The Story of Tea
This section contains all the information you’ll ever need to know about tea in a really easy to read format. My advice to you is to sit back with a freshly brewed cup of tea (preferably your own blend from me!) and enjoy learning about this wonderful natural product…
Tea is a magical thing. Enjoyed the world over for nearly 5,000 years, in much the same way now as it was then. As legend has it, tea was discovered purely by accident by a Chinese Emperor when a leaf from a nearby tree dropped into his hot water. From this humble beginning, tea is now enjoyed in every country in the world and only water is drunk more – but only just!
Tea is a creative thing. Most people think of tea as simply a brown liquid, but it’s so much more. From Silver Needle to Dragon Pearl, Gunpowder to Monkey-picked, there are quite literally hundreds of thousands of different shapes, sizes, colours and names of tea to capture the imagination. Go anywhere in the world and ask for a cup of tea – I bet it will be prepared differently to the last place you asked. Go to Morocco and you’ll probably get it in a glass with mint, go to China and the leaves could be hung round your neck in a jar all day, go to Japan and you may just find yourself drinking it in a ceremony that lasts from dawn to dusk!
Tea is an emotive thing. Did you know tea was the beginning of modern day yacht racing – when clipper ships were used to get the first crop of the season from China to England in the fastest time in order to fetch the best price in market? Or, did you know tea was the catalyst of the American war of Independence – when a cargo of tea was destroyed rather than paying taxes in what’s otherwise known as The Boston Tea Party? These days emotions don’t run quite so high. However, we all have a special way of making our own cup of tea – some like it sweet, some like it weak, some like it served in their own special cup – but we all know, it rarely tastes as good as when you make it yourself.
Let’s face it, tea is a personal thing…
The Creation of Tea
Imagine you’re standing in a garden on a hot summer’s afternoon just after the lawn has been mown. Now imagine that intense fresh and “green” smell that you get from the recently cut grass – beautiful isn’t it? Walk onto a tea estate anywhere in the world and such a smell wafts over you all day long. Now picture a scene of soft undulating hills carpeted with a green so luscious that you’re amazed such a natural colour exists – that is the sight before you when you wander through the waist height tea bushes levelled to perfection by thousands of nimble fingers.
As the sun rises over an estate, hundreds of tea pickers congregate in the early morning mist before snaking off through the beautiful green carpet for a days work. Years of experience means the pickers will pluck only the youngest leaves and buds from the top of the bush with fantastic speed and agility. The plucked leaves are put in a basket on the picker’s back and every few hours this will be weighed and taken to the factory positioned in the centre of the rolling green hills.
On arrival at the factory, the freshly plucked leaves are laid out on huge wire troughs for up to 20 hours at a time to allow them to wither a little. Once enough moisture has been lost for them to become bendy to the touch the leaves are ready for the next stage in the manufacture.
From the withering troughs the leaves undergo one of two processes depending on the style of leaf that is required at the very end of the manufacture. If the tea is intended to be drunk in a tea bag form, the leaves are passed through a series of oversized mincing machines known as “cut, tear, curl” as this is literally what happens to the leaf. In this method, the tea leaves are broken into small pieces, which are much better for use in tea bags as they will ultimately infuse quickly in the tea cup. The second method is known as the “orthodox” style as this is the traditional way of making tea and would normally be drunk as loose leaf tea. In the past, the “orthodox” method was simply done manually, whereby the leaves were rolled together between the hands – although some of the finest tea in the world is still rolled by hand, the vast majority is now done so by large machines. Both methods rupture the plant cells in order for the next stage to begin. Please note, unlike commercial brands of tea, all Blends for Friends teas are carefully hand packed and therefore I’m able to use either “cut, tear, curl” or “orthodox” style leaf as gentle handling will not damage it in the process.
As the leaf cells have been ruptured in the cutting or rolling process, they immediately begin to oxidise and turn from green to a coppery brown in much the same way as an apple would if you cut it open and left it uncovered. If this process is allowed to continue for an hour or so, the tea leaving the factory will end up being black. However, it’s important to note that whilst black tea undergoes oxidisation, green tea must remain the same colour as the original plucked leaf and therefore does not require this process at all. Although many people believe green tea is better for you than black tea, this really is the only difference between them (the process of oxidisation does however marginally reduce the amount of antioxidants in the tea – see
In order to stop the oxidisation process (or indeed to prevent it during green tea manufacture) the leaves are dried in large ovens for about 20 minutes (or, in the case of “sencha” style green tea, this is done by using steam). As they pass out of the drier, the level of moisture is typically only 2% and it begins to resemble tea, as you would know it.
These dried tea leaves are ready to drink, but the leaf particles are all different shapes and sizes and would therefore never be sold in this way, as each leaf would infuse at different speeds in the cup. So, in order to make the leaf more uniform (and indeed attractive) it is sorted into similar sizes using large sieves. The smaller leaf particles become known as “dust”, the medium sized as “fannings” and the largest as “brokens”.
Once sorted according to size and shape, the tea leaves will normally be packed into paper or jute sacks and in some cases still into tea chests. The tea is then ready to for sale either in auction or privately on the open market.