Tea is a beverage that has been enjoyed for centuries, and its popularity continues to grow worldwide. Nowadays, countless teas are being produced by thousands, if not millions, of producers around the world. Some teas are produced by individual tea masters on their family farms; others are grown on large estates and produced by big tea factories.
However, not all teas are created equal. Handmade teas, also known as handcrafted or artisan teas, are a cut above the rest.
Today, we can separate tea processing into three distinctive groups:
- Machine-processed teas
- Semi-handmade teas
- Fully handmade teas
The debate between handmade and machine-made teas has been ongoing for decades, with both sides having valid arguments to support their processing methods. While machine-made teas are preferred for their efficiency, consistency, and ability to be produced in large quantities, handmade teas are sought after for their unique, nuanced flavors, tea masters' personal touch, and traditional methods used in their production.
One of the most significant differences between handmade and machine-made teas is the control over the processing. The production of machine-made teas aims to be automated as much as possible, with little human intervention. The tea leaves are harvested, sorted, fixed, roasted, and shaped using machines or by machines, strictly adhering to reliable recipes and resulting in a standardized and consistent flavor profile. One of the main advantages of such a production method is that machines can quickly process large quantities of tea, making it highly efficient and cost-effective – the ideal choice for mass production. However, machine-made tea lacks the nuanced flavors and aromas of hand-processing, and the resulting teas lack complexity and character.
Tea-factory in Sri-Lanka. Production line.
Semi-handmade tea is a type of tea that lies somewhere in between fully handmade and machine-made tea. As the name suggests, semi-handmade tea is made with a combination of manual and mechanical processes. Semi-handmade tea is prevalent in regions where tea-making is a long-standing tradition. For example, semi-handmade Oolong tea is a beloved local specialty in Taiwan. The tea leaves are picked by hand and withered in the sun. Then, they go through bruising (Zuo Qing – 做青), fixing (Sha Qing – 杀青), and rolling, often done by machines. Finally, the leaves are usually roasted by hand over charcoal or electrical fire to bring out their unique flavor and aroma. The orders of manual labor and automation can be altered depending on the producer.
One advantage of semi-handmade tea is that it allows tea producers to maintain a certain level of consistency in their products. Machines can help to control the temperature and timing of the tea-making process, which ensures that each batch of tea is of similar quality.
Tea-drying machine. Vietnam.
While fully handcrafted tea requires incredible time and effort, semi-handmade tea can be produced much more efficiently without sacrificing too much of the traditional tea-making process, making it easier for tea producers to meet consumers' demands and deliver high-quality, artisanal teas in comparatively significant quantities.
Today, most artisanal teas Gong Fu Cha and Senchado connoisseurs enjoy being semi-handmade.
Fully Handmade Tea
Fully handmade tea is a cultural experience, and such teas are a testament to the rich history and tradition of tea-making. Making handcrafted teas is a delicate art requiring skill, patience, and dedication. From handpicking the tea leaves to rolling them by hand, each step is meticulously carried out to ensure the highest quality tea. While machine-made teas are preferred for their efficiency, consistency, and ability to produce large quantities, handmade teas are sought after for their unique flavors and exceptional quality. And the fact that each batch of hand-crafted tea is unique, as it cannot be replicated exactly in the same way, makes it even more exciting, adding to its value and appeal.
The first step in making handmade teas is the selection of the leaves. Experienced tea masters know how to identify the best leaves for tea production based on their size, shape, and age. These leaves are then carefully harvested by hand to avoid any damage that could affect the quality of the tea.
Once the leaves have been harvested, they are spread out to wither. This is done to remove excess moisture from the leaves and to allow them to become more pliable. The leaves are typically spread out on bamboo mats or screens and left to wither for a few hours.
Pan-frying tea leaves by hand is a crucial step in making handmade teas as it allows for better control and the final flavor profile of the tea. The pan-frying process involves heating a wok over a fire and tossing the tea leaves continuously to prevent burning and achieve an even roast. This technique requires a great deal of skill and experience from the tea maker, who must adjust the temperature and timing based on the characteristics of the tea leaves and the desired flavor profile. By pan-frying the tea leaves by hand, the tea maker can create a unique, nuanced flavor that a machine-made tea cannot replicate.
Roasting tea leaves by hand is a highly labor-intensive and time-consuming process. When done manually, fixation and final roasting steps allow for better control over the tea's quality and flavor. It takes years of experience to learn how to bring out the tea's unique flavors and aromas. And stirring tea over a hot wok for hours requires much endurance. Such a labor-intensive and time-consuming process mandates the tea master to have stamina, experience, and intuition to achieve the desired results.
And since the tea leaves must be stirred in small batches to ensure even heating and prevent burning, only a small amount of tea can be produced using this method. Therefore, handmade teas often command higher prices than semi-handmade, not to mention machine-made teas. However, the result is a tea that is rich, complex, and nuanced in flavor, with a depth and character that cannot be achieved by machine processing. For tea connoisseurs who appreciate the subtleties of well-made tea, the effort and time invested in pan-frying tea leaves by hand are well worth it.
After pan-frying, the leaves undergo kneading, another crucial step in tea making. During this process, the tea master gives the leaves their specific shape, depending on the tea type. Kneading also removes excess water from the leaves and helps the aroma and taste to take shape. This step requires a great deal of skill and experience, as the tea master must apply just the right amount of pressure and motion to the leaves.
Some types of tea, such as yellow tea, have additional unique steps in the process. For example, during the Men Huang (闷黄) phase of yellow tea production, the tea master wraps the leaves in paper or cloth in small batches and allows them to rest. This resting period allows the leaves to transform under the joint action of heat and moisture, resulting in the distinct flavor and aroma that yellow tea is known for.
Men Huang (闷黄) phase of Yellow Tea production
Each step of the handmade tea process requires patience, skill, and attention to detail. This level of care and craftsmanship sets handcrafted teas apart from their machine-made counterparts. With each batch of handmade tea being unique, there is a sense of excitement and discovery.
Sensory Tea Experience
While machine-made and semi-handmade teas have their advantages in terms of quantity and consistency, fully handmade teas stand out in terms of quality and uniqueness. Hand-crafted teas allow for greater control over the processing, resulting in a broader range of flavor profiles that machines cannot replicate. The labor-intensive and time-consuming nature of the fully handmade process means that only small amounts of tea can be produced, making it a true labor of love. This attention to detail and dedication to the craft makes fully handmade teas a rare and precious commodity, commanding a higher price point. When drinking fully handmade teas, one indulges in an exquisite sensory experience while supporting the artisans and preserving traditional tea-making methods.