Just as the terms “artisanal tea” and “artisan tea” are being applied to just about any tea under the sun (see more info on this toward the end of this article), so are the terms “hand-crafted tea” and “handmade tea” (sound of audible heavy sigh) similarly misused (both basically are meant to refer to what is more appropriately called “hand processed tea”). Time to sort out the wheat from the chaff here and see what a hand-crafted tea really is, according to various tea professionals.
Note: This is in no way a judgment of either machine or hand processed teas being worse or better (each has its merits); this is about properly labeling which is which.
The terms “handmade,” “hand-crafted,” or “hand processed” seem to be used synonymously. So we will use “hand-crafted” from hereon in this article since it tends to be the biggest buzzword.
First, What It Is Not
A hand-crafted tea is not processed by the ton in a tea factory that uses big machines. Nothing wrong with this style of processing. It generates some wonderful teas, mostly the kinds that end up in teabags from companies like PG Tips, Lyon’s, Taylors of Harrogate, and Typhoo. But they should not be labeled or referred to as “hand-crafted.” (Note: none of these tea companies named here use those terms, as far as I could find.)
Sadly, some other fairly well-known tea vendors do call their teas hand-crafted, labeling photos with statements like “…some of the factories that have been producing hand-crafted fine teas for [their company]…” Sorry, that processing is being done by machines in big batches and then the tea dust or fannings are put into those little string-and-tag teabags via another big machine. Nothing wrong with that, but true hand-crafted teas are not handled this way. Again, the stress here is on how teas are being labeled so that you, the consumer, know what you are getting.
Other vendors use the terms “hand-crafted” in another way: They list teas that are loaded down with other stuff, and say that the hand-crafted aspect is that they mixed in that other stuff with the tea leaves in small batches, not in a huge vat. A more proper term here would be “hand-mixed flavored tea.” But hey, “hand-crafted” draws more search hits these days… anything to attract consumers who don’t look too closely at the details.
Now, What It Is
There doesn’t seem to be an official consensus on when a tea is hand-crafted. So, we put forth the following:
To be labeled hand-crafted, most or ideally all of the processing (but not necessarily the harvesting of the leaves) should be done by hand.
Levels of Hand-crafting
Being sensible, we accept that machines are needed for some stages of hand-crafting. The step of leaf rolling is a good example. Grinding matcha into a fine powder is another. The question of degree is a tricky one, though. At what level does a tea no longer qualify as hand-crafted? That’s a slippery slope, but there do seem to be two main levels, whether the tea leaves are harvested by machine or hand (although usually by hand):
- Full – all steps in the processing are done by hand, usually in small batches (less common these days).
- Partial – most steps in the processing are done by hand, usually in small batches, and NOT by the tea vendor.
Hand harvesting and processing are necessary to a fully hand-crafted tea – and the price will, of course, be commensurate.
Steps Often Done by Hand
True hand-crafted teas are fairly rare and somewhat pricey. Machines have been a part of tea processing so long, too, that the skills to perform certain steps in the process are disappearing. However, in some areas these skills are being revived, and that helps not only to bring down the price but to improve interest among tea drinkers.
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Some teas that really need to be hand-crafted:
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A key also is working in small batches. If a vendor promotes a tea as “hand-crafted,” it should be something that is more rare. Otherwise, you will want to question their use of that term. Processing the leaves by hand in small batches gives better control over the various steps. For example, hand-crafted Nonpareil Tai Ping Hou Kui involves hand pressing the leaves during roasting to maintain the complete leaf shape and a more natural appearance, as well as a richer, smoother, and more vivid flavor.
The trend toward labeling teas as such things as “rare,” “artisan,” and “hand-crafted” are part of a marketing strategy to draw in those who go by those terms without looking past the vendor’s label. Be informed and know if that is really what you’re getting. There are some wonderful teas out there that really do deserve these adjectives. Find them and enjoy truly wonderful tea experiences that are worth their higher price.
Hand vs. Machine Tea Crafting
Just as a lot of tea harvesting has been mechanized, so has the crafting of the tea leaves. This helps tea companies keep up with growing demand, but how do the two ways compare when it comes to taste?
big machines tended by skilled workers
more individual attention by workers who have been trained to make the most of those tea leaves and produce a variety of end products with a wide range of tastes
- Grading / Sorting — Definitely best done by hand by experienced workers. Would you know a tea leaf that is well formed and at the right stage of ripeness? This is especially important in teas like pu-erh, where there are 10 grades, ranging from leaves to buds (considered the best). Tea such as Silver Needle is comprised of only the tipmost leaves and buds selected by knowledgeable sorters.
