Tea bushes are planted – from 1 meter to 1.5 meters apart – to follow the natural contours of the landscape, sometimes growing on specially prepared terraces to help irrigation and to prevent erosion. Young plants are raised from cuttings obtained from a mother bush and they are carefully tendered in special nursery beds until 12 – 15 months old. They are then planted out in the tea fields. The mother bush is a strong, rich plant carefully selected for propagation.
Tea is grown in the field but must be made in a factory. This is because unlike most herbals that only need to be dried, commercial tea must be “processed”. It all begins in one of the small holder tea farmers’ garden or plantation, where the tea grows. All tea is harvested manually; plucking the top two leaves and the bud (also referred to as fine plucking). Each pluckier takes only the flush – ‘two leaves and a bud’ of tender and succulent fresh growth. Within a week to ten days the bushes grow new shoots. This skilled job is carried out by picking the shoots, breaking them off by twisting the leaves and bud in the fingers, and definitely throwing handfuls of shoots into the carrier baskets resting on their backs. The baskets are so designed that they permit aeration of the leaf to prevent heat generation.
The high standard of fine plucking is the first step towards superior quality tea manufacture. The interval between plucking and delivery is kept as short as possible. As the aphorism goes, “quality starts in the field”. Great care is taken when transporting green leaf to the factory. This is achieved by the use of specially designed leaf carriers that permit air circulation and thus prevent any heat build-up that would affect the quality of the teas produced.
This is one of the most expensive processes of tea manufacture in terms of space and time taken. This first stage of tea manufacture may take 10 to 20 hours and its main purpose is to bring down the internal moisture of the leaf to between 65 to 67% wet bulb. It also initiates chemical reactions in the leaf cell necessary for quality tea production. This reduction in moisture makes the leaf pliable and easier to cut in the next stage
Preparation (Leaf Maceration)
The process of tea manufacture produces three major types of made tea: green tea that is unfermented, oolong that is semi-fermented and black tea that is fully fermented
All tea produced in Uganda is by the CTC (crush, tear and curl) method. This method produces black tea that has the advantage of quicker brewing and which makes mores cups per Kg.
The process involves cutting and macerating the leaf to produce a fine mash, or “dhool.” Its purpose is to expose the cell contents to atmospheric oxygen for further development through the action of enzymes. This is popularly called fermentation although it’s strictly an oxidation process
Fermentation or oxidization is the most important stage in the manufacture of black tea, and this process makes it uniquely different from all other teas. Fermentation is carried out in custom-designed fermentation rooms. Depending on the temperature, maceration technique and the style of tea desired, the fermentation time range from 45 minutes to 3 hours. The characteristic of coppery brown color and fermented tea aroma, judge the completion of fermenting.
This is the process that stops fermentation and introduces a stable product of low moisture content between 3.0 to 3.3% that can be shipped and stored. It involves the physical removal of moisture and it’s a crucial process as it seals in all the flavor, aroma and character created during manufacture that is released by brewing. Drying can therefore make a difference between a mediocre tea and a superb tea even though they may come from the same factory.
After drying the teas are then sorted into the four primary grades and three secondary grades. The sortation is by size and density. The dry tea is exposed to static electrical-charged PVC rollers that pickup the fibers and the open leaf. The thus separated teas are thereafter sorted by size, and packed.
During tasting, samples of tea are collected hourly from each grade and also the drier mouth teas and infused for five minutes in different cups. The liquor is then poured to different bowls. The taster then evaluates the tea for quality and manufacturing faults by sucking and atomizing the liquid into his mouth and allowing it to linger there long enough for the flavor and character to be appreciated. He then spits it out or sometimes, swallows it.
The infused leaves and the dry leaves are also inspected. The taster assesses the flavor, aroma, and colour etc of the infused leaf and the uniformity of size, fiber content and trueness of grade for the dry leaves. The main purpose of tasting is to ensure consistence manufacture of high quality tea by detecting any faults in processing and taking timely remedial action.
Mpanga G.T.F.L. sells tea on behalf of small holder tea growers through the Mombasa Auction, held every Monday except on public holidays, in which it is held on the day after the public holiday. Mombasa Auction has become a world re-nowned tea market centre for East and Central Africa tea producing countries. The Auction is conducted under the supervision of the East Africa Tea Trade Association (EATTA).
The selling broker announces the line of tea on sale, and invites bids in US Dollars per kilogram. The buyers announce their bid, which advances by at least one US cent per kg. The tea is knocked to the highest bidder, and the next lot is offered for sale.