditionally a woman’s job. Their speed, small motor dexterity, delicate gestures and patience are considered essential for gaining the highest yield from a crop. They gather from the top of the plants and toss the leaves into the baskets strapped to their backs.
The tea bush produces a small bud at the end of each branch, which grows into a fresh shoot. The leaf at the end is usually curled into a bud. Each stem has multiple leaves on it, and the grade of the tea is determined by how much of the shoot is picked at harvest time. There are four levels or grades of tea.
- The Imperial Plucking, which is the highest quality, where the bud and one leaf are plucked from the tip of the shoot.
- The Fine Plucking, which is a high quality, where the bud and two leaves are plucked from the tip of the shoot.
- The Average Plucking, which is a lesser quality, where the bud and three leaves are plucked from the tip of the shoot, but this plucking allows the tea plant to grow better.
- The fourth and fifth leaves are also harvested which are tougher then the tender tips. Called Souchong, the Chinese generally smoke these leaves to produce Chinese Smoked Tea.
In Darjeeling, where India’s best teas are grown, there are gathering seasons or flushes. In the spring, there’s the first flush, which is in March and April. Then there is the summer second flush, which is in May and June. And finally there is the autumn third flush, which is from September to November.
Each gathering season yields a different tea. As the seasons advance the tealeaves yield a bolder taste.
After several harvests the tea bush will have just stems and no young shoots. When this happens, the harvest season is completed, and it marks the resting period for the tea plant. The end bud is generally removed so that the stems can recover for the next plucking season.