How is Tea Made? From Leaf To Cup

Tea has been a common drink throughout history and has only increased in popularity over time. The process of making tea has evolved to meet a high market demand as more people become captivated by it. 

Tea is made by growing and processing leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant.  Tea leaves are typically dried or processed in some way to give them specific flavors. To make the drink, tea leaves must be steeped in either hot or cold water. 

Keep reading to learn more about the growing and processing of tea. We will also cover aspects of mass production, home-growing, and preparation. 

Growing The Camellia Sinensis Plant

In order to grow tea, tea shrubs must first be cultivated. These shrubs can grow enormous if left unattended. However, most are grown in large quantities and regularly pruned in order to produce high yields of tea leaves.

Types of Tea 

The ways of harvesting and processing are what ultimately make teas distinct from one another, but all tea types are actually derived from the same place of origin. All types of tea leaves come from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. 

There are many different types of teas that the Camellia plant’s leaves can be used to make. While black and green teas are certainly the most popularized, other types are made from the plant as well. These include white, yellow, and oolong teas.

Processing that occurs once the leaves have been extracted is what causes the differences in these types of tea.

Regardless of what type of tea is desired, all will require the cultivation of the Camellia plants. However, this does not include herbal or infusion teas. These types of teas are typically not derived from a tea plant, though they may use tea leaves as a base.

Herbal or infusion teas rely on blends of flowers, roots, bark, herbs, and other edible plants to create their flavor. 

Tea Plant Cultivation

Tea plants originated in East and South Asia. According to Science Direct, tea was discovered around 28 BC and has been cultivated by the Chinese for more than 2,700 years. Tea has historically been used both as a beverage and for medicinal purposes.

It was highly popular amongst upper-class Asia throughout history and has spread throughout the classes and internationally over the course of time.

Cultivation of tea plants is still mainly centered in China and the surrounding areas. This is because tea plants require large amounts of sunlight and thrive best in warmer climates. Therefore, tea grows and flourishes the best in subtropical or tropical regions. 

According to Fairhope Tea Plantation, tea can be grown in either direct sunlight or partial shade. Younger tea plants may be damaged from too much sunlight; however, adult plants become much more robust when grown in direct sunlight. 

Overall, tea is going to grow the best in warmer climate regions. Pruning, which we will discuss more in the harvesting section, is a crucial part of growing tea plants. The plants typically receive the first pruning the second year after having been planted.

Pruning helps to keep the plants a manageable size, as they can grow upwards of 10 feet if left unattended. 

Green fields of tea leaves

Tea Exporting

Currently, there are a few major growers of tea that supply most tea products to the international market. China is the major tea exporter followed by India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya.

All of these countries produce massive amounts of tea each year, but China rules the market in overall exports. Altogether, these four nations accounted for 61 percent of tea exports in 2019, according to World’s Top Exports.

According to Statista, in 2019 China tea exports were around 83 percent green tea. The country exported 304 thousand metric tons of green tea during that year. In U.S. currency, China produced around $2 billion worth of tea in 2019. 

While not the top worldwide exporters, other countries are known for their cultivation and cultural appreciation of tea. Countries such as Japan, Poland, Taiwan, and Germany all rank within the top 10 exporters of the product.

In fact, Japan and Taiwan have grown in exports considerably over the last five years. 

How Tea is Harvested

The time of year plays a major role in harvesting tea, just like with other crops. However, tea grown in tropical regions can often grow year-round, but be less robust in colder months.

Nonetheless, there are some specific harvesting times, known as flushes, and practices that are commonly seen in the cultivation of tea.

Flushes

The time of year that tea is harvested can be broken into subcategories of specific time spans. These are known as flushes. This is most commonly used to describe premium, loose-leaf teas.

It is not as likely to see prepackaged tea bags display what flush the tea is. According to Teatulia, there are four main flushes: first, second, monsoon, and autumn. 

First Flush is the earliest harvesting time, happening between February and April. This will be the very first harvest of the tea plants for the year if they go through a dormant period during the colder, winter months.

They are typically delicate, flavorful, and contain high levels of nutrients and caffeine. First flush harvests are typically made into the more expensive premium teas. 

Second Flush occurs between May and June. The actual leaves harvested at this time are typically bigger and produce a bolder flavor.

