where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush

Where does tea come from?

Maybe you’ve never asked yourself how a green leaf grown across the globe can be made into a white, green, black, oolong, or Darjeeling tea that you can brew in your cup.

So, where does tea come from?

But first, let’s talk about why we should care.

When we know where our food comes from (how it’s handled and made into what we consume daily), we have a better connection with the food itself and with the people who help make it happen.

I’m a firm believer that more connection with the world around us leads up to a better connection with ourselves.

We appreciate what’s in front of us more.

For instance: Did you know that every tea you’ve ever steeped comes from the same kind of plant?

So how is it that there are so many kinds of tea?

Where does tea come from? Camellia sinensis.

Tea comes from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis or var. assamica. Those are two variations of the same plant that have been experimented with and hybridized over the years to create numerous different kinds of tea leaves.

There’s white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and dark teas.

Then there’s different kinds of whites, green, yellows, etc.

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How is it possible that there are so many teas from one little plant?

where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush
Camellia sinensis, aka, tea leaves.

Ever had a glass of wine? All wine comes from grapes, right?

Tea leaves and grapes have a lot in common. You can create different kinds of wines and variations of those wines using the same main ingredient. But the geography, terrain, and the way the grapes and leaves are processed after they’ve been picked off the plant play huge parts in the end product.

Where does tea come from, anyway?

It’s not just where it’s grown, it’s how the leaves are developed after they’re harvested that makes a fresh tea leaf into a dried tea that we brew.

A big part of what makes a tea leaf what we brew in our cups is how it’s processed.

What is tea processing?

There are 6 processes teas go through. Not all teas go through all 6 processes. And, depending on the tea, the leaves may be put through some of these processes more than once.

Click here to learn 5 Rookie Tea Mistakes (and how to avoid them).

Developing tea leaves into the final product we brew in our cups is a time consuming and delicate process.

It’s surprising tea doesn’t cost more than it does when we break down what leaves go through to get to our cups.

First, leaves are plucked.

Sounds easy, right? But it’s the most expensive part of tea production. It takes a lot of manpower to harvest leaves properly.

They can be harvested by hand or by machine. Usually machine harvested leaves aren’t as great a quality leaf, so that’s why a lot of growers are dependent on manpower. (Which is also why it’s important to know where your tea comes from; we want to make sure the workers are treated right?)

where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush

Each harvest is divided into flushes – the new growth that sprouts from the ends of the branches. The first new growth of a season is called the first flush, then the second, and so on.

The slender buds are the most valuable part of the tea plant, but leaves are necessary to create different kinds of teas too.

The standard pluck that balances the market prices of tea as well as the taste of the tea is two leaves and a bud.

Once the teas are harvested, they must be handled carefully to prevent them from being oxidized. (More on that later.)

Once the leaves are plucked, the biochemistry of the leaf begins to change; they begin heating up. If they’re damaged on the way to the second step, then the finished product may not have the desired aromas or flavors.

Next, the leaves are withered.

After the harvest, the leaves are laid out on mats in the sun, and sometimes indoors to allow the water from the leaves to evaporated allow chemical components inside the leaf to change to the more desirable bits like caffeine and amino acids. Basically, the biochemical breakdown of the leaves lead to the final product tasting and smelling better.

Tea leaves are withered (allowed to wilt) to let the leaves soften before the next step. If they’re not allowed to wither properly, the leaf will crack when they’re rolled or shaped.

where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush
Teas set out to wither outdoors.

Third, the tea leaves are rolled and shaped.

Rolling and shaping tea leaves can be done by hand or by machine. The more aggressively a leaf is shaped, the darker the tea will likely be.

Black teas more aggressively rolled or shaped. This action breaks down the cellular structure of the leaf, and oils are brought to the surface. The leaf begins to turn black through this process.

A common processing for black teas is called “non-orthodox processing.” That’s the crush, tear, curl (CTC) process that chops tea leaves into bits of fanning or tea dust. This speeds up the oxidation process. (See the next step.)

The reaction a tea leaf has while being rolled and shaped is a lot like when you cut an apple, and the inside of the apple begins to brown as it sits out in the air.

This process creates different aromas and flavors than you’ll see in other types of teas.

