The journey of tea
By Milan Lu
Parents and even some of you love tea. Milk tea, plain tea and flavoured tea are easy to find and tea is available as a loose powder or in tea bags.
Sri Lanka is the fourth largest producer of tea in the world. And we love to drink our tea as much as we love to produce it.
Tea was introduced to Sri Lanka by the British in 1824 when a tea plant was brought to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya from China. This wasn't done to make tea back then but to do an experiment to see if the plant could be grown in Sri Lanka. More tea plants were brought in from places like Assam and Calcutta in India to Peradeniya in 1839.
Before tea plants were introduced Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon back then, had a lot of coffee and cinnamon plantations. It wasn't until 1867 that the tea industry in Sri Lanka began. James Taylor started a tea plantation in the Loolecondera Estate in Kandy that year.
By 1872 Taylor had a fully equipped tea factory on the grounds of the Loolecondera Estate and that year the first sale of Loolecondra tea (Loolkandura) was made in Kandy.
In 1873, the first shipment of Ceylon tea which was a package of about 10 kg, arrived in London. Soon enough. Soon enough plantations surrounding Loolkandura began switching over to tea and were among the first tea estates on the island.
The demand for Ceylon tea grew a lot over the years in the 1880s and by 1888 the area of land used to cultivate tea was more than the area used for coffee. Even though our country won independence, the global demand for tea never really stopped and we still have a very good reputation for Ceylon tea, even if we don't use that name for our country any more. So how does the little tea leaf on tea plant become the brown liquid in your cup?
The Camellia sinensis plant, or the tea plant, is grown in tea plantations and are carefully grown so that they grow into healthy bushes. The tea plant is actually a small tree but it is pruned regularly so that it does not grow taller than a person's height so that it is easy for tea pluckers to pluck its leaves.
In Sri Lanka there are tea plantations mainly in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya in Central Province, Badulla, Bandarawela and Haputale in Uva Province, Galle, Matara and Mulkirigala in Southern Province, and Ratnapura and Kegalle in Sabaragamuwa Province. Tea planted in Nuwara Eliya is famous for having a very special taste because of how high up in the mountains it is grown and because of other natural features of the region.
Tea is made from the young leaves right on top of each branch only. Normally a tea plucker will only pluck the two leaves and a bud at the end of each branch from tea bushes. We in Sri Lanka still pluck tea by hand because it makes sure that the quality of the tea is much higher than doing it with a machine. If you use a machine to pluck tea leaves, the tea leaves could get damaged and the quality of the tea will reduce.
Twigs and other leaves could also get mixed in as well. Tea leaves that are plucked are put into a basket and once the basket is full, the tea pluckers will quickly make their way to special areas called muster sheds where they will empty their basket and weigh how much tea they have plucked. Many tea pluckers can pluck up to 15 to 20 kg per day. Once the tea leaves have been weighed they are then transported to the nearby tea factory. Each tea plantation normally has a tea factory close by to make sure that tea that is plucked is still very fresh when it reaches the factory for the next step.
Tea factories have many different floors. Tea leaves that have been plucked are then taken to the top floor of the factory where they are placed in racks to begin withering. As soon as tea leaves are plucked the leaves begin to wither or wilt. This is where the water or moisture in the leaves start to leave the leaf. By placing them in the racks they leave the leaf to wither for some time to remove excess moisture from the leaves. The leaves sometimes lose more than a quarter of their weight in water during withering.
Once withered, the tea leaves are rolled, twisted and parted, which makes it easier for things called enzymes inside the leaves to react with oxygen in the air which will begins the change in taste of the leaf.
Oxidation or Fermentation is a step where the leaves are left in a room that is warm, in most cases naturally so. In this room the enzymes from the leaf will react with oxygen in the air for a set period of time and change the colour, taste and smell of the tea. The leaf will change from a green colour to a copper colour.
Depending on the weather condition as well as which type of tea is being produced, the tea producer will decide how long the tea will oxidize or ferment for. The tea producer has to keep track of the temperature in this room at all times to make sure the temperature inside remains steady at all times. If the temperature changes suddenly or if the tea is kept in the room for too long or taken out too soon, the tea will be ruined.
Kill-green or Fixation is done to stop the tea leaf oxidation at the right level. This is done by heating up the tea leaves artificially in a firing chamber. This way any unwanted smells will be removed from the tea, the oxidization process will be stopped and the tea will keep the taste and smell that is desired. The kill-green process too needs to be looked after carefully to make sure the firing chamber isn't too hot to make sure the quality of the tea is saved. Once this process is over the tea will have its final blackish colour.
Grading takes place first by sorting the tea leaves, which by now have broke down into tiny pieces, by size and shape. This is done by sifting them through meshes and any tea that doesn't filter through it is rejected. They are then weighed and packed into tea chests or paper sacks and then given one final check before they are taken to the tea auction, tea brokering companies, or tea manufacturing companies.
Tea will then find its way to a company that will package them. Each company has its own process but they all mainly package the tea by either putting it in a packet or by making tea bags. Those are then put in a box and sent out to a shop.
From a little bush somewhere in Sri Lanka, to a tea cup at home, a lot of work went into the production of the tea you are drinking today. We are very lucky to be able to drink some of the finest tea produced in the world from the very country it was grown in.
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