While not as sought-after as first flush by tea connoisseurs, second flush tea is still revered as being flavorful and high-quality for loose leaf teas.

Monsoon Flush happens July through October. The leaves harvested at this time are much larger and have a bold flavor. This flavor is regarded as being less complex than the first two flushes.

Commercially sold teas and most pre-bagged teas come from this flush.

Autumnal Flush is the last harvest of the year. It occurs between October and November. Crop yield is minimized significantly at this time. The leaves are described as being full-flavored and smooth. 

White teacups and saucers on a wood table with macaroons

Choosing Which Leaves to Harvest

Tea plants, unlike some crops, should not be harvested as a whole. The tea shrub needs to be left intact to continue growing through the multiple flushes. This means that only specific areas of leaves are plucked when the plant is harvested. 

The preferred method for leaf selection is to take the outermost leaves, typically the two newest layers. According to Gardening Know How, tea can be harvested every 7 – 15 days, although it is not uncommon to only harvest once per flush. 

The word flush also refers to the part of the plant that is picked. A flush is the group of newest leaves located at the tip of the stem. Flushes can have between two to five leaves; ones with two or three leaves are called “golden flushes,” according to Orimi Trade.  

Pruning

Pruning is a crucial part of the harvesting season. Tea plants are capable of growing to great heights and can get up to 10 – 12 feet in height, according to Gene’s Nursery. However, it is not common practice to allow them to get this big.

Typical tea plants used for tea production are cultivated to be between 3 – 5 feet tall, and then pruned periodically to keep them this height.

Pruning is particularly important for tea plants since harvests only take the first and newest layers of leaves. This means if the plant is too tall, the leaves desired for harvesting will be out of reach and difficult to obtain without equipment or ladders.

Alternatively, plants kept short can be hand-picked with no extra equipment, cutting down on costs.

Tea plants are typically pruned during the slower production months or dormant periods during colder times. This is to allow for optimal growth during the harvest periods.

For some, pruning does not need to happen every year, but should be performed once the plant exceeds five feet in height. 

How Tea Leaves Are Processed

Processing tea leaves is where a lot of the magic takes place. Tea leaves are mostly the same when initially harvested, but processing allows for the development of several types of tea and many flavors. The practice is essentially an aging and drying process. 

As we have covered, there are several types of tea, but the main ones are: green, black, white, oolong, and pu’er (also called pu erh). White and green teas are processed the least, followed by oolongs.

Black teas are aged for much longer, and pu erh teas are fermented. Less processed teas will provide a much lighter and fresher taste, while oolong, black, and pu’er will be bolder and more flavorful.  

There are some traditional methods used to process the leaves. They include withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying out of the leaves. The amount of time spent in each of these processes determines how teas can end up being distinct from each other.

Withering 

Withering is a process of allowing moisture to exit the leaves over time. Leaves will usually be placed on some type of rack and left to dry naturally. They are left to wither for a maximum of about 18 – 20 hours.

The withering time will be affected by what kind of tea is being made. Tea leaves have high water content, hence why this must be left to dry for so long.

According to the Journal of Biosystems Engineering, there are two types of withering: physical and chemical. Physical withering is the loss of the moisture over time, while chemical withering is the breakdown of complex compounds due to time and temperature.

Both are essential to the withering process.

Red iron teapot with saucers of dried teas on a dark slate background

Rolling

Rolling the leaves occurs after withering. Leaf rolling breaks down compounds, leading to the leaves gaining stronger flavors and aromas. The process also helps with oxidation. It can be done both by hand and by machine.

Many larger tea growers and exporters opt for machine-rolling to expedite the processing stage. 

Oxidation 

Oxidation is arguably the most important component of processing tea leaves. It is what ultimately determines the tea’s type, color, flavor, and scent. Oxidation occurs when leaves are left exposed to the air. In this time, the leaves will dry and darken. 

Green and white teas are oxidized the least, while oolong and black teas are oxidized longer. Pu erh tea is actually made through the process of fermentation. The longer the oxidation time, the darker the leaves will be.

The flavor will be much stronger and bolder compared to less oxidized teas. Oxidation occurs in temperatures between 80 – 85 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Fermentation

Comparatively, when fermentation occurs the leaves will begin to decompose due to their chemical compound being broken down. This process involves microbial fermentation that occurs over a long period of time, from to several months to even years of time.

