Manual tea picking
A bud and two leafs
This method is perhaps the best know tea picking method, and simultaneously the most romanticized one. It allows the manufacturer to obtain a leaf that is softest and freshest. But since only the bud and two small leaves are picked its efficiency is near to that of white tea; ea. very low. One harvester can pick approximately 10kg of raw leaf per day.
For this method, the tea picker pincers the twig on which the buds to harvest sit between her forefinger and thumb. Being careful not to crush the twig between her fingers, she gently snaps the twig to obtain the top bud and two or three fresh leaves.
It is most often used for the manufacturing of premium-grade and competition grade tencha, gyokuro and sencha (mostly for competitions. Consumer events that include tea picking experiences usually focus on this method of harvest. The tea leaf harvested by all participants is then commonly gathered and hand-processed by professionals partially for the participants to take home and partially to send to a competition (if the event was at the beginning of spring).
Clutch and tear tea picking method
A more efficient approach is to obtain more tea leaf in one single haul. The clutch and tear methods is used to harvest all the fresh leaves that have begun to sprout since the advent of Spring. Harvesters make a clear distinction between the coarser ‘mother-‘ leaf from last year, and the young ‘baby-‘ buds from this year.
The whole hand is wrapped around the base of the twig from where fresh leaves started to grow. In an upward motion along the twig the fresh leaves are torn off and gathered in the palm of the hand. The image on the right shows how, when skillfully done, the tea leaf gathers as a beautiful flower in the hand.
There are few regions that still maintain this harvesting method. One example of a region where the clutch and tear method for handpicking tea is still the norm is the Mandokoro village in Shiga prefecture.
The whole twig
This method is similar to clutch and tear. The major difference is that the clutch and tear method leaves the bare twig behind, whereas this approach gathers the leaf inclusive of the fresh green twig. Whether this approach or the other is better or more efficient is debatable and depends on the skill and habit of subjected tea pickers. Eventually, the twig will be filtered out and separated from the leaf during the refining stages of the manufacturing process.
The video below will provide a better idea of what the whole twig method is and how the picking happens. It also includes an explanation of the method, and an illustration of the clutch and tear method as well. For the clutch and tear method the hand is basically positioned at the height where the twig in this example is torn off.
The harvesting scissors were invented in the early 1900’s and became the first more industrialized method of tea picking. Nowadays the approach is uncommon and is perhaps only used on tea gardens with bad accessibility and in stead of handpicking methods. The scissors however limit the control a tea picker has over the choice of leaf she picks. Therefore it is more common that a coarser leaf or larger twigs are also obtained during harvest by this method.
To read more about the evolution of harvesting equipment and the mechanization of it, refer to this previous article: Introduction to tea harvest equipment.
Mechanized harvesting tea picking methods
In the video below I introduce two mechanized harvesting methods that are common in Japan. The first one is the tractor harvester vehicle; a machine that can be driven over the rows of tea bushes. The second type is hand-held and is much more labor intensive, but much more widely spread.
Mechanized harvesting methods require an even surface and regular pruning in order for the harvesting equipment to be effective. Just before spring, before the first shoots appear the bushes are pruned once at a set height. During harvest, the leaf that has grown above this surface; ea. the fresh spring buds, are harvested by mowing the surface at approximately the same height as during pruning. This process is repeated for each harvest: 1) Pruning of the surface
2) New buds grow above the leveled surface
3) New buds (everything that sticks out above the surface) are picked by mowing right above the surface with mechanized harvesting equipment.
The portable hand-held harvester
The portable hand-held tea harvester is handled by two persons guiding the machine over the surface of the rows of tea bushes at the height where the tea leaf needs to be cut. A third person follows to guide the bag into which the tea leaf is collected. This method is labor intensive in the sense that the heavy needs to be carried and carefully positioned above the tea bushes to cut the tea leaf at the right height. Imagine the difficulty of this task on a sloping surface or on bumpy grounds.
Nevertheless, its efficiency is 60 times that of a tea picker, but the quality of the harvested leaf is reduced drastically. A more efficient is a similar type of harvester machine with a wheel on the opposite side. This equipment can be handled by a single person, but requires and equal surface for the tires to ride on.
The tractor harvester vehicle
The tractor harvester vehicle depends on an even tract in between the lanes of bushes and requires a straight harvesting surface. Because it is so heavy, it quickly damages the soil underneath. It can only be used on tea farms that are specifically arranged for its use. A mountain flank or garden with a bumpy surface are unreceptive to its use.
The machine can be managed by one person who sits atop to steer and guide it over the rows of bushes. Cutters rotate underneath to cut the fresh tea leaf, which is gathered in bags or a container in the rear. On tea gardens with long rows of bushes its efficiency is largest.