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From the Field to the Cup

By Wendy Komancheck

While individuals in the tea industry may have this information memorized, as coffee professionals are looking to expand their business, they are turning to tea as a secondary product. Whether you need a refresher course or an introduction, this breakdown will help increase your tea knowledge and confidence.

The acts of plucking, oxidizing and packaging black tea are more than just processes - they’re considered a livelihood for the farmers, estate owners, consultants and a host of others involved in the tea business. It’s part tradition and part economics. All facets of the tea business are wrapped up in its processing from the field to the table.

How We Get Our Tea via the Traditional Method
The Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc., www.teausa.com, explains how black tea is processed in the Orthodox method in their publication called Tea World. Although Jack Painter wrote the piece in 1991, Joseph Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the U.S.A., says that most of the information still applies today. And Orthodox is considered the traditional and perhaps, the better method, of processing black tea.

Painter says in “A Look at the Manufacturing of Orthodox Black Tea,” “The manufactured production is marketed worldwide and shipped by modern container ships, the ‘clipper ships’ of today. Every country in the world drinks tea. Consequently, this earns tea the title of the most popular beverage on earth.”

The manufacturing of black tea starts in the tea fields. Tea World’s article states, “Tea is grown in mountainous areas generally ranging in height from three to five thousand feet, and situated in areas between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The soils are rich in minerals, water absorbent and acidic (pH +5.5). The tea plant is cultivated to a chest high level enabling its leaves to be picked easily. The flush of new growth varies with weather.”

The article states that the closer to the equator that the tea is grown, which is measured at 15° north or south, the more continuous the flush of new growth happens, which allows more tea to be plucked.

There are seven steps involved in the Orthodox process. They are:

  • Plucking - An organized system where the required two leaves and a bud are picked by hand. The large shoots and leaves become the tea. Plucking is done in the morning, and sent to the factory for processing and inspection. Poor pluckings or low quality leaves and buds are not accepted.

  • Withering - A dehydration process where the leaves are spread by hand on withering troughs. Cool or warm air is filtered up underneath the leaves and hand-turned for uniform drying. The water content is reduced by 50%; oxidation begins at this stage; and the leaf turns pliable. This process takes about 10 to 14 hours.

  • Rolling and Cutting - Oxidation and chemical changes, due to the cells breaking down in the leaves, happens after the withered leaves are placed onto the rolling machine hoppers. The rollers move to break, twist and roll the leaves into small pieces as the leaves move between plates and battens.

  • Fermenting - The most critical stage of the Orthodox phase where the tea’s flavor and strength comes to its peak. Tea is placed on trays where the final oxidation phase takes place. The room’s humidity stays at 95-98% and a temperature range of 20-26°C (68-78.8°F). The leaves change from green to brown as the fermentation is completed which takes about half an hour to three hours.

  • Firing - Dryers are used to move the tea through temperatures that start at 100°C to 60°C (212°F to 140°F). After a half hour of this process, oxidation is stopped. The results from firing include the color changing from copper brown to black, as well as the tea flavors and liquor colors setting.

  • Sorting and Grading - Using modern machinery, the tea is sorted by sizes that are called commercial broken grades in broken orange pekoe, fannings and dust. A small amount of modern tea can be classified according to leaf grades. Painter also notes that, “With the invention of the teabag the names, orange pekoe (O.P.) and pekoe, became more of a generic term for quality rather than a description of leaf size.”

  • Packing - When the processing is completed, tea is packed into wooden veneer chests that measure 16 x 20 x 24 inches. According to the 1991 report, teas can also be packed in foil bags. Simrany says, “Sacks [another name for foil bags] have become much more popular, but specialty teas are still packed in chests. The sack’s weight is somewhat variable depending upon the type of tea, but generally it is around 110 to 120 pounds.”
The report states that, “Chests and bags are placed on pallets, generally 20 to a pallet. These are then stuffed into containers. A 20-foot container has ten pallets of 200 chests or bags. A forty-foot container contains twenty pallets of 400 chests or bags. These containers are consigned to importers around the world.”

A Short Lesson on the CTC Process of Black Tea
The cut, twist and curl (CTC) method came about because of the demand for smaller tea leaf sizes needed to fit into teabags. David Walker of Walker Tea LLC, says, “Packers and distributors began looking for a quick infusing tea to penetrate the paper barrier. CTC manufacture has been perfected over the past 40 years. CTC now lends itself to complete automation, while you still have to be a little ‘fussy’ when making good Orthodox teas.”

Walker is a consultant where he is “involved in the following countries on a ‘field to market’ consultancy basis: Kenya, Rwanda, and Bolivia. I work with both CTC and Orthodox processes.”

The CTC method uses machinery to process black tea for tea bag usage that’s less expensive. Nigel Melican of TeaCraft, Ltd., www.teacraft.com, and Nothing But Tea, www.nbtea.co.uk, says, “Generally, CTC is black tea for teabags, Orthodox for loose and specialty tea, both green and black.”

