How tea is made at the oldest tea farm in Europe

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  • Gorreana is the oldest, and one of the few remaining, tea plantations in Europe
  • The company uses 100-year old manufacturing methods to make its distinctly flavored tea

The following is a transcription of the video:

Claudia Romeo: You might not expect to find a tea plantation in Europe, but there is actually one off the coast of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The tropical climate and volcanic soil make for perfect growing conditions, giving this tea a sweet, perfectly balanced mineral flavor. We're on São Miguel, the biggest island here in the Azores and the home of tea. On this island alone, in the 19th century, there used to be six tea manufacturers, but now there are only two left. The biggest and the oldest is Gorreana, which we're going to visit today. It's 138 years old, and they still make tea following the methods of the past. Gorreana makes both black and green tea. For black tea, depending on which leaf it comes from, the tea is given a different grading: orange pekoe, pekoe, or broken leaf.

Madalena Motta: This is a strong tea, pekoe. Orange pekoe. More aromatic. And this is broken leaf. Very light tea. You can touch, and you can feel. They are different.

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Claudia: Yeah. This is a bit rougher. So, why is it that this plant grows so well here in the Azores and not anywhere else in Europe?

Madalena: Because it needs water, not too much sun, fog. And because it rains a lot, the land is acid. So our tea is different from other teas by the taste. It's very balanced. Not strong. And the green tea doesn't have a fishy taste on the end. So this is the perfect place to have tea.

Claudia: The tea plant is not native to the Azores. It was brought here over two centuries ago, as islanders were in need of a new crop after a fungal disease wiped out São Miguel's main source of trade at the time, oranges. They were not disappointed. The Camellia sinensis couldn't have found more fertile soils than these.

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Madalena: And here, the plants don't die, because it rains a lot. When a plant is old, more or less 20, 19 years old, there's another one that comes. So you have always to take off plants.

Claudia: The harvest lasts six months, from spring to fall, until the leaves become too strong to make a good tea. In order to move around freely, harvesters first have to cut the sides of the plant. Then they use a machine that cuts only the very first leaves. The leaves may be small, but harvesting them is not a light job at all. The same way water plays an important role in the growth of the plant, it makes life difficult for the harvesters when they have to bring the leaves indoors. A bag of wet leaves like this weighs around 15 kilos, and there are hundreds to move a day. Gorreana is set on three floors, which conveniently follow the transformation from fresh leaf to tea leaf. On the first floor, there is a wilting room. It's a warm room where the leaves stay for 12 hours to let the water evaporate and the leaves soften. So, how many leaves do you collect on average?

Madalena: To make 1 kilo, you need 5 kilos of leaves. So we make 45 tons a year.

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Claudia: Black tea and green tea come from the same plant. What is different is the making process. To make black tea, leaves fall in this cylinder to be rolled on the ground floor of the factory. Rolling releases the juices of the leaves. The step that follows is oxidation, which happens in the basement of the factory. Leaves reach it by going through this other machine with a net. The net has different-sized holes to start dividing leaves into the three grades of black tea. It's what Madalena was telling me here, but the noise from the rolling machines was so loud that our microphones didn't really catch much of it. Listen for yourself.

[machines rumbling]

The sound was a bit better downstairs in the oxidation room. Madalena explained to me that oxidation is a natural process that occurs after the leaves are exposed to the air. This contributes to the aroma of the tea.

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Madalena: What the machines did up was this movement, for roll the leaves and for the juice to come out to stay black for the oxidation process. In two hours, it's black. My hands are starting to be black.

Claudia: So oxidation is not something you do, it's just when you extract the juice.

Madalena: If I was going to make green tea, it doesn't come here. Because we don't do the oxidation. We have to stop the oxidation. Claudia: Oh, OK, so the leaves are constantly separated.

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Madalena: Yes, always. Because it's orthodox way. Orthodox way, you are always separating the leaves. It's more expensive to make orthodox way. And here, this one, the bigger ones. The ones that stay inside, they're not good.

