Many of us are aware that it is quite easy to produce herbal teas such as peppermint and chamomile from the home garden, but did you know that it is also possible to easily produce your own black, green and oolong teas? It’s as simple as successfully cultivating the tea tree: Camellia sinensis; then harvesting and drying the leaves. No specialized equipment or processes are required. The catch is that there can be a number of years between propagation of your plants and enjoying your own tea.
Camellia sinensis can be grown with difficulty from seed; however more success can be obtained by buying an established plant or growing from cuttings taken from a viable donor. It grows best in moist, well drained, and neutral to slightly acid soil. Peat moss and coarse-grained sand should be added to the soil to produce a more suitable substrate for growth. As a native of the tropics, this plant prefers a warmer climate, and therefore thrives best in the South. It should be planted either in full sun or part shade and any available protection should be used to shield it from the wind. It will grow successfully in a large pot, but it should be noted that the plant may grow up to around 30ft tall if left untended. Ideally Camellia sinensis should be pruned regularly to a height of around 6ft. This has both the purpose of stimulating new growth and also allowing for easy access to young leaves. When the tree is mature and ready to harvest, usually around three to five years after germination; the younger, lighter colored leaves provide the best flavor. Therefore, to produce the most flavorsome tea, you should focus on picking only the bud and the first two leaves.
Once you have harvested the leaves, they will need a small amount of preparation. The main consideration in processing is the level of oxidation you would prefer in the final product.
Processing can be reduced to 5 major steps:
1. Initial drying: Place the leaves on a tray in a cool dry place for 8 to 24 hours to wilt them, ready for the next step.
2. Oxidation: Oxidation is the reaction that occurs when enzymes present in the leaf are exposed to air due to bruising or crushing. It produces a copper hue, and changes the flavor of the tea. For example, black tea is completely oxidized; so to create a black tea, step 2 would involve crushing the leaves and laying them in a cool place overnight until they become a uniform copper color. On the other hand, green tea is not allowed to oxidize at all, so this step would be skipped entirely. You can also experiment with partially oxidized leaves to produce oolong style teas.
3. Steaming: Steaming the leaves halts the oxidation process, locking in the flavor that you have created.
4. Final Drying: Place the leaves on a tray for 3-5 days or until completely dry.
5. Congratulations, enjoy your tea!
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