The Tea Trail

After reading my post about how I missed “The Tea Trail”, the BBC very kindly broadcasted a repeat! The programme looked at tea production in East Africa. Although tea was only introduced to Kenya in 1903, it is now third in the world in terms of production. The vast majority of Kenya’s tea is manufactured into CTC tea and most supermarket tea here and in the UK would use Kenyan teas in their blends. It wasn’t surprising then that this documentary focussed exclusively on East African CTC black teas.

BBC The Tea Trail

Image Source: BBC (link)

Reeve starts off in Mombasa where tea from 9 East African countries is sold at auction. From there he goes east to the central province near Nairobi through the Great Rift Valley to Kericho and on to Toro in Uganda.

Mostly looking at the social aspects of tea-growing, the documentary touched on the brutalities of colonisation, Kenya’s independence in 1963 and the current difficulties with tea production. Those difficulties include transport problems, poverty, prostitution, bandits, HIV, unemployment, working conditions, climate change and child labour. It sounds pretty grim and it was. There was no clear conclusion about what we as consumers should do in this over-commoditised situation. It seemed that supporting trans-national corporations would preserve the current work-practices but abandoning them would inflict even more poverty on the 5 million Kenyans that are employed in the tea industry. Fairtrade is offered as a possible hopeful route for Kenya and Uganda with the example of a school at Mabale Tea Factory.

But 90% of UK tea is not Fairtrade and when I hear now that the price of tea at the Mombasa auction dropped to a five-year low in December 2013 (a drop of 30% since July), it makes me worry about the knock-on effect to those involved as workers in the tea industry.

The Tea Trail with Simon Reeve

We’ve had no television since a storm killed our satellite dish in late December. I didn’t miss it at all until I saw this clip from The Tea Trail that was shown on BBC last Sunday. I can’t even watch it online because BBC iPlayer is restricted to the UK so here’s hoping they repeat it once our satellite is back in action.

 

Update: I still haven’t seen the programme but a good summary of it was written here in Fortitude Magazine.

Plucking Tea

When tea is harvested, different parts of the plant are plucked, depending on the quality of the tea to be produced, the type of tea, the country etc. Tea picking is an important stage in tea processing and historically much has been written about the activity and the women who carried it out. Chatterjee (reference below) for example, mentions one account of labour management in the Tang Dynasty where tea pickers were required to abstain from eathing fish and certain kinds of meat so that their breath might not affect the bouquet of the leaves. He also talks about how women’s hands and fingernails were inspected to ensure body oils and perspiration would not contaminate the leaves.

Today, it is generally accepted that for high quality orthodox tea, the leaves at the tip of the stem are hand-picked. Plucking the bud and adjacent leaves  encourages new shoots to grow. Dexterity and speed are required, as the pickers snap the top, tender stems using the index finger and thumb and breaking the leaves off with a quick snap although many farmers have adopted the time-saving method of attaching a blade to the index finger for snipping the stem.

 

tea pluck types: imerial, fine, average

Image Source

The tender leaves at the top of the plant are the freshest growth and the most tender and are the richest in catechins and theanine. Imperial plucking involves just the bud and one leaf. Fine plucking takes the bud and the two adjacent leaves at the top of the plant stem. Average plucking takes the bud and three leaves.

 

 

Below are two photos of a jasmine pearl tea. The photo on the left is before steeping and the one on the right is the unfurled leaf after steeping. The beauty and perfection of the unfurled bud with its adjacent leaf or two leaves strikes me every time I make this tea.

Jasmine pearls before and after steeping

 

Reference:
A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation  By Piya Chatterje, Duke University Press Books, 2001

Growing Tea?

I got a letter this morning from the County Council about my allotment application. I have been offered a lease on a 10m x 20m “transition” allotment.

