Plucking tea is a delicate process that requires experience. Only the top leaves and buds can be plucked while the remains of the plants are preserved. This method is a crucial step that allows the plants to promote new shoots and maximize harvest outcomes.
Another reason why older leaves further down the plants are not qualified for harvesting is because they will negatively influence the tasting profile and overall quality of the product.
Sounds amazing? Now read on to learn how the farmers harvest tea by hand and machine, the plucking cycle, and how harvest times vary worldwide.
When Should The Tea Leaves Be Plucked?
Typically, the tea plants need three years to mature before their harvest cycles. In some countries, tea is harvested in late spring and early summer, going on to the end of the year around October or November. They break it down during the harvest cycle into two major sections known as the first flush, which begins in spring, while the second flush starts in summer.
However, the tea harvest season lasts year-round in some other countries and regions that don’t experience cold weather.
What Happens After Tea Is Harvested?
When the tea leaves and buds are collected, the farmers will keep them in a large wicker basket hanging behind their backs before sending them to an on-site factory for further processing.
The main reason tea factories are next to the plantation is because the leaves instantly undergo oxidation. The level of oxidation also defines the quality of the finalized products.
On average, 16 to 24 kilograms of tea leaves are plucked per day, yielding from four up to six kilograms of finished tea at the end of the cycle.
What Happens In A Tea Factory?
After the leaves are transported to the factory, the workers will weigh and appraise the quality of the tea based on their shapes, sizes, and colors. Afterward, the tea leaves will go through later stages known as withering, oxidizing, and drying before being sent to the market.
Hand-Picked Vs. Machine-Picked: Which Is Better?
While the traditional hand-plucking approach has been around for a long time, technology has improved the efficiency of the harvest. However, the two techniques have seen a fundamental difference that relates to the integrity of the new growth.
Hand plucking is safer and more accurate as the farmers can treat the tea buds and leaves with care. They can tell how mature the tea plant is based on experience and keep the immature part intact on the plant.
In the case of machine-plucking, the use of technology drives efficiency forward and cuts down labor costs. However, tea plucking machines collect both immature and over-mature growth as they cannot distinguish those tips from the rest.
Only trained farmers and workers are qualified for the plucking technique in some of the most high-end tea plantations, such as Oolong tea. But in the case of green and black tea, machine plucking is not much of a challenge.
So what’s the key takeaway here? Hand-plucking is better for the growth of tea plants as it preserves the quality of the leaves. Machines improved tea production by cutting labor costs and time, but they are too rough and damage the delicate tea leaves.
How Often Is Tea Plucked?
The plucking cycle of tea varies by the weather and elevation of a specific region. On average, the plucking cycle lasts between four to 14 days.
The tea buds and leaves keep developing after being plucked. For example, a shoot with one leaf and a bud will later develop into a shoot with two leaves.
Other factors that come into play and define the character of the tea are elevation and weather. Upper, cooler regions in the world make the tea grow slower. Therefore, the aroma and quality of the tea have more time to develop.
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Tea Harvest Times Around The World
The plucking cycle varies amongst the top tea-growing countries around the world. Even though tea is usually harvested during spring and summer, it still fluctuates by weather and results in a different harvest timing.
Harvest is one of the most important parts of the tea production process. Late harvest, or even worse – missing the harvest, can destroy a crop. This is because the plucking cycle of the tea plant is very short, and the buds develop fast within a window of only a few days to appear, open up, and mature.
Let’s go over some of the major tea-growing countries and regions to see how their harvest times differentiate.
- In India and Nepal, their traditional teas, especially Darjeeling tea, start in late March to early November. During this time, they split it up into four sections: the first flush, second flush, monsoon flush, and autumnal flush, which last for a month each. Other than that, India is also famous for its Assam tea, harvested from March to December.
- In China, the harvest season for tea also varies by region and elevation. Typically, it starts in March and until late November.
- In Japan, tea is harvested in late April and ends in early October.
- In Africa, tea is mainly grown in East Africa, including Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Ethiopia. Thanks to the absence of cold weather, tea in East Africa can be harvested year-round.