Looking at the green tea leaves and smelling them, transforms me to the tea gardens of Anji, Zhejiang, China. At first, it’s very confusing to spot a tea tree if it grows in the wilderness next to other trees and plants. Once I spent some time in the tea gardens, I started not only to recognize tea trees but their varieties.
Commercial teas are primarily produced from two varieties, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis – the small leaf variety of the plant and Camellia sinensis var. assamica.
Green tea is primarily made from the former plant – sinensis. Tea cultivation is possible in the areas with a moderate amount of rain and temperatures between 64F – 68F. Cultivation may occur from sea level up to 10,000 ft. Tea tree also requires 5 hours of direct sunlight or twice as much indirect sunlight daily.
Most green teas have young and tender tree leaves. They consist of a terminal bud, stem and up to three leaves. Green teas that have two or fewer leaves are generally more expensive and there is a reason for that.
While machine plucking is widely used in large tea manufacturing, hand plucking remains an important part of the traditional method of tea processing. As a result, the tea price goes up. A farmer may hand pluck up to 6 pounds of fresh tea leaves per day. This yields one pound of dry tea (6:1). All of HER-CHA teas are hand-plucked.
Hand plucking has its specifications as well. If the farmer is not very particular about the quality of the tea leaves, the end product may contain tea with multiple leaves and a longer stern. This is a characteristic of lower grade tea. Besides, collecting fresh tea leaves and pilling them in a bamboo basket may damage the bottom leaves due to pressure and humidity. As a result, once the farmer collects a shallow level of tea leaves in the bucket, he empties the bucket for the next batch. Each trip like this would require farmers to walk downhill from the tea garden to the workshop, where “tea withering” starts right away. They repeat this step multiple times during each day to prevent the leaves from damaging and bruising.
Tea plucking season is a very special time for any tea farmer as this is the time for family, stories, bonding and hard work that will support them financially throughout the year. Once you train your taste buds with truly artisanal tea, it is hard to imagine life without it.
– Written by Andy Hakobyan