You Can “Manufacture” That? A Look at How Tea Is Made

tea witheringThis post is the first in a series we’ll be doing on products that aren’t commonly associated with manufacturing in its most traditional sense.

When we think of manufacturing, we often think of dirty, dusty factories with industrial workers like Lucille Ball churning out product faster than their bodies can actually move. In reality, manufacturing is about much more than assembly lines. The industry impacts every single area of our lives, whether it’s our homes, cars, offices, or clothing. So, in this new series, we will be covering products that are indeed manufactured, often in interesting ways, but rarely discussed when one thinks about a manufacturing career.

The first product that we’re going to focus on is tea. Even if you’re a coffee drinker, many people have sipped on hot green, black, white, or peach tea at some point in their lives, and guess what? Tea is grown from a plant, but it’s also “manufactured” using an age-old process. Along with ice, coffee beans, pillowcases, and other odds and ends manufactured in fascinating ways, tea is certainly not one of the first products that comes to mind when we hear the word “manufacturing.”

And as it turns out, not all tea products are actually touched by a machine—it depends on the type of tea.

First, tea plants are grown in temperate, wet climates with rainfall of approximately eight hours a year and 5 hours of daily sunshine. (So, not Nebraska.) The real manufacturing begins after the leaves have been plucked. (You can see step-by-step photos here.) Once the leaves arrive at the factory, they’re weighed and laid out for “withering.” Once they’ve been dried, the leaf cells are ruptured and rolled in a machine.

The most critical stage of manufacture, though is aeration: The rolled, broken leaf is spread out on tables and exposed to the air for different periods of time, depending on which kind of tea is being made.

Before the process is complete, factory workers will “grade” the tea by leaf size using a mechanical sifter. The tea will then be bulk-packed, and if not destined for bagging will be processed by a cut, tear, and curl machine which produces the withered leaves for tea bags.

If you’re interested in a detailed version of the process, Bonville Organic International has a great step-by-step chart. There are different types of manufacturing processes that vary by type of tea, and now is a particularly hot moment for tea manufacture. From electronic monitoring machines to mechanical harvesters to fermenting machines, technology is actually quite cutting-edge in many tea factories, allowing workers to use some of the most advanced technology in the world.

Tea is one of the oldest industries in the Eastern world and was one of the largest in the Western world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While the drink may no longer be in its heyday, there’s still plenty of exciting work being done in the tea manufacturing industry today.

Photo credit: Pure Ceylon Tea