Tea Takes TEAmwork!

How do you get tea leaves from the bush to the cup? With TEAmwork, of course! The old saying is still true: “There is strength in numbers.” Setting aside the issue of labor and treatment of workers on tea plantations (also called tea gardens) as serious as these things are, I want to celebrate all of the people involved in what can be a long process — a journey that starts when leaves are plucked or cut from the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis).

Hand harvesting in Assam India (Photo source: screen capture from site)
Hand harvesting in Assam India (Photo source: screen capture from site)

Since nothing can be harvested without first being grown, I’ll start with planting and tending. The first consideration is climate, as in is yours right for growing tea? Regions which enjoy a warm, humid climate with a rainfall measuring at least 100 centimeters a year are good options, plus the soil should be deep, light, acidic and well-drained. Elevations from sea level up to as high as 2,300 meters above sea level are acceptable, with some tea experts claiming that higher elevations produce more flavorful tea. Finding the right people who know all this and can also know how the planting should be handled is important. Tea can be grown from seed or from cutting off of another tea plant. Good gardening skills are very useful here. Pruning is essential and will vary based on if the plant is mature or immature. Commercial growers keep the plants pruned low for easier harvesting while some legacy growers tend very old plants that have been let grow more into a tall tree, requiring some — uh, creative methods of harvesting. Branch patterns are important, too, to maximize the production of leaves and buds, as is removing dead wood and leaves in a way that encourages new growth. This knowledgeable planting and tending will lead to a bountiful harvest time.

Harvesting by hand plucking assures a higher quality tea and is essential for certain types of tea that are made only from the most tender two-leaves-and-a-bud combo or sometimes only the buds. This means having workers who can tell what to pluck and how to pluck without damaging the tender buds and leaves. Machine harvesting produces a coarser tea which is fine for those teas that are normally processed into powders, dust, or fannings. Still, knowing how to machine harvest for the health of the plant as well as getting the most leaf pieces takes some practice. Again, experienced workers are needed. On to the processing.

Tea factories can use machines, traditional hand methods, or a combination of the two, depending on the type of tea being produced. Both methods require experience and expertise to produce successful finished teas. Hand processed teas also involve the sense of smell where the worker needs to smell the leaves at various stages to determine how much of the oils are being released and when the leaves are ready. Even with machine processing, workers need to know how to properly load in the leaves and operate the machinery.

Then, you have the packagers who prepare bulk shipments for sale to vendors who then repackage into smaller containers. As much as I like teas like Assam, a 200-lb package would last a looooooooooooong time. That one pound bag is a much better option.

Included in the TEAm can be the tea shop or tea room worker and even you, with your trusty assemblage of teawares. The road can be a long one, but as in any TEAm effort, the results can be very satisfying, as long as you and your TEAmmates do your part.


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