Excellent tour and explanation of how tea is made by the folks over at Happy Valley Tea Plantation.
A brief history
Tea is not native to Darjeeling. It was first brought to Darjeeling in 1841 by Arthur Campbell. Campbell brought over Chinese tea seeds to test whether tea could be grown in the mountainous region successfully. After making a the world’s best cup of tea, it was decided Darjeeling does for tea what salt does for chips (historically inaccurate but directionally correct).
The ladies at Happy Valley start at 7 am in the morning. They comb the plantation for – one bud two leaves – leaves that are ready to be plucked. They continue picking until 3 pm at night.
The tea leaves are first withered with machines to soften them, then allowed to dry. The longer they are dried (oxidised) the higher caffeine content and the lower levels of antioxidants. (For green tea, the leaves are first steamed).
The leaves are then heated, stopping the oxidation process. When this is done depends on the type of tea being made.
The tea is then rolled and shaped into small strips after which they are dried again.
The entire tea batch is put through a machine that filters the tea leaves into groups of similarly sized tea, from large (the most expensive) to fine powder (cheapest).
During the winter months, this process doesn’t happen, but the farmers prune the tea trees to keep them small. Since the leaves only grow at the top of trees, keeping the sizes small make it easier to pick in the summer.