Article 2 of 20 in the W.H.A.T? series.

What's Healthy About Tea graphic

From Field To Cup

“From field to cup” is a phrase that, to tea lovers, means that we develop an awareness of the total journey of what we drink from the time that the plant took root in the soil to the moment when we infuse with water. To better appreciate a discussion about the health benefits of Camellia siensis (the true tea plant) it helps to understand a bit about how it is grown and processed. Understanding the basics of growing, harvesting, exporting, and selling teas can also help you select the best quality and value. The care with which your tea is handled, beginning at the source, ultimately determines all of its benefits.

Finding the Freshest Leaf for Our Cup

The agricultural aspect of tea is an enormous topic. Tea grows in more than a hundred different countries with vast differences in climate, soil, altitude. we call this the terroir. Different varietals of tea plants have been developed to thrive in vastly different environments. But the tea that is produced is also a product of the skill and preferences of the growers. Some large plantations cover hillsides that extend beyond the distance we can see. Other growers have fields of just a few hundred plants. 

Everything that happens to the tea plant, from the time that the particular tree is planted, years before it is commercially viable, to the day that the fresh leaves are plucked affects the experience in the cup. 

Small Farms & Large Plantations

When The Everything Healthy Tea Book was first published in 2014, the tea market relied on fairly traditional distribution. In it I described how tea wholesalers primarily sourced fresh teas through distribution channels and crates of different teas were shipped in water and air-tight steel container. There was much less interaction with the farmers. But this was still part of the work of selling tea that was the most exciting. Some sellers traveled to develop relationships directly with farmers. Tea tour businesses developed to guide tea professionals on buying trips. 

There was a rarity to having contact directly with the farms and access to information about how the tea was grown and how the workers were being treated. In the early days of specialty tea, the 1990’s and early 2000’s, we relied heavily on those tea purveyors who could travel internationally to the countries of origin to provide us with high quality, sustainably produced, and freshly harvested products. 

Things have changed dramatically so the differences between large and small farming operations. We consumers now have the opportunity to know small farmers and even to order directly from them. We may assume that this direct order is more beneficial to them – giving them a higher price per pound for their product. More small farmers can develop an international clientele and ship directly. New opportunities in communication, packaging, and shipping make it possible for tea lovers around the world to obtain handcrafted tea within a few days of harvest and production in small amounts, directly from the field. So, the phrase “field to cup” now has a whole new meaning. Of course, this is still the exception and a very small part of global tea sales. 

Woman harvesting tea with clippers, Huangtian, China

Do small farms produce healthier tea?

In the previous article of this series, (#1 of 30), I said that the question I’m most often asked is, What’s the healthiest tea?. I responded that the freshest and the tea you most enjoy drinking are your best choice. Ordering teas directly from a small farm where you feel like you know the people who created it and when makes it one of the healthiest options we now have. But I’m not saying that plants grown in the soil of smaller farmers are always healthier. Or that the tea produced on larger operations is less fresh or less beneficial. But, as consumers, we are better able to relate to some of the stories of small farmers and their families who have worked their land and crafted their particular style of tea for many generations. It might be a kind of placebo affect, but we are nourished in a different way when we feel a human connection to the people who provide our food. 

What is not always so obvious is the crucial relationship between these farms and larger corporate operations. The fact is that most small farmers sell their freshly harvested tea leaves to larger operations. What they produce is co-mingled with the tea from neighboring farms and also from the large plantation fields while they are still green. The larger company then finishes the leaves in their factory and takes responsibility for distribution.

This is the guarantee that the individual farmers need. They can contract to sell a percentage of their tea to a larger company. They do not have to rely solely on small orders from individual customers. Then, the percentage that is held back can be reserved for the more handcrafted teas that may be submitted to competitions for artisan tea. The competitions can help the farmer gain recognition for his craft. The farmers need both the security and the creative freedom to thrive in these new markets.

Of particular note: As domestic markets in tea-producing countries develop, there is likely to be much less outreach to and reliance on Western markets. The result may be that we will not have access to the very best teas. 

Orthodox vs. CTC

There is a language – our jargon – in the tea industry used to describe different quality teas. You may hear whole leaf teas described as orthodox. It is also called artisan. Orthodox is the term that we use for teas where more traditional methods of production are part of preserving the original leaf during manufacture. It may be that broken leaf is also part of orthodox methods. But this is not the same as the mastication of CTC.