The plan is keep it simple with carrots, spinach and maybe potatoes but for future years I have noted that there is nothing in the lease agreement that prevents me from starting a tiny tea plantation so I did some investigations. Most of us have heard of the decorative camellia plant but the tea variety (Camellia sinensis) is becoming popular for gardeners. Although it prefers subtropical climates the Camellia sinensis plant is both resilient and adaptable.It is an evergreen shrub but can grow up to 17 m high. In cultivation, it is usually kept below 2 m high by pruning. Its bright green leaves are shiny, and often have a hairy underside. Its fruits are brownish-green and contain one to four seeds.

The fragrant flower of Camellia sinensis

The fragrant flower of Camellia sinensis (Source)

There are three major varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea),  Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea, Indian tea) and Camellia sinensis var. cambodi  (Java tea). It seems that Chinese camellia is the original tea plant and is hardier than the other varieties. It has relatively small and narrow leaves and produces fragrant white flowers in autumn. Given the right conditions, a tea plant can grow and produce for 50-100 years.

C. sinensis var. assamica is taller in its natural state and can grow into a loosely branched tree to a height of about 17 m. It is a less hardy variety with medium, droopy, leathery leaves. It needs well-drained soil and needs ample water but it is the most cold-sensitive camellia.

Camellia sinensis var. cambodi is used to create hybrids and not grown on its own so much but it can also grow quite tall and has the small white flowers when temperatures cool in autumn.

Tea can be propagated from cuttings or from seeds but the seeds take extra time. From seed, it will take 2-3 years to be ready to harvest. The plant likes regular harvesting and the new shoots can be used for tea. They need to be properly pruned back every four years to rejuvenate the bush and keep it at a convenient height.

Camillia sinensisFor planting, Camellia sinensis likes well-drained, sandy, acidic soil but will do well in other soil types too. They grow well in sunny areas but light shade develops the flavor of the leaves. They should be kept 1 meter apart to avoid competition. Camellia bushes are drought-tolerant and will survive dry summers. The problem for Irish weather conditions is that they need to be kept in a dry atmosphere to avoid mildew developing and the plant prefers “not very frosty dry winters”. Ideally, day temperatures of ~25 °C and night temperatures of >10 °C. Considering it is the end of March and there was snow on the ground here this morning, I’m guessing they would need to be kept in a greenhouse or indoors for most of winter and spring to survive.

I notice that there are a few tea plantations in the UK (Cornwall, Kent Pembrokeshire) so it seems that it is definitely possible to grow Camellia sinensis outside a subtropical climate. I might give it a shot at some stage but probably just as an experiment in a pot so I can move it indoors.

Oxidation

I briefly mentioned oxidation in my getting sorted post when I was talking about the different categories of tea and thought it might be worth talking about a little more.

Oxidation is basically what causes the leaves of the tea plant (that are green when they grow) to turn brown. It is a biochemical reaction which involves the absorption of oxygen (like when an apple is cut). Black tea is generally close to fully oxidised, Green teas are usually non-oxidised and Oolongs tend to be partially oxidised to varying degrees. Oxidation is pivotal to the processing of tea and will change its colour, smell and flavour.

Oxidation Chart

Oxidation Chart (Source)

Oxidised teas, are bruised (from lightly to extensively)  to break the  cell walls and allow the enzymes in the leaves to cause natural oxidation reactions. Heating the leaves stops oxidation by deactivating the enzymes. In this way the tea producer can decide on the extent of oxidation by introducing heat. Green teas are non-oxidised and so are heated early in the production process so that the oxidation process is skipped.

Sometimes tea-oxidation is called fermentation but no microorganisms are used so this is a misnomer. Generally when people talk about tea-fermentation they are talking about oxidation.

However, just to complicate matters, the proper micororganism fermentation does take place with pu-erhs.

There are exceptions to this, but here are the usual oxidation and fermentation levels:

Black tea – almost fully oxidised

Oolong tea – partialy oxidised (ranging from 12% – 80%)

White tea – minimal oxidation

Green tea – No oxidation

Yellow tea – No oxidation

Pu-erh – fermented (sheng pu-erh is not oxidised but shou pu-erh is)