Sri Lanka’s tea cultivators and manufacturers are the custodians of the traditional, orthodox method of black tea production. This is still agreed by most experts to produce the best black tea. Even with the technological improvements introduced over the last thirty or forty years, the orthodox method is relatively slow and labour-intensive; but as the tea planters and traders of Sri Lanka have always maintained, good tea cannot be hurried. Nor, oddly enough, can it be delayed.
The time devoted to each of the processes of tea manufacture has to be finely judged if a quality product is to be obtained. This is a matter of the tea-maker’s judgement, for the right timing depends on the moisture content of the plucked leaf, the temperature and humidity conditions prevailing over the period of manufacture, and a variety of other factors. Although the process of making fine black tea is simple in its essentials, expertise, experience and a ‘feel’ for the task are absolutely essential to success
The process of manufacture commences when the leaves are
picked or ‘plucked’. Plucking calls for discrimination and dexterity
and is carried out mainly by women. Only the uppermost foliage
on every stem is picked – the famous ‘two leaves and a bud’ – and
the stem itself must be left undamaged. Fiddly work, but a skilled
tea-plucker can collect up to 20kg. (44lb.) of leaf daily
On arrival at the factory, the raw leaf is weighed. The total weight
recorded for the day’s batch provides a benchmark for quality
assessment at the end of the process of manufacture. After weighing, the tea is laid out for withering.
Raw leaf is ‘fluffed’ and spread out to dry on racks or troughs in a
well lit and ventilated space. It will lie here for 18-24 hours, slowly
losing moisture and undergoing physical and chemical changes
essential to manufacture. Over-withering can be fatal, so the process is carefully monitored. It is complete when about two-thirds
of the moisture present in the raw leaf has evaporated.
The withered leaf is now ready for rolling. This is a mechanized
process in which the leaf cells are ruptured to release enzymes
and bring them into contact with air so that aeration can commence. The bits of broken and rolled leaf are called dhools. The
dhools are then broken up and sifted before aeration
During this critical stage of manufacture, important chemical
reactions take place through the action of air on the leaf tissue.
The rolled, broken leaf is spread out on tables and exposed for
a period that varies between 20 minutes and five hours, depending on a variety of factors, including what kind of final product is
desired. The withered tea leaf is a rusty, coppery orange colour.
Again, timing is critical: under-aerated tea tastes raw and green,
over-aerated tea is soft and tasteless. Aeration is also sometimes
known as ‘fermentation’ or ‘oxidation’
When the right amount of aeration has occurred, the leaf is dried
in a desiccator or ‘firing chamber’ at 99-104˚C (210-220˚F) to
prevent further chemical changes. This shrinks and darkens the
leaf, resulting in the product known as black tea. This completes
the actual manufacture.
To ensure consistency of appearance, flavor and quality, each
batch will be separated by the color
The size of the leaf particles in your teapot bears no relation to
quality per se, but it does affect the colour and strength of the
brew. Manufactured tea is graded by leaf size using a mechanical
sifter. ‘Leaf’ grades contain the largest pieces, ‘broken’ grades are
successively smaller, while the smallest grades of all are known as
‘dust’. Larger grades tend to command higher auction prices.