There is a story behind every cup of tea. The prospect of a seed, the resilience of a tender tree, the survival of shoots and the arrival of a bud. The journey of the Camellia sinensis plant is as intriguing as its destination.
What happens when green leaves are delivered to the factory? Delivery is done at the green leaf reception where a visual inspection procedure known as leaf analysis is conducted.
During my tour of Nyamasheke, I visited Gisakura and Gatare tea estates. I left this Western Province district more acquainted with the beverage that kick-starts every day of my life. Today, allow me to present a brief description of the five main processing stages namely withering, rolling, oxidation, drying and sorting.
The first stage in tea processing is withering. This is the removal of moisture content from green leaves. Upon arrival, leaves usually register a moisture content of 80% to 85% depending on the weather.
Fresh leaves are spread out on ventilated troughs. Excess moisture is sucked out of the leaves. The exposure to air reduces humidity to the range of 65 - 70%.
At this stage of my study tour, I saw withered leaves being channeled through a machine known as rotorvane. Then the said leaves were subjected to four levels of cutting. Some factories use a method known as Cutting, Tearing and Curling (CTC). In this case, the leaves spin on rollers fitted with sharp teeth that crush, tear and curl them into smaller pellets. Through rolling, the juice is squeezed out. The said juice aids oxidation during the subsequent stage.
Classification of tea depends on the degree of oxidation. This procedure determines the color, flavor, taste and aroma of the final product. As oxidation is effected, green leaves turn brown.
At the drying stage, steam is released from a powerful radiator. The leaves are then exposed to temperature levels of up to 130°C. Heating is regulated to ensure the required level of drying is maintained. This procedure further reduces humidity to as low as 3%.
At this stage, fibre components, stems and other unwanted fragments are separated from the batch. The two factories I visited use a sorter known as vibro screen. This machine classifies tea according to the sizes of its particles prior to final grading.
Tea comes in different types, taste and color. However, processing follows a similar set of methods, with minor variations here and there. After processing, the final product is packed, weighed, stored and dispatched.
Processing tea is a complex operation. However, learning in a practical way made the highly technical topic easy to digest.
The author is an adventurer on a mission to discover what Rwanda has to offer. His tour of Nyamasheke is sponsored by Nyamasheke District, The Click Creations, Tec Global Ltd, Elimo Real Estate Ltd and Exposure.