- Withering — Removes some moisture from the tea leaves so they are limp and can be rolled and shaped. This can be done by hand, laying the tea leaves out on racks and letting them air dry, or in big drying machines that can detect the moisture level in the leaves and stop the process at the right time.
- Rolling — Releases oils out of the leaves to bring out flavor. The leaves either go through a rolling machine or are rolled by hand to bring about a higher quality (and, of course, a more expensive) grade of tea. Again, control over the process is best when done by hand by experienced personnel. The person doing the rolling can smell the oils being released and therefore know when to stop.
- Oxidizing — This step is skipped for green tea, done partially for oolong, and pursued all the way for black tea. Spread out in a cool room, the tea leaves start to take in oxygen, which reacts with their chemistry to turn them dark.
- Pan Firing — Stops the oxidizing (some call this step “fermenting”). Again, machine firing is harder to control than hand panning. It does have the advantage of being able to do larger quantities at a time. However, producing teas like Dong Ding, an oolong with the leaves rolled in particular shapes resembling ore nuggets, or Silver Needle with its leaves rolled into needle shapes (you expected something else?), requires attention once again by skilled workers.
- Flavoring — Hand or machine here is determined by the flavoring used. For example, teas like Jasmines are flavored with flower petals layered between racks of tea leaves, definitely a task best done by hand, whereas teas flavored by oils can be done in the processing machine.
One big advantage to hand processing is the connection of the person doing the processing to the tea leaf. Changes in texture and aroma can be detected and determine when the processing is changed or considered complete.
Many Darjeeling teas are still processed by hand to preserve their unique flavor characteristics so important to their success in the tea market. Unfortunately, this also makes them a bit pricier which, in turn, makes them more likely to be used in blends instead of sold straight. However, a special geographical designation was put into effect by the Indian government so that only certain gardens (about 87 at this time) within a certain geographical area can label their teas as Darjeeling. Blending is discouraged, but buyer beware.
A classic example of machine versus hand processing is CTC Assam versus Orthodox Assam (see more info here). Generally, the former is considered lower grade and therefore appropriate as a base for chai and the latter is considered higher grade, to be savored in the cup.
Bagged teas, such as PG Tips, Typhoo, Devonshire Tea, and Barry’s, are definitely machine processed. The leaves are broken down into very small pieces called fannings and dust. They steep up fast and strong. Hand-crafted black teas generally have larger pieces, steep up more slowly, release fewer tannins into the liquid, and give a more delicate tasting brew.
Which you choose, hand or machine crafted, will depend on the tea flavor you want.
A quick online search popped up thousands of hits for “artisanal teas” and a number of tea vendors who even use the words “artisan” and “artisanal” in their company name. Marketing gimmick? Possibly. But that is not to say that artisanal teas aren’t worth a bit above the ordinary.
A definition of “artisanal” (from Dictionary.com):
- pertaining to or noting a person skilled in an applied art: The men were taught artisanal skills such as bricklaying and carpentry.
2. pertaining to or noting a high-quality or distinctive product made in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods: artisanal cheese; artisanal cheesemakers.
The second definition seems to be the pertinent one here. Artisanal teas are generally hand-made in small batches by artisans with much skill and years of knowledge. In other words, they are a continuation of centuries of teamaking, often with young children being taught by their parents, growing up to become tea artisans themselves and teach their children. Some tea artisans learned later in life and not from their teamaking parents. These are usually people who fell in love with the growing and processing of teas during visits to the areas where these are done and had been for centuries.
Some teas are mis-classified as “artisanal” because they are one of the following:
- Single estate – the tea leaves come from one estate only, as opposed to being a blend of leaves from two or more tea estates (gardens, plantations).
- Single flush – a step up from single estate, being composed of tea leaves from a single estate and from the same flush (period of growth and then harvest).
- Fancy leaf – this could even be from a particular clonal or cultivar tea plant, like one I tried not long ago from Sri Lanka where it was composed of special long wiry leaves.
Most vendors using this labeling are in the U.S. and Europe. It’s a marketing tactic rather than a true indication of the level of quality of their products, like labeling things “premium” or other such terms to indicate superior quality. The true artisanal teas are rare. We turn to them for that special experience now and then.
Vendors Who Call Their Teas “Handmade”
Some tea vendors try to glom on to what the true tea masters do and thus persuade gullible tea drinkers to buy their “handmade” teas (that are really nothing more than bulk tea they have added some stuff to so that the low quality is not so apparent).
Not to pick on any particular vendor, we nevertheless point out a few examples.
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Again, not picking on anyone, but you, the consumer, have your work cut out for you when faced with these and many more claiming that they make handcrafted teas. The worst part is that they obscure the true craftsmen and craftswomen! And that really irks us here at The World Is a Tea Party.
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