“With My Own Two Hands” HARPER

Hand Plucking

Handmade!” Producers and vendors love to tout the handmade quality of their teas. But does this make a difference? Are handmade teas any better than those made by machine?  Does anyone really care? And what is meant by “handmade tea” in any event? I asked a number of producers and vendors for their views and then I asked the online tea community what they thought.  What follows is an amalgam of their various viewpoints with my own thoughts on these matters. Let’s start by examining the question of what it means to call a tea “handmade.”

“Hand Jive” OTIS

For most consumers, and some producers and vendors, the answer to this question was straight forward and obvious. A handmade tea is one that is made entirely by hand. It is picked by hand, processed by hand and packed by hand. Period. But is this realistic? I must confess that in my years in the business, apart from some puers and several greens, I have encountered only a few examples of teas that would qualify as “handmade” using these strict standards. Without getting into the debate on the difference between a tool and a machine (yes, there really is a debate about this), most contemporary tea processing involves the use of some sort of apparatus during manufacture.  Yet the claim of “handmade” is appended to many teas of all types, some of which I know do not meet this standard. So what gives?

Some producers, and vendors (who often take their lead from these producers), seem to have a considerably different notion of what it means to be “handmade.” They hold that a tea can be called handmade so long as certain key steps in the processing are undertaken by hand. These steps generally, but not always, include plucking, withering and the initiation of oxidation. If these steps are done by hand, producers feel justified in using the term “handmade.” These, after all, are the steps that really determine the quality and the character of the finished tea.

Rolling Machine

A few modernists argue that even these criteria are too restrictive. For them a machine is simply another tool and the term “handmade” can apply to any tea when there is active decision making by the tea maker at each processing step. In other words, so long as the tea maker actively controls the machines, as opposed to letting them run according to pre-established settings, the resulting tea can be considered “handmade.” From this perspective, for example, orthodox black tea manufacture may, or may not, result in “handmade” tea depending on the approach of the tea maker.

 

“They seem to be handmade” DYLAN

Just as gas and electricity have largely replaced wood as energy (heat) generators, machines have taken over many functions in contemporary tea making. It is no longer reasonable to expect that all “handmade” tea literally be processed by a human hand at every stage; the efficiency of a machine is often a significant improvement over the action of the hand. The key is the degree to which the machine can be controlled and the extent to which the machine does not necessarily lessen control.

Katie Yen’s daughter Jane hand shaking leaves

Currently the industry has machines that can roll, dry and, sometimes, sort tea better than even the most able hand craftsman. To insist upon literal handwork in these areas, therefore, is to ensure lower, not higher, quality tea. However, there are areas where machines cannot yet perform as well as human labor. At current stages of development, for example, machines are not able to be as selective in plucking operations as hand labor (although this may change) and thus, to insist that “handmade” tea be hand plucked seems perfectly reasonable. Similarly, in producing oolongs, the procedure of hand shaking leaves in small lots leads to better overall bruising results than using a bamboo tumbling machine so it seems reasonable to insist upon shaken leaves for those wishing to call their oolongs “handmade.” Hence, we arrive at a position where there is no consistent set of criteria for teas of different types; a “handmade” oolong, for example, may require more literal hand actions than a “handmade” orthodox black tea. Again, the key is control.

“Lay Your Hands on Me” BON JOVI

Preparing for ball rolling

Are handmade teas better than machine made teas? If we follow the logic of the argument so far, the answer points to yes, almost by definition. Handmade tea is produced when the active control of each process rests in the “hands” of the tea maker. The greater the control, the greater the likelihood of higher quality tea (this is not to say, however, that the tea maker might not make a bollocks of the whole effort.) A corollary is that small batch tea is much more likely to be high quality than teas produced in large volumes.

“The Touch of Your Hands” VAUGHN

So, “handmade” tea is a function of the ability to control production at every step and “handmade” teas have a higher likelihood of being better quality products. But does anyone really care if a tea is called “handmade?” Well, yes and no.

Many producers care a great deal, in part because they seem to think that calling their tea “handmade” will add value but mostly because the care and attention required to make a “handmade” tea are a testament to their skill as craftsmen and to their commitment to quality. The problem, however, is that most consumers, cynically, couldn’t care less if a tea is labelled “handmade.”  The term “handmade” is viewed simply as a marketing handle that is no indicator quality.  Marketers use it so often, that it has no substantial meaning; it’s just so much fluff.

And there’s the rub. For so long as there is no agreed upon, understandable and enforceable standard for using the term “handmade” it will be viewed with great suspicion by the consumer. And the likelihood of achieving such agreement is slim and none.

Preliminary Drying

“With These Hands” BASSEY

So what is a consumer to do? Ask questions! Insist upon knowing what a producer or vendor means when they say their tea is “handmade.” You then can decide for yourself whether or not it truly is handmade. And taste, taste, taste; for the