Much like coffee in the western world, tea comes in a variety of grades and qualities. Similarly, much like coffee, the highest quality teas can get very expensive. This makes tea-farming potentially a very profitable business. However, tea is a very finicky plant, and picking it even one day late can lead to a drastic decrease in tea quality, culminating in profit losses that can be as severe as half of the original intended price. Therefore, in order to make sure the tea is processed efficiently and profitably, many tools and techniques for harvesting tea in China exist.
Tea is traditionally handpicked. Workers work from day to night, picking tea leaves off individually. Some workers simply snap the leaves off, while others attach small blades to their fingers in order to ensure a clean cut. Handpicked tea is generally considered of a higher grade, as the human workers know which leaves are just mature enough to pick and which ones are not, as well as where to cut the tea leaf stem, leading to a tea of much higher consistency in quality and taste. However, handpicked tea is also relatively inefficient, and machinery has largely replaced hand picking in more mass-produced tea.
There are several major types of tea-picking machines. There is the spiral-cut harvester, which consists of two sets of helical cutting blades both for cutting and for separating the tea leaves evenly. However, leaves picked by the spiral-cut cutter suffer from an extremely high likelihood of being double cut, rendering them far less usable. The efficiency rating of this machine is only about 30%. This means that only 30% of the leaves collected would be usable, which makes the spiral-cut harvester relatively undesirable for tea harvesting. An upgrade to the spiral-cut harvester would be the hook-cutter harvester, which is made up of several sets of hook-shaped knives and corresponding sets of fixed knives. This cutter has an efficiency rating of 50%, which is a distinct improvement from the spiral-cut harvester. The most preferred machine is the back-and-forth cutter, which consists of either a single or dual cutting blades powered by a small gasoline engine and an attached leaf collector. This picker has an efficiency of up to 70%, and is truly a top-flight machine. It is clear that, at least at this moment, tea harvested via machine is completely unable to match up to the quality of tea harvested by hand. On the whole, however, tea-picking machines are far more speedy than hand picking ever can be, and some machines are even able to replicate the work of fifty people in one day. Moreover, as fewer and fewer people see appeal in a career of manually picking tea all day for relatively little pay, especially compared to the actual price of hand-picked tea, tea-harvesting has become a rather undesirable job. For these reasons, it often is the better choice to choose to use machines to harvest tea.
After the raw tea leaves are harvested, either by hand or machine, they then must undergo processing. The tea leaves are often sent to a processing facility. At the processing facility, teas undergo differing processes based on their tea type, such as green, black, pu-er, etc. It would be impossible to detail the nuances of each and every different process, but all teas undergo many of the same processes. Many tea leaves have to be fixed. The fixing machine sets to a certain temperature depending on the leaf type, and it is in that machine where the enzymes within the tea leaf are deactivated, and the tea leaf begins to lose moisture. Another common step in tea processing is rolling. The rolling machine exerts force upon the tea leaves, compressing and rolling them, usually into small coils. These small coils are far more effective for brewing, and are thusly preferred. Finally, the most ubiquitous step in tea processing is likely to be drying. There are three major ways to dry a tea leaf: fry-dry, air dry, and sun dry. All three of these methods are equally effective in producing the finished final tea product, but their different methods also lend slightly different tastes and effects to the finished tea as well. At times, especially in the case of fry-drying, where too-wet leaves will clump together and not fry-dry properly, another drying method, such as air drying, will be used beforehand. At the end of the finishing process, the tea leaves are complete and await their final packaging, whether it be loose in a canister or separated into individual tea bags.
China is constantly on the outlook for new innovations in tea processing and harvesting. There exist many large tea-centered websites where users can log on to track breakthroughs in tea-harvesting machinery and review new tea innovations. One cannot imagine what kinds of new breakthroughs in the tea industry may come in the future.