The health benefits of green tea are long-established, and as a semi-health nut, I've been enjoying the stuff for years (from jasmine green, to matcha, to green tea ice cream). But as with many foods and beverages in our modern world, I had no idea how it was made. I knew that tea was made from the leaves of a tea plant, but if I were asked to pick such a bush out, I wouldn't be able to do it. And once the tea is harvested from the plant, I would be equally ignorant about how it becomes a deliciously drinkable beverage. 

Well, that's all changed since I visited Dongshan Island (about an hour outside China's fifth-largest city, Suzhou), where they grow Bi Luochun Green Tea. It's named after its strong green color (bi) and its snail-like shape (luo) once dried. The tea is harvested during early spring — starting on March 20 (the day I did the picking) — which is called chen, hence the name. It's incredibly tasty, and it can be brewed up to five times, with each brew having a slightly different flavor. 

Starre Vartan picking tea leaves

I got a chance to see the whole process of how the tea is grown, harvested and then made into the famous beverage during a visit to Dongshan a few days ago — by doing it myself. First, of course, you have to pick the tea (that's me, above). At first I had no idea what I was supposed to be picking. 

only pick the baby leaves on a tea bush

I was surprised to learn that one only picks the baby leaves — the new growth — and the first picking in early spring is the best. The young leaves are picked again each time they grow throughout the season. The tea bushes were interspersed with loquat trees, which product small, sweet fruit (somewhere between a kumquat and a mandarin). I was told that the loquat trees lend a particular flavor to the tea. 

A handful of tiny tea leaves

Slowly but surely, like berry harvesting, you gather enough tea leaves to have a handful. And you keep going — our group collected tea for about 10 minutes and came up with the below quantity, which still wasn't enough for a roasting session. It was added to by some existing already-picked leaves from earlier in the day.

raw tea

The raw tea, above, was collected on a newspaper, then dumped into a large pre-heated kettle. It immediately steamed intensely and emitted an incredibly wonderful-smelling green tea smell. 

A tea dryer tosses the green tea leaves in a continual movement

For 45 minutes, the tea dryer (above) tossed the green tea leaves in a continual movement. He wore light cotton gloves, so he could ensure the temperature was just right. Wood or metal implements can't be used to toss these leaves since they are too easily bruised; it must be tossed by hand.

Mar 23, 2015 at 12:08am PDT

In the video above, you can see how the almost-dried tea (after about 45 minutes in the kettle, it looks like this) is rolled in human hands, which gives the tea its distinctive shape. It also lets loose some of the "hairs" from the leaves, which float on top of the water of the first brew. 

tea tasting for Bi Liochun tea

We enjoyed five brew cycles of the Bi Liochun tea; the first was almost tasteless, with just the fine layer of hairs on top of the hot water. The second and third brews had my favorite flavors, deep green, a bit earthy, and wonderfully fresh. 

Now that I understand how green tea is grown, picked, and processed before consuming, I have a greater appreciation for its flavor, and I'm grateful for the human hands who bring us cups of healthy energy from the tea plants in China. 

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

From plant to cup: A green tea photo essay
I went all the way to China to learn how green tea is made — even though I've been drinking it for years.