Not long ago, what I refer to as my virgin tea drinking days, I didn’t give much thought to the contents of my teabag, let alone how it came into existence. Boil, dip, enjoy – my daily mantra.
But much like with coffee, it’s not like tea bags or ground coffee powder grows on trees (what a wonderful world that would be).
It’s a long journey those bad boys have to go through, and as much as I wish it was all a manual process, the majority of tea is processed in large tea factories. We managed to gain access to some factories in Uganda and Rwanda, and sneaked some exclusive shots inside the production area. (I might consider a career change, pretending to be an undercover ‘journalist’ is quite the thrill…)
So, here’s how it works:*
- Farmers pick the fresh leaves by hand and drop them at the factory (or the factory picks them up at collection centres scattered through the region)
2. The leaves are weighed and quantities recorded per farmer –(problem numero uno: farmers are paid by weight, which is why they tend to pick the bigger, soft leaves which leads to lower quality tea vs picking only the two small leaves on top, ‘two leaves and a bud’)
3. Tea leaves are withered (steamed) on large ‘beds’
4. Leaves are chopped and ground
5. Then left to ferment (oxidized) in metal containers to turn green leaves into black tea
6. Finally leaves are dried and sorted into different qualities (= tea grades)
7. The sorted leaves are packed into large paper bags for export
The lower grade teas are sold on domestic markets, and higher grades are mostly packaged and sent to Mombasa, Kenya to the auction, where large international buyers (think Lipton-Unilever) buy them in bulk for further processing.
These companies have so much leverage that they/their brokers can often determine the auction price beforehand. The auction price average is used as a benchmark for the green leaf price the farmers eventually receive, BUT that is a whooole different story for another day.
After witnessing the transformation of the leaves merely at factory level; Boil, dip, appreciate, enjoy – seems a lot more appropriate…
Keep it FRANK,
Valerie & David
* The process described here is the CTC process (Crush-Tear-Curl), used mainly for black tea, which is predominantly produced in Africa. To receive green or white tea, some of the steps are left out, but all teas essentially come from the same green leaves (camellia sinensis). FRANK about tea is searching for tea processed according to the traditional, more refined ‘orthodox’ method. To learn more, keep an eye out for our next blog posts.