I made tea the other day. I’m being serious.
I. *made*. tea.
Quite literally, I tried my hand at turning raw tea leaves into a drinkable brew. I have read plentifully on the subject of tea processing, watched countless videos online, and had come to the conclusion that tea making is a subtle science. Experience, though, has taught me otherwise. In reality, this process resides closer to alchemy.
It began, once again, with my little apothecary garden teaching me an unexpected lesson. I’ve been feeling spring creep into my bones like a dense morning fog, but still being mid March, thought I had more time to plan and prepare. My intention was to let Gimli and Legolas, my two Camellia Sinensis var. sinensis plants, continue to establish themselves and get through the winter before giving them a much needed trim. I thought mid to late March for a trim would be best, as it is not uncommon for my area to get a terrible cold snap and see some snow before the month is done.
As I walked though the garden a few days ago, contemplating my plans for the spring, I saw that Gimli and Legolas not only had well survived the winter (thanks to the indispensable winter protection advice from Monica at Windy Hollow), but the warmer temperatures had them already pushing out the beginnings of new growth.
I was late before I had even started. First lesson learned.
So to trimming I went. Most of the trimmings were older growth, which from my readings, would have produced a wretchedly bitter brew. The fresh new leaves, however, might turn into something special. I carefully plucked the baby leaves off the stems by hand and set them aside.
I say “carefully”, but the truth of the matter is these are tough plants! I felt like I was having to rip the leaves off the stem. Second lesson learned.
Here are the new leaves:
I quickly decided to try making a green tea. Partially because I thought it might be a tiny bit easier since the leaves would require less processing than a black or an oolong. And quite frankly, with my schedule, I didn’t have much time available to spend lots of time on processing.
So I sat the leaves outside on my back porch to enjoy the afternoon for a couple of hours. Surely by then they would have wilted bit for some hand rolling.
So I let them wilt overnight (a good 16 hours after plucking). And the edges of two of the leaves were a wee bit wilted. Obviously, my environmental conditions were not quite right for wilting. Third lesson learned.
Needing to leave for work, I had a quick decision to make. To continue to wilt and hope all turns out alright or to venture to outrageous fortune and brew as the leaves were. That was my question.
Fearing that they would wilt too much and become not good (because, let’s face it, I have no idea what would happen if they wilted for another 12 hours), I decided to quickly finish the processing before I left for work.
So to rolling, I went! It took a few minuets to figure out how the leaves rolled best. I first attempted with rubbing my palms along the length of my hands (like rolling a log), but found that the leaves didn’t roll much and had a tendency to escape my fingers. I attempted just using the fingers of one hand against the other’s palm, but discovered that process to be excruciatingly slow. I finally obtained a bit of satisfaction in rolling the leaves in a circular pattern between my palms, as if rolling a ball. I rolled like this for about 15 min and finally gave up due to time constraints and my hands having reached a sufficient level of exfoliation (tough leaves, remember). Fourth lesson learned.
Here is my feeble attempt at rolling the leaves:
Terrible! But given my constraints and limited (‘rapidly diminishing’ may be more accurate) knowledge and experience, I’m rather pleased with the results.
Finally came the moment I had been waiting for!! To brew!!
I steeped the loosely rolled leaves for 3 minutes in 175 degree water.
The liquor was a very pale yellow-green and the flavor was a resounding green bean. It was actually quite refreshing. Light body and no astringency; the brew had a crispness about it that I really liked. I can only equate it to eating a raw green bean.
My only regret from this whole process? I only had enough leaves to make about a half cup. Fifth lesson learned.
Five lessons learned from one cup of tea. But more so than just the educational experience, I now hold a greater appreciation and respect for artisans across the globe who grow and process teas by hand. This is hard work and a definite labor of love. Not one for the weary or the easily discouraged.
I know I am not alone in gratitude toward the Jackson brothers who created the first tea-rolling machine back in the 1870s. A miracle machine, is what that is.
To those who have dedicated their lives to studying and crafting this incredible elixir, I extend my sincere thanks.