Tea leaves drying on mats in the sun
For many cultures around the world harvesting and making tea is a part of daily life. Here in the western world however, most of us buy our tea ready to drink at the grocery store, or online. Because of the disconnect between the harvesting and preparing of tea, there is a mystery surrounding what it is we find in our teabags and how it got there.
Tea is grown throughout the world (yes there is even some tea grown in the US), but the majority of teas that end up on our grocery store shelves have come from India, Sri Lanka, China, and Japan. Africa is also gaining popularity as a tea source with the mainstream introduction of Rooibus.
FROM PLANTATION TO CUP
What you find in your teabag is the dried leaves and buds of the Camellia Sinensis plant (sometimes with the addition of other flavors, dried fruits, and herbs). While this plant can grow into tall trees, most tea gardens keep them pruned into short bushes so it is easier to harvest the leaves. Most teas are hand harvested as machines can easily destroy the plant. Highly trained workers pluck the bud and two or more leaves depending on the plant and the type of harvesting.
Once the leaves are picked, they are laid out on mats or trays to dry for a few hours. The leaves are then rolled by hand or tumbled in a machine to release the enzyme that allows them to begin the oxidation process.
How long they are left to dry after that determines the color of the tea (Learn more about the differences between black, green, white, and oolong teas). Once they have reached the desired level of oxidation, they are pan fried, or steamed to stop them from oxidizing further.
If you are drinking a black, green, white, or oolong tea without additional flavors, these dried leaves are what you will find in your teabag. Cheap teas will contain leaves that have been cut very small, or ground into 'tea dust,' and will not contain much of a flavor profile. Often you will find these teas bitter or bland. Higher quality brands, such as Global Teas, will package full leaf teas which offer a much better tasting cup of tea. The next time you reach for a bag of tea, cut one open and have a look at the leaves inside. It will be become apparent very quickly why higher priced, higher quality teas taste so much better than your average store shelf brand.
When you purchase flavored teas such as Earl Grey, Berry Tea, Lemon Tea, etc., these are the dried tea leaves with additional flavors added. For example, Earl Grey, is a black tea that has been blended with Bergamot oil. Some blends will also include pieces of dried fruit, dried herbs, or dried flowers (again, take a look in your teabag to better understand how this works.)
Once the dried tea leaves have arrived from their country of origin, the tea company will test the addition of various flavors to create new tea blends/types. They are then packaged and ready for you to purchase!
When you enjoy your next cup of tea, remember the work it took to get those leaves into your cup and buy tea from companies who are socially responsible and care about the health of the plant and the workers!
Dezerai Seitzer is the owner and founder of Global Teas, a retail line of tea that gives people the opportunity to help change lives by donating $1 from every pouch of tea sold to a non-profit organization.