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Which countries come to mind when you think of tea? Perhaps Britain, where its consumption is a national obsession? Or a country where tea is grown, such as India or China? I recently took my camera to one of the most celebrated tea-growing regions in the world – Sri Lanka – to see how one of my favourite brews is grown: Ceylon. Coincidentally, today is National Tea Day. So make yourself a nice brew and read on….
As a devout tea drinker, I have, for many years, carefully selected my tea. Be it “loose-leaf” for the purist experience or in a tea bag for convenience, I prefer a full-flavoured dark nutty tea (with milk). I have therefore gravitated mostly to Ceylon or Assam teas. I’ll be sitting down on National Tea Day for a very special brew, just as I like it.
I do not add sugar to my tea, preferring to savour its natural taste. However, many tea drinkers prefer their “cuppa” sweetened. So, with one or more teaspoons of sugar, served in a mug, we have a very different drink: “Builders’ tea”. It is the favoured choice of the nation’s building and factory workers, consumed in industrial quantities throughout the day.
As you might expect, considerable vernacular has grown up around tea drinking. The British penchant for “Cockney Rhyming Slang” has given rise to the expression “a cup of Rosie”. Rosie is a shortened form of Rosie Lee (rhymes with tea). The phrase’s origins are obscure but could be related to the name of the 1920s American burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee.
I just returned from Sri Lanka, where I spent some time in the Hill Country, visiting tea estates and factories. I wanted to gain a better understanding of the tea manufacturing process, of which I now have a fuller appreciation. Later this year, I will spend time in Assam and visit one or two tea estates.
Generally, Indian and Ceylon teas are similar; both are high-grown teas, considered to be of superior quality. Both Indian and Ceylon tea plantations were established by the British in the nineteenth century. In Sri Lanka, coffee was originally planted, but the initial crops failed. Attention turned to tea, which was much better suited to the damp and cool climate of the Hill Country.
The tea plant is a type of camellia, similar to but smaller than the ornamental garden camellias. It is thought to have originated in the foothills of the Himalayas. For the production of Ceylon tea, camellia sinensis dominates, whereas camellia assamica is predominant in India. The tea leaves are harvested every ten days or so, preventing the plant from growing into a tree. Only the top four leaves are picked, usually by women (mostly Tamil) whose smaller hands are generally considered more nimble.
The pickers usually start at around seven o’clock in the morning. They take a break at ten after their pickings have been weighed, often at an impromptu weighing station. The leaves are emptied onto a tarpaulin for inspection and then onto the scales. Each picker has a passbook in which the weight is recorded and against which they are paid. Picking continues throughout the day with several breaks and weighings.
The sacks of Ceylon tea leaves are collected and taken from the plantation to an assigned tea factory. On arrival, they are transferred to withering trays, where 40 per cent of the moisture is removed. This normally takes between 12 and 18 hours. They are inspected regularly, often in the early morning, and turned to ensure moisture is removed from all leaves.
The partially dried leaves are then transferred to rolling machines. In more automated factories, they are transferred to a conveyor and chute, which feeds the rolling machine. In many cases, the CTC (crush or cut, tear, curl) process employed for Ceylon black teas still uses original machinery, installed when the factories were built. More recent equipment is built on the same principle and often employs a feed hopper above the machine.
Most of the production is for black tea, which is 100% fermented. For green teas, the fermentation is halted depending on the type of tea required. The fermentation process is manual; the tea is spread onto racks and allowed to ferment before being transferred to the drying process.
Drying the tea for flavour enhancement has two processing methods: finish-firing and roasting. Roasting changes the flavour of the tea to yield a more nutty taste with burnt notes. Conversely, finish-firing, more gentle lower temperature heating of the leaves, ensures full flavour without changing the nature of the tea.
Arguably the most important aspect of the tea process is sorting. Two methods are employed: vibratory sieving or a series of electrostatic rollers. The tea is separated by size, and stalks are removed for ultimate use as fertiliser.
Tea classifications do vary but, for black Ceylon tea, are generally:
This is a fairly comprehensive listing, and in the factories and estates I visited, the grading was simplified to OP, BOP, and FBOP.
The final stage of the tea process is packing. As soon as the leaves are graded, they are transferred to large foil-lined paper sacks where they are rapidly sealed, pending shipment to tea auctions in Colombo. Gone are the days of the iconic stencilled tea chest.
My visit to this world-famous tea-producing region was rewarding on many levels. In effect, I travelled back in time since the process I witnessed has changed little in over a hundred years. Additionally, my greater understanding of these foundational steps in its production will greatly enhance my enjoyment of my favourite beverage. I hope you also better appreciate where your cup of Rosie started its journey to your teapot. And raise a cup to National Tea Day.
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