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From Leaf to Cup — A Tea’s Journey

Camellia Sinensis in the field. (Stock image)
Camellia Sinensis in the field. (Stock image)

Knowing what is in your teacup, how it was grown, processed, packaged, and finally ends up in your house isn’t always possible or something you take time to find out. But looking at that journey the leaf takes from bush to cup can be very worthwhile, helping you understand the flavors you’re experiencing and appreciate them even more.

These days we tend to be pretty disconnected from the source of our food. We buy a loaf of bread at the store or local bakery, we take it home, pop a couple of slices in the toaster, take them out, spread them with butter, jam, peanut butter, or whatever else you prefer, and chomp away. We don’t know when the ingredients came from, how they were grown, how they were put together into that dough that got baked into that loaf, and how they got to that store (if you bought from a local bakery, you don’t have to wonder about that last one). The same is true for most foods and beverages we consume. I personally don’t see this as a problem; it is merely a natural progression. But I do think we should stay aware of how food is produced. It helps us appreciate what we buy at the store, the price we pay, and the level of quality. The same goes for tea. So, let’s take a look at a tea’s journey.

Bear in mind that the journey is a little different for each type of tea and also that this is a more general presentation, since I can’t get overly detailed here.

The Beginning

All true teas (those made from Camellia Sinensis leaves) begin at the tea bush/tree (the plant can grow quite high but is often kept pruned to bush height for easier harvesting of the leaves). Some consist of only the tip leaves, some so tightly formed as to look like buds (botanically speaking, not really a bud since they do not open into a flower, get pollinated, and then grow into a fruit or vegetable). Some are plucked from the branches so early in their growing season and early in the morning that they are still covered with silvery downy hairs that are usually lost later. Other teas use more mature leaves from further down the branch or are harvested by machine and therefore contain whatever material the machine chops off the bush. See more info.

Baskets of Leaves

Processing the harvested leaves (Stock image)
Processing the harvested leaves (Stock image)

Hand-harvested teas are collected in big baskets, carried from the tea fields to a collection point and weighed. Depending on the tea being created, they could then be sorted first for size and general quality. A number of things could happen at this point, but generally speaking, the leaves are withered (removes some moisture so the leaves are more pliable), the leave are then rolled to release oils, the green teas go through a “kill green” process to prevent oxidation, the oolongs are let oxidize partially, and black teas are oxidized fully. Oxidized teas (fully or partially) are then pan-fired or baked by machine to remove more moisture. Flavorings are usually added at the last step. See more info.

Preparing for Market

Once processed, teas from various gardens can be blended together to make teas like Typhoo, PG Tips, or Barry’s, or kept separated by garden and sold that way. They might be kept in whole or broken leaf form or ground into finer particles. They could be run through a bagging machine and come out in one of the various styles and shapes of bags now available. Those bags get boxed and the boxes get wrapped in cellophane. They all go into large cartons, which go on large pallets, which go into large cargo ship holds, which sail the ocean and end up at a dock, and get unloaded and put on trucks and driven across the country and eventually end up at a store near you or an online vendor. Of course, some go from tea garden to tea factory to packaging to shipping to vendor to you. But you get the general idea.

Your Part

Ceylon Black Tea after processing and ready for market (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)
Ceylon Black Tea after processing and ready for market (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

Time for your part in all this. My personal recommendations are to seek information so you know a bit of something about the tea, prepare the tea in accordance with the vendor’s instructions at first and then according to your personal taste as you get to really know the tea, and pass on what you have learned to others to wean them away from the cheap stuff that floods the tea markets even today.


See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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