Melican adds, “Teacraft works with both CTC and Orthodox producers. Nothing But Tea sells 180 different teas, but none are CTC. Africa uses virtually 100% [CTC], [with] two lines of Orthodox in Kenya, which Teacraft installed one of these in 2003, and handmade tea in Kenya and Malawi. Teacraft worked with small farmers in Malawi to develop these in 2006-2007. Asian countries, like Sri Lanka, have 6% CTC, China with approximately 5% CTC, and India with 90% CTC, [but] still uses Orthodox processes.”

Walker adds, “Africa is mainly CTC manufacture and the rest of the world [is] Orthodox. The exceptions are North India, which produces large volumes of CTC, as well as Orthodox. Argentina also produces CTC.”

Discussion of CTC vs. Orthodox
Robert Wilson of Ceylon Teas, www.wilstea.com, and his family have been in the Ceylon tea business for many generations. Wilson says, “Ceylon teas were first planted by my relations on their estates with seed stock. The seeds came from China Jat (a small leathery type leaf - ideal for flavor teas) type bushes and Assam Jat, a large leaf variety.”

Wilson concentrates most of his business in Ceylon teas, but his company also imports “two high quality Indian teas plus two herbals in chamomile and peppermint.” He states that his company concentrates on 100% Orthodox manufacturing, but because of competition with CTC manufacturers, he has his processors use the Rotovane system for producing two of his teas. Wilson states, “The Rotovane was used in Ceylon to compete with the CTC system where smaller grades were required.”

In Ceylon, CTC is used for 6% of total Ceylon production. Wilson says, “[Since] Ceylon exports about 97% of its production that percentage applies near enough to exported CTC. We only operate for manufacture with the estates in the two special quality seasons when we can obtain teas of the very highest quality which exhibit a superb clarity, liveliness and a depth-balanced flavor, traditional to the very distinct seven major districts or divisions of tea character. Within the major districts are some 32 different agro-climates that affect the character of tea. You have a country that produces such [flavorful] teas; you would not want to see the industry go down the CTC route.”

Melican believes that CTC-manufactured tea will meet world demand for tea. Yet, he finds that there isn’t enough Orthodox-manufactured tea, especially specialty Orthodox tea, to meet global demand, where people still want the traditionally processed tea. Melican states, “Countries are pulling back now on CTC production and favoring traditional Orthodox. Teacraft is involved with several clients who are shunning CTC in favor of Orthodox.”

Melican notes that Rwanda, Burundi, Hawaii, ex-Soviet Georgia, Kenya and Malawi are moving toward Orthodox and abandoning CTC. And Walker notes that “good quality East African CTC teas go mainly to the UK, Pakistan and Egypt, where there is a demand for colorful, thicker liquors. The U.S. prefers the lighter, brighter cups of Orthodox teas, [where] the majority of tea consumed is drunk cold.”

A case in point: Elliot Johnson, of Mark T. Wendell, www.marktwendell.com, located in Massachusetts, says that his company purchases their teas through brokers and importers. And, they, in turn, buy from estates that produce both CTC and Orthodox teas. Johnson says, “We buy almost exclusively Orthodox teas, though I do prefer the CTC product from Africa over their Orthodox offerings.”

M.Y. Beyad of Britannia Teas, www.britanniatea.co.uk, buys his tea from India, Kenya and Sri Lanka. Beyad says, “All [our tea] is grown on bushes in large estates or tea gardens. Some use the orthodox procedures and others the CTC.”

Beyad acknowledges that a particular country’s affection for CTC- or Orthodox-processed teas depends on its consumers’ taste preferences, as well as how much they want to spend on tea. For example, Beyad notes that, “Tea habits are old habits and countries will either have preferences from origins or drink blends that they are accustomed to. Also, proximity to markets reduces freight costs and transit time.”

Melican adds that the auction system and low quality tea doesn’t help the economic aspects of selling tea. He says, “For decades, the true price of tea has declined as production has increased ahead of demand. This is particularly true of the cheap commodity teas, mainly CTC and Rotorvane teas, intended for teabags. Demand is always good for quality teas in any type, but poor tea drags down prices. This is largely a function of the auction system that, while ensuring that all tea is sold, often gives below cost of production prices.”

The discussion could continue with inclusion about what Vietnam, Argentina and other countries around the world are doing in regard to tea processing and production. But the process of CTC versus Orthodox still remains with different cultures preferring one taste over the other, as well as appreciating lower costs and teabag convenience for CTC-manufactured tea. Others with finer tea tastes will prefer the Orthodox method, which seems to be where consumers around the globe are moving toward in their tea preferences.

Wendy Komancheck freelances from her home in Pennsylvania. She writes about small business, agriculture and tea. She’s always looking for story ideas. You can reach her at wendykomancheck@yahoo.com

Tea & Coffee - November, 2009

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