Oolong teas vary as to when they’re rolled and shaped. Some oolongs are more green than others, so those green oolongs will be heated or fired before they are shaped to prevent oxidation. Then some oolongs are darker, so those are ruled and shaped more aggressively.

where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush
You can see that this oolong was rolled into balls that open when brewed (see open leaves in the cup on the left). This tea leaf was fired to retain its green color.

White teas are not rolled or shaped; they’re actually the least processed of all the kinds of teas.

Green, yellow and dark teas are fired (stage 5) while or before they are being rolled and shaped to prevent oxidation. That’s why green leaves stay so green; they heat stops the enzymes from reacting.

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Fourth, tea leaves are oxidized.

Well, not all leaves are oxidized to the same extent. This step really only applies to leaves destined to become black and oolong teas.

Oxidation is encouraged in tea leaves that will become black tea because it’s necessary to create the flavors and aromas the manufacturer wants a black tea to have. They’re more robust and have more caffeine. These are both side effects of oxidizing a tea leaf.

Going back to the sliced apple example above, that is a visible example of the oxidation process foods go through. It’s a chemical reaction where the inner oils are exposed to the air, and those oils are evaporating.

Other chemical reactions are taking place during oxidation too, and those mostly have to do with creating just the right aroma or flavor compounds that the manufacturer wants the tea to have.

This tea stuff is pretty complex, right?

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Fifth, the leaves are fired!

Okay, not that kind of fired. They’re heated to stop the leaves from oxidizing. All teas have to be fired at some point, but green leaves are usually fired soon after they’re plucked to keep them from oxidizing and allowing them to retain that pretty bright green color they’re known for.

Firing is used strategically with other leaves to stop the oxidation process to help develop the flavor profile the manufacturer wants for the leaf.

All teas have to be fired at some point to bring the moisture down to about 3% in the leaf otherwise the tea will get moldy on its way to your neighborhood shop. Ick.

where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush
Teas are placed inside this roller to be fired or heated to stop the leaves from oxidizing. Below is a picture of the leaves inside. Look how green they are.

where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush

Finally, they’re sorted.

If tea leaves weren’t sorted, we’d have awful tea. Smaller pieces of tea brew much quicker than the larger whole and partial leaves. The larger leaves have more complex flavors that wouldn’t be as noticeable if brewed with smaller leaves that would overpower the flavors f brewed as long as their larger counterparts.

In other words: sorting is important.

Once teas are sorted, they become what you’re used to seeing. They’re approximately the same size leaves all of similar appearance.

where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush
Tea leaves post-sorting. You can see that they’re different kinds of tea just by looking at them. They’ve undergone their own unique processes to become what you see. Then they’re taste-tested to make sure they’re delicious.

Bonus round: roasting

You may have heard of smoked or roasted teas. There are roasted oolongs, and there are black teas like China’s lapsang souchong that have a smoky aroma and bold flavor profile. During the processing, and sometimes after the processing, teas are roasted over charcoal in wicker baskets or heated over pine wood to impart those flavors. They’re not for everyone. (A few of my friends described lapsang souchong as smelling like burnt tires…I liked it BTW.) They’re worth a try though.

where does tea come from, how is tea made, what is tea made of, how are tea leaves processed, how is oolong tea made, what’s a tea flush
Tea leaves may be placed over different elements to create a smoky flavor. Here are teas being heated over coals that are placed in pits beneath the baskets.

Bonus round two: yellow teas and dark teas

You may not have heard of yellow teas because they’re mainly brewed domestically in China. However, the leaves go through a sweltering process where the leaves are piled and heated, then may be wrapped in paper or fabric to lock in the heat and settle. When finished in this piling process, they maintain a yellow appearance and have a sweeter flavor than green teas.

The dark tea you’ve likely heard of is pu’ehr. It goes through the plucking, withering and firing process, then it’s shaped by hand or machine. Depending on what the manufacturer wants to do with them, they can be pressed into brick shapes or they can be left out loose. The leaves may also be piled into layers and moistened to allow fermentation to take place. This can last for months and even years.

Whew! That was a lot of learning about tea. We didn’t even get into scenting or blending teas. We’ll get there. 🙂

Did this answer your question about where does tea come from?

Want to learn some more? Visit me on Facebook Live Tuesdays at 6 p.m. Pacific. Click here to catch up!

Say hi, and tell me what your favorite tea is in the comments below!

See you soon,

Dina

Director, Sicilian Tea Company

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