Tea has been a popular beverage for centuries and continues to be enjoyed worldwide. However, not all teas are created equal. Handcrafted teas, also known as handmade or artisan teas, stand out from the rest due to their unique flavors, personal touch of tea masters, and traditional methods used in their production.
Today, tea processing can be divided into three categories: machine-processed, semi-handmade, and fully handmade teas. While machine-made teas are favored for their efficiency, consistency, and ability to be produced in large quantities, handmade teas are prized for their nuances and individuality.
Handcrafted teas are produced by individual tea masters on their family farms or small tea estates. Each tea leaf is carefully selected, processed, and rolled by hand, ensuring that every tea is unique. Handmade teas offer tea masters the opportunity to showcase their skills and creativity, resulting in a more personalized tea-drinking experience.
The debate between handmade and machine-made teas has been ongoing for decades. While machine-made teas are efficient and consistent, they lack the individuality and complexity that handcrafted teas offer. Handcrafted teas are sought after by tea enthusiasts for their unique flavors and traditional production methods.
Differences between Handmade and Machine-made Teas
Handmade and machine-made teas differ significantly in terms of processing control. Machine-made teas strive for automation, with minimal human intervention in harvesting, sorting, fixing, roasting, and shaping the tea leaves. This process adheres strictly to reliable recipes, producing a standardized and consistent flavor profile. The main advantage of machine-made tea is its highly efficient and cost-effective mass production. However, this approach lacks the nuanced flavors and aromas that come with hand-processing, resulting in teas that lack complexity and character.
Semi-Handmade Tea Production
Semi-handmade tea is a popular type of tea that blends the traditional handmade methods with modern technology. This method is widely used in areas where tea-making is an age-old tradition. For instance, Taiwan’s semi-handmade Oolong tea is a local favorite. The process involves handpicking tea leaves and sun-withering them. Then, the leaves undergo bruising, fixing, and rolling, often using machines. Finally, they are roasted by hand over charcoal or an electric fire, resulting in a unique flavor and aroma. The producer can adjust the order of manual and automated processes based on preference.
Semi-handmade tea offers tea producers the benefit of consistency in their products. Machines can help control the temperature and timing of the tea-making process, ensuring that each batch is of similar quality.
Compared to fully handmade teas, semi-handmade tea can be produced more efficiently without compromising the traditional tea-making process, making it easier for tea producers to meet consumers’ demands and deliver high-quality artisanal teas in significant quantities. This production method is now favored by Gong Fu Cha and Senchado connoisseurs.
The Art of Making Handcrafted Tea
Handmade tea is a cultural experience that reflects the rich history and tradition of tea-making. It is an art that requires great skill, patience, and dedication. Handmade teas are highly sought after for their unique flavors and exceptional quality. While machine-made teas are efficient and consistent in producing large quantities, handmade teas command higher prices for their depth and character that cannot be achieved by machine processing. Each batch of handmade tea is unique, making it even more exciting and adding to its value and appeal.
The first step in making handmade teas is selecting 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 damage that could affect the quality of the tea.
Once harvested, the leaves are spread out to wither, removing excess moisture from the leaves and allowing them to become more pliable. The leaves are usually 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, allowing for better control and the final flavor profile of the tea. The pan-frying process involves heating a wok over a fire and continuously tossing the tea leaves to prevent burning and achieve an even roast. This technique requires great skill and experience from the tea maker, who adjusts 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 that allows 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. Only a small amount of tea can be produced using this method, making handmade teas command higher prices than semi-handmade or machine-made teas.
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 removes excess water from the leaves and helps the aroma and taste to take shape.
Some types of tea, such as yellow tea, have additional unique steps in the process. During the Men Huang 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.
Each step of the handmade tea process requires patience, skill, and attention to detail, setting handcrafted teas apart from their machine-made counterparts. With each batch of handmade tea being unique, there is a sense of excitement and discovery. For tea connoisseurs who appreciate the subtleties of well-made tea, the effort and time invested in making handmade teas are well worth it.
Machine-made and semi-handmade teas have their perks, but fully handmade teas are unmatched in terms of quality and individuality. Handcrafting tea provides a greater degree of control over the process, resulting in a wider variety of flavor profiles that machines can’t replicate. However, creating tea by hand is laborious and time-consuming, which limits the amount that can be produced. Nonetheless, the meticulous attention to detail and passion that goes into the fully handmade process makes the tea a rare and valuable commodity, commanding higher prices. Savoring fully handmade tea offers a delightful sensory experience while also supporting artisans and preserving traditional tea-making techniques.