Harvesting and processing tea

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A tea plant will usually produce around 3,000 leaves each year.

This means that a standard tea plant is capable of producing around one pound of fully processed tea a year.

The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, originates from South East Asia and is today most commonly grown in subtropical areas affected by monsoons.

When Camellia sinensis is cultivated in tropical regions of the world it is usually planted on high altitudes, since this plant appreciates dry winters.

Harvesting tea is quite a complicated task since different tea types require different picking techniques.

If you wish to produce a tea of supreme quality, you should only pick the bud, the second leaf, and the third leaf. The rest of the leaves should not be included.

This method of plucking is called fine plucking and will of course result in a tea that is more costly than teas where an easier harvesting method is used and more leaves can be included

A harvesting technique where not only the bud, the second leaf, and the third leaf are included is called coarse plucking. During coarse plucking, mature leaves will sometimes be discarded in order to prune the tea shrub and make it focus on new growth rather than the maintenance of old leaves.

Coarse plucking will result in teas of medium to low quality.

The taste and properties of a tea is highly dependent on the processing method. There are four main processing methods for tea and they result in Green tea, White tea, Oolong tea or Black tea/Red tea.

Other less frequently used processing methods are those resulting in Yellow tea, Kukicha tea and Pu-erh tea. Black tea is today the most popular form of tea in the world.

The processing methods affect the level of oxidisation. If tea leaves are not dried as soon as they have been picked from the tea bush, they will start to wilt and oxidise. The chlorophyll is broken down and the leaves become darker and darker.

This oxidising process will also release tannins, a type of bitter-tasting compounds that are found in plants. During tea processing, water is removed from the leaves in order to stop this oxidation process. The easiest way of removing water from a leaf is of course to heat it, and this is was tea farmers do.

It is very important that temperature and amount of moist is carefully controlled during tea processing, since tea can become infected with fungi. If fungi is allowed to infest tea leaves, toxic and carcinogenic (cancer promoting) compounds can form.

The process described above is sometimes referred to as fermentation, even though no true fermentation takes place.

The term fermentation has probably been borrowed from the processing of other popular beverages, such as wine. During a real fermentation process, microbes will produce ethanol and this is not what happens to tea leaves during proper processing. Oxidation is the accurate term to describe what happens to tea leaves, but the term fermentation is still wide-spread.

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