The contrasting kind of tea is CTC that stands for Cut, Tear, Curl. 

CTC is a method for making commodity tea. Wikipedia defines it as Crush, tear, curl (sometimes cut, tear, curl) is a method of processing black tea in which the leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of sharp teeth that crush, tear, and curl the tea into small, hard pellets.  It is by far the greatest volume of manufactured tea. The process is entirely mechanized. Even if the field. Machines can harvest huge quantities of fresh leaf and pour it directly into a system that requires very little human interaction. In this way, tea can be produced in great volume for much less than by using orthodox methods. 

 But many of our favorite teas are produced this way. So, if these are the teas you drink the most of and they are purchased from companies that assure you of the freshness of their product, then they will be a healthy choice for you. 

Harvesting tea By Hand vs. By Machine

Harvesting tea by hand is highly labor-intensive and requires practice and a precise, gentle touch. The only part of the bush that is used is the new growth on a mature bush. The majority of people who do this kind of work are women. But hand harvest is also critical for teas planted on steep hillsides and also in groves of ancient trees. Depending on the size of the leaf, a pound of dry, finished tea may require between 7,000 and 70,000 plucks of the new growth, sometimes just an unopened leaf bud and one or two of the newest leaves. Tea pluckers are usually paid by the amount of tea picked. 

 Only slightly more mechanized than handpicking is a simple tool that looks like a pair of hedge clippers with a cloth bag attached. The blade of the clippers snaps a swath of dozens of shoots, which then fall into the attached collection bag. It is the most basic form of machine harvest and is certainly a more rapid method than breaking each stem one by one. 

Another simple version of the machine harvester operated by a single person has a small gasoline-powered blade. Increasingly larger versions exist, such as a wheeled one that moves through the rows of plants, operated by four to five workers, replacing the work of fifty people.

Of course, there are completely mechanized harvesters, large tractors that drive through the rows, slicing off the new tips that are then sucked into a mesh hopper before they are driven directly to the factory. 

Does the use of machines reduce the healthfulness of tea?

For many tea lovers, there is an intuitive assumption that tea harvested by hand is healthier and better than machine-harvested tea. There is research in tea science that looks at various aspects of growing and processing on the health benefits. Below is an excerpt from one example. 

The crude fibre content, an undesirable parameter whose limit has been fixed around 16%, decreased with shearing. A slight decrease in the caffeine content along with a slight increase in lipid content occurred with shearing compared to hand-plucking. The analytical data observed were complemented by organoleptic evaluation. The professional tasters rated the tea made from handplucked leaves much higher than that obtained from shear-plucked leaves. More specifically, they commented that both flavour and colour of tea infusion obtained from hand-plucked leaves were distinctly higher than those obtained by shear-harvesting.

The impact of mechanization of tea harvesting on the quality of south Indian CTC Teas by Ramaswamy Ravichandran* & Ramaswamy Parthiban. Tea Technology Division, UPASI Tea Research Institute, Valparai 642127, India (30 May 1997)

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Historical Perspective on Tea and Health

One of the most famous teas and tea makers of all time is Lipton tea produced by Thomas Lipton. In response to the issues of imported teas being so expensive yet so much in demand, that there was the incentive for bad actors to adulterate imported tea with harmful products. He created a field-to-cup message.

Uneducated buyers couldn’t tell the difference. Lipton visited the British-controlled nation of Ceylon and partnered with Scottish tea grower, James Taylor. Lipton’s famous sales message was that his tea was grown on land under his control, and packed at the source guaranteeing a quality product. Ceylon is now known as Sri Lanka, no longer under British rule. But Lipton’s original home is still preserved for tourist adventures

A Conclusion

The assumption that taking the most direct and expeditious route from the field to your cup provides you with the most healthful beverage still holds true in the hearts of tea lovers. Additional distinctions between the kinds of tea; white, green, yellow, oolong, black and dark, are more complex discussions. In future articles of this series, I will address some of what we know to be true about these kinds of teas and the benefits they each provide. Until then, my personal healthy tea advice is several cups or glasses per day of your favorite and freshest choice.

You might enjoy more articles about how different kinds of tea are created.