Here’s the oxidation process of the basic types of tea are processed:

  • White Teas are oxidized for little to no time at all. These teas are the least processed of the basic tea types.
  • Green Teas are oxidized until they are the desired green color and are oxidized around 10 – 20 percent. 
  • Oolong Tea is oxidized to be the middle color between green and black teas. Anywhere from 20 – 60 percent is how much they should be oxidized. 
  • Black Tea is the darkest because they are left to oxidize the longest. They should fall into the 70 – 90 percent oxidized range. 
  • Pu’er Tea is a fermented tea and can be left to ferment for long periods of time. Anywhere from one to six months is common, but even longer periods of time are seen as well.

Drying Out

Drying out, also known as final firing, is the typical last phase of tea leaf processing. This final drying stage halts oxidation and removes any remaining moisture. There are several methods of drying.

Leaves can be dried both naturally by the sun and by being baked or pan-fired. Sun-drying requires very hot temperatures.

Drying via firing or baking is a much more controlled and reliable process. The leaves are often sent through hot air dryers to suck all the humidity away from and out of them.

Ultimately, the leaves should have around 3 percent of their moisture remaining once dried.

The drying process is useful for two main reasons: it preserves the leaves for longer and it makes them easily packaged and distributed. By drying the tea, growers and manufacturers are prolonging the longevity of the crop and making it easy to send out and store. 

Non-Orthodox Method

The process of withering, rolling, oxidizing, fermenting, and drying is known as the traditional, or orthodox, method. 

However, as tea manufacturing has continued to grow, more tea processing methods have emerged. 

Non-orthodox processing is also called the CTC method. This stands for cut, tear, and curl.

The CTC method makes the leaves much smaller and compact. It is performed after the withering stage of processing. The leaves are usually altered with rollers that cut and tear them into small, granular pieces.

These can be tightly packed, meaning you can fit more in smaller areas. This makes it ideal for pre-bagged tea sold in supermarkets. 

Glass teapot pouring tea into glass teacups

Turning Tea Leaves into a Product

As tea has grown in popularity throughout international markets and in terms of total exports, mass production has become an integral base for making tea.

Production procedures are put in place to ensure that a product that has been carefully grown and processed makes it into the hands of buyers. 

Ensuring the tea is packaged correctly will help with future storage and to draw in future customers. 

Sorting and Packaging

Because processed tea is dried out, the packaging should be air-tight so as not to let in any extra moisture that may disturb or deteriorate the tea early. 

Pre-bagged tea is typically what is sold to the common consumer. Tea is bagged to separate the tea into portion sizes and make it easy to use and discard. Many tea bags are compostable, making them a non-wasteful option.

Loose leaf tea will often be sold in air-tight resealable bags or containers. It will likely be whole leaves as compared to the more broken down and ground up tea seen in bags. 

The bag is not a requirement for tea steeping – leaves can be steeped directly in water. 

As for sorting, there are many considerations at a mass production level. Teas are often sold according to three main categories: type, flush, and region. All teas regardless of packaging will be sorted according to type.

Flush and region are often sorting categories for more premium loose-leaf teas. 

For instance, you can get super specific in your purchasing choices and buy a first flush oolong tea from India if you so desire. 

Having teas sorted in this way is a necessary process for tea manufacturers, as different customers will have different knowledge and desires. 

As a consumer, it is helpful to know information such as type and flush to know how strong, flavorful, and caffeine-dense a tea will be. 

Mass Production 

As we have covered, China is the top producer and exporter of tea in the international market. You may wonder what that kind of production may actually look like.

In order to mass-produce tea, growers in China use over 5 million acres of land to grow the tea plants. 

According to Statista, 2.8 billion metric tons of tea were produced in China in 2019. Statista also states that the agriculture sector that is responsible for tea growing accounts for employing 27 percent of the total population. 

While not to the same degree as China, tea production is an integral part of the agriculture sector for many countries including India and Sri Lanka. In fact, demand for the product has only grown over the past decade.

According to Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, production has increased at an average annual growth rate of 4.4 percent.

