The Matcha Journey, Part 5: Tea picking methods

Harvesting tea leaves for matcha is a labor intensive process that requires loads of helping hands, but when you’re one savvy farmer, just two. Read part 1 of this series here 

 

This series will take you on an in-depth journey of how a satisfying bowl of matcha came to be -

story of how tea is grown, cultivated, processed to become the relaxing drink you have

everyday.


Hand picked tea 


Hand picking tea has a long and colorful history. It stretches back 800 years back to the time when tea was first introduced to Japan. Tea pickers were usually women who wore colorful, traditional tea picking dress called ‘cha-musume’ bearing reed baskets on their backs. During the spring harvest, school children usually help in picking tea as a skilled tea picker can do only about 6 to 8 kg of leaves throughout the day. 


Tea needs to be picked between the small window when the buds appear and the time the leaves become to large to harvest, so tea leaves need to be harvested as quickly as possible in one long stretch. It’s not easy to pick large amount of tea in just a few days.


Tea pickers have a degree of expertise to discern the best leaves and the best techniques to inflict the least amount of damage to them. There are 3 methods of picking: ‘Oritsumi, ‘Kakitsumi’ and ‘Kokitsume’, which refer to finger positions.


In oritsumi, the picker pulls and snaps the buds between their thumb and forefinger. This method keeps the damage to a minimum and produces extra fine tea. However, this method is slow and the extra care given to the leaves brings down productivity as a picker can only harvest 10 kg a day. Kakitsumi employs the same finger positions, but leaves are pulled rather than snapped off. This method is not suitable for young leaves, but it the yield is greater per picker at 15-20 kg a day. Kokitsumi is rough way of picking the leaves that is more productive, but the quality is not the best.


This is why shaded, hand picked tea like matcha commands a premium price. 


Machine picked 


Mechanized tea picking is relatively new, with the first automatic tea plucking machine invented in 1950. A handheld tea plucking machine can be operated by one or two persons, similar to a hedge trimmer, they run it over the top of the bush while walking down its length, the leaves trimmed by the blade and directed to a bag attached to the machine by a blower. For large tea estates, a motorized tea harvester - similar to a combine harvester - can cover 5 hectares a day.


While machine plucked leaves can matcha the quality of hand-picked, the effects to the tea bush are quite different.  When tea is picked by hand, the new tea sprouts grow from the natural forks of the branches which farmers claim to deliver excellent mellow and smooth flavor.


In the next part, the leaves begin their transformation into tea. Don’t miss the next installment and sign-up for the Matcha Organics Club where you’ll be the first to be notified when it’s up.