Claudia: The tea leaves will be separated another three times during the drying process, by size and by weight by machines, and by hand and human eye as a final check. But we'll have to wait a couple of hours for the oxidation to happen, so how about we talk about green tea for a minute? Madalena tells me that, unlike black tea, green tea is only made at the end of summer, where the sun has hardened the leaves. The process is similar, but the big difference is that after spending 12 hours in the wilting room, the leaves go through a steaming process before being rolled.

Madalena: We close the machine, and it stays here for four, five minutes. And the oxidation process is stopped, because we don't want to oxidate the tea.

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Claudia: All right.

Madalena: And then goes roll, and dry.

Claudia: And then, what is the difference in taste between the two teas?

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Madalena: Green tea is more healthy because it has more antioxidants. And black tea, I say it's for your soul. Black tea is more tasty, it has more balance. My father always tells me that the best tea in the world is the tea that -- the one that you drink with your grandmother, it's the one that's going to stay on your mind.

Claudia: So how about you? Because your grandmother used to actually work here, so which one would you drink?

Madalena: We drank pekoe, because I like very strong teas. C

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laudia: Rolling, sorting, steaming, the machines are the true wonder of this factory. At Gorreana, very little has changed since the 19th century. And these are the original machines of Gorreana?

Madalena: Yes, the original.

Claudia: So they have never changed.

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Madalena: The tea machines didn't grow. Maybe now the material, it's different, but the movements, the way of making tea is the same. This is from the revolution, the Industrial Revolution. They are made to live all the world. The energy, it's from 1920. It's the first energy in the world called continuous.

Claudia: Another great feature of the Gorreana factory is that it is powered entirely by water. The system was installed by Madalena's grandfather, and it uses a stream flowing through the factory's estate. Not paying for power is the main reason why Gorreana has stood the test of time against other tea manufacturers on the island and why the company can afford the 72 employees who work in the factory today.

Madalena: Many people come here not to see the tea, but to see the energy, because they are electronic engineers, and they come to a world that no more exists but exists in Gorreana.

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Claudia: Let's go back to our black tea. We left off at the oxidation process, which is now over. The next phase is drying, and then separating the leaves. They are first separated by size in this roller, and then by weight in this wooden machine.

Madalena: After the drying, one that rolls, and then the second one that rolls again and separates by size, and then goes by weight. More cellulosic, less cellulosic. In a machine made of wood that is the oldest one in the tea factory.

Claudia: OK, so the leaves that have more cellulose, they --

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Madalena: They go out. Claudia: The machines may never stop working, but the final check is always left to a human eye, to Carla and her colleagues.

Carla: Here we are taking out the stems. This is the black tea, the pekoe. The strongest tea. Here, you can see the brown. It's different, because it's brown. The lighter ones, the leaves are more black.

Claudia: And these are the only ones you need, right?

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Carla: Yes. Claudia: How many years have you been doing this?

Carla: 22 years.

Claudia: OK, so you know by eye. That's why it's so fast for you. So, here we are, with what normally would be a beautiful view on the sea.

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Madalena: But you can see a little bit of blue, in the corner.

Claudia: OK, yeah. Maybe. But this is actually the best weather to make tea.

Madalena: It's the best weather for the tea.

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Claudia: So let's see if it is the best weather to also taste it.

Madalena: This is the strong one.

Claudia: This is the one you like. We can make, ah, cin cin! [mugs click]

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Claudia: And you actually don't put anything in tea?

Madalena: No, no sugar.

Claudia: That's the way I like it. [birds chirping] Yeah, it is a bit acidic.

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Madalena: Yes. If it was an orange pekoe, more flavor. This one is more strong.

Claudia: Yes, it is strong. Madalena: More aggressive. But it's still pretty balanced.

Madalena: Yes, it's balanced. The English call our tea fresh.

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Claudia: So this one is aggressive for the variety?

Madalena: Yes. No, because of our land. Our plant changed and adapted to the weather, because here we have sea all over the place.

Claudia: Yeah, that's true.

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Madalena: We cannot go to a place and don't have the wind of the sea, because we are a very little island. The biggest island here in the Azores. Here and the -- [beep] Leaving the rest of the leaves behind. [sighs] [beep] Tea. Leaving the rest of the -- eh, sorry. [beep] The oldest and the biggest is Gorreana. They're 30 years -- [laughs]

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