As Yorkshire Tea’s senior tea buyer, I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world making long-lasting relationships with leading tea farmers while discovering the world’s best quality tea leaves. And it’s fair to say, there’s a lot more to tea than meets the eye!
Tea is the second most consumed beverage on the planet (after water) but many people don’t stop and think about the long and loving process that goes on before the kettle gets boiled. So let me take you through the tale of tea from plant to pot.
Where your tea is from is central to its taste. All tea comes from one type of bush called Camellia Sinensis which needs a special climate to grow. While tea can be grown in many different countries, Yorkshire Tea selects tea grown in Kenya and Rwanda in Africa and Assam in north-eastern India.
The tea bush in Eastern Africa is grown in volcanic soils and at high altitude, making for unique growing conditions that produce a brisk taste. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Rwanda many times and I am in awe of their tea estates’ vast rolling hills that are covered in lush green tea bushes.
In India, the bushes grow in hot, humid conditions, resulting in a rich, thick, and gutty tea with a sweet, malty character. The processing of the leaf in Assam requires so much attention to detail to produce its signature full bodied brew. Assam is one of my favourite places to visit in India. Each factory has a chief tea maker, and some of them have been making tea for over thirty years. Honestly, their knowledge of tea manufacturing is mind blowing!
As a family business, long-term contracts with our tea farmers are at the heart of Yorkshire Tea’s approach. So we make sure we’re regularly in touch with the tea gardens and estates we partner with and visit as often as we can.
Without strict maintenance, Camellia Sinensis bushes can grow into a tree up to nine meters high, which as you can imagine isn’t ideal for tea plucking. Keeping bushes at a waist height is perfect; it makes plucking easier as the best quality tea sits at the top of the bush.
Also, a tightly pruned bush makes more lovely green shoots appear, which is just what you need for processing into black tea. When tea leaves are picked, the rush is on to take the leaves back to the factory for processing to ensure the lovely nutrients and enzymes are preserved.
Once in the factory the tea leaves are sorted so only the best are left. The leaves are then spread out in big troughs and left for the most important part of the process: withering.
There are two stages to withering. First, the ‘physical’ stage where all surface moisture is removed and second, the ‘chemical’ stage, where the initial breakdown of enzymes takes place. Left for too long these enzymes would die and you would be left with flavourless tea. Left for too short a time and you’d have thin tea that doesn’t really pack much of a punch.
The length of time the leaves must wither depends upon the climatic factors, but usually lasts between 12 to 22 hours.
Whether you take your tea black, white or green, all varieties come from the same bush. The magic that makes them different occurs in the oxidation process.
After withering, the leaves are rolled and crushed to release juices, then cut up and exposed to air. These juices release chemicals that start the oxidation process, where leaves turn from green to brown. After the leaves have oxidised, they are passed through a hot air dryer to extract the remaining moisture and seal the leaf.
Getting this process right each time is important to ensure the quality of the tea isn’t affected. Once oxidised, you are left with lovely black tea leaves that get sorted, packed and sent across the world.
Taste (my favourite part)
The Camellia Sinensis plant always undergoes the exact same process to make black tea, but the origin and climate play a really significant role in the flavour characteristics of the leaves. Because of this, between the harvest and the final cup, each tea is tasted up to eight times to ensure perfection in every pot brewed.
At Yorkshire Tea, we can taste up to a thousand samples a day before deciding exactly how much of each tea will end up in our blends.
Once satisfied with the taste, we gently mix the selected tea leaves together in a delicate blending drum to stop any bruising. We then whisk them off to be bagged, packed, and wrapped before sending them out to the shops for everyone to enjoy.
Yorkshire Tea may come from Yorkshire in the UK, but it is our global partnerships that really make our proper brew sensational. Now you know the story from plant to pot, I hope that each sip reminds you that the humble cup of tea can take you on a worldwide adventure.