“I got nasty habits, I take tea at three,” intoned rock legend Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones’ classic, “Live With Me.” Centuries before Mick and his generation, people were measuring their lives by when they took their tea, or whether they took it at all. The humble tea plant, camellia sinensis, has had a profound impact on human history, playing major roles in wars, peace treaties, rebellions and economic upheavals.
It is sobering to consider that each time the sun rises, another 8 million tons of tea have been produced! And every single morning, at least 2 billion people drink tea. Those are impressive statistics, yet they barely scratch the surface of the amazing world of tea harvesting and production, one of the largest global businesses of all time.
To truly understand the gist of tea’s powerful hold on the human race, we need to examine the way the plant is grown, harvested, processed and sold. The story of tea, more than any other crop, is one of the most intriguing mysteries of history.
The mighty camellia sinensis
The plant from which all tea is derived, camellia sinensis, is a hardy subject that prefers to grow at high elevations and in cooler climates. After about three years of primary growth, most tea plants are ready for harvest. They can yield tea for up to 50 years! Growers pluck the leaves about five times each year, always making sure to time each harvest just after a growth spurt, also called a “flush.”
The trick is to know precisely when each new leaf is the proper size and age. For experienced growers, this process becomes something of a science. In order to make the finest green and black teas, for example, just the top three leaves are picked. Only the most experienced tea farmers understand how to drive the moisture from the leaves and at the same time bring out essential flavors. This technique, when performed well, is the reason that very good teas efficiently transfer their flavor to water during steeping.
After the tea leaves are dried, rolled and fermented, they are sorted by size. In a typical harvest, the largest leaves make up about one-fifth of the total weight. This is the top grade of tea. Broken leaves and smaller pieces comprise the majority of the batch. Finally, the “dust,” particles, called “fanning,” are the lowest grade and are relegated to the tea bag market. Just about any tea plant can produce oolong, black or green tea depending on the growing area’s climate and the way the leaves are harvested and processed.
If you have a generous amount of patience, you can grow your own tea. You don’t need to live in a tropical climate. In fact, many DIY growers reside in the U.K, the United States, Ireland, New Zealand and elsewhere. Tea grows in any region where the temperature never dips below 9C/15F. Humid air, sandy or well-drained ground, generally warm weather, and moist soil are the best conditions in which to grow your own tea plants. Even if your local weather gets chilly in winter, you can grow tea in flowerpots and bring them indoors during the cold months. Buy seeds online or at a local store.
For best results, buy a lot of seeds, put them all in a large container of water for a whole day and throw out the ones that float to the top, the “floaters.” Some DIY tea hobbyists keep the floaters and experiment with them, because some of them do yield plants, but usually not top-quality ones.
Take all the seeds that did not float and put them in direct sunlight on a moist tarp, with a bit of space between each one, and mist them every so often to keep them wet. Watch them very closely. You might want to have a large magnifying glass handy to look at their coats. When a crack appears in a seed’s coat, it should be planted in soil immediately. One of the coolest things about being a DIY tea farmer is that you’ll learn some of the tricks that real growers use to create the world’s best tea. Once the seeds are ready to plant, put them into seed containers (small pots or trays that can be easily moved and watched), approximately one inch below the soil’s surface, with the seed eyes aimed sideways.
The entire planting needs to be kept moist and shaded until a few leaves sprout up. Then, they are ready to be put into the ground. Space the tea plants about four feet apart, and when planting them in the ground, try to pile a bit of extra soil around the base of each stem in order to protect them from the elements in their early life. Consider adding some compost on the day of planting as long as it’s quite decomposed.
Place the tea plants where they won’t get very much morning sun or direct wind. Try to keep the soil acidic if possible and don’t be afraid to prune plants that grow too wildly. Tea plants, once they get started, are strong little fellows, don’t need much care, and make some of the best gardening plants for hobbyists and tea lovers. After about three years’ growth, pick the top three leaves of each plant about four times per year. Dry them in the sun for about two hours and then heat them in a very hot pan (260C/500F) for 15 minutes, being careful not to let them burn. Shaking the pan helps achieve the right result. Finally, dry them out completely in an oven. Now your tea leaves are ready to use, so make sure to keep them in a dry, cool storage area.
Japan’s matcha tea is not only one of the world’s best teas but is at the center of that nation’s long love affair with the beverage. Zen monks first brought matcha tea to Japan’s shores many centuries ago, using it in sacred rituals and ceremonies that have survived to the present day.
Matcha’s growing and harvesting methods are unique and painstaking. The whole leaf is used, stems and all. In addition to the standard tea harvest process, leaves that become matcha tea are shaded from the sun for the last couple weeks of their lives. Finally, after processing they are ground into a very find powder.
Aside from its special growing and harvesting methods, matcha green tea offers more vitamins and minerals than other hot or cold drinks, even more than other green teas.
Tea production is a massive, global industry that gets bigger every year as more and more people drink the world’s favorite flavored beverage.