There has been concern that the mass production of tea is unsustainable due to decreasing rural labor and land. Some believe physical labor may become obsolete and instead will be replaced largely by mechanized operating systems. 

Top Consumers Worldwide

What do the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom all have in common? They are all the top three importers of tea in 2019. According to World’s Top Exports, the United States was the number importer with over $488 million in tea sales. 

Interestingly, importing and consumption of tea in Russia and the United Kingdom has gone notably down over recent years. Meanwhile, the import and consumption of the product has increased steadily within the United States. Countries such as Vietnam and the Netherlands have also increased their tea importing as of 2019. China itself also consumes a lot of the tea it produces. China accounts for $187 million worth of tea. 

What About Home-Grown Tea?

With the growing popularity of home-growing and self-sustainability, you may be wondering if it is possible to grow tea at home. The short answer is yes, you can absolutely grow tea in a home garden and process it yourself. There are some important factors to keep in mind when growing the tea. 

Equipment Needed

Grow Lights: 

Depending on where you live, the biggest requirement for growing tea plants may be grow-lights. In cold climates and darker regions, tea plants can be grown inside or in greenhouses. In this case, you will need to purchase grow lights such as led bulbs or strips. 

Pruning Shears:

You will also want sharpened tools for pruning. Sharp tools allow for cutting without any unnecessary damage to the plant. Aside from pruning tools, you will also need a rack for drying and oxidizing and a tray for firing. 

Packaging Materials: 

Once you have processed and dried your leaves, you will then need to package and store the tea yourself. There are a number of ways to do this including storing in an air-tight mason jar or bag and distributing tea amongst tea bags and storing the bags in a box or similar container.

Outdoor Climate Requirements

If you live in a tropical or subtropical region, you may have the right conditions to have your own outdoor tea garden. Tea plants typically need warm weather, ideally with hot summers and mild to virtually non-existent winters. 

In terms of sunlight, young plants may need more shade than mature adult plants. Direct sunlight is best for growing a robust adult tea plant. However, shaded or partial sunlight can also be used effectively. As for soil, tea plants do best in soil that has a pH level ranging from 5.0 to 5.7, and does require regular watering.

Wooden table with tea infuser balls filled with loose teas

Preparation for Drinking

There is one more stage of tea-making once tea has been grown, processed, bought, and shipped out. Once the tea is in the hands of the consumer, it’s time for the tea to be brewed. Brewing, also known as steeping, is a practice of using hot water to extract the color, flavor, and aroma from tea leaves. It is the essential step necessary in order for the tea to be drunk.

Brewing Standards

Traditionally, tea leaves are placed inside a teapot with hot water and left to steep for anywhere between 2 to 5 minutes. The pot will typically be covered to maintain and condense the heat and aroma of the tea. This is considered the best and most proper way to brew tea.

However, with its increasing popularity, other methods of brewing tea have arisen. For instance, rather than heating the water separately and then adding it to the pot, many will heat the water directly in the cup in a microwave. This is one way to expedite the waiting time for water to heat up. 

The longer a tea is allowed to steep, the more flavor and color that will collect in the water. Additionally, longer steeped tea is generally higher in caffeine and nutrient levels as well.

However, it is important not to steep the tea for too long as it can end up making the flavor too bitter as a result of the tea leaves breaking down too much in the heat.

Ice and Cold Brewing

Steeping in hot water is not the only way to brew tea. Tea leaves can also be left to steep in cold water over a period of 6 – 12 hours. This process is known as cold brewing tea and is a favored way to make iced tea. 

There is also a process known as ice brewing, in which tea leaves are placed in a pot with ice cubes and left to steep while the ice melts, typically over the course of an hour. 

Cold brewing tea is a convenient and easy way to make large quantities of iced tea, while the ice brewing method is better used for single servings as ice can take quite some time to melt. Both methods require considerably more time than hot water steeping.

Final Thoughts On That Delicious Cup

There is a lot of work and effort that goes into making tea. The cultivation of tea plants is an integral part of agriculture around the world.

Processing of tea leaves to create different types of flavors, colors, and aromas is a wonderful craft that takes time, patience, and precision. It is important to remember how much work goes into every-day products, such as tea.

If you love tea as much as I do, pin this to your favorite tea-loving Pinterest board and pass it on for others to enjoy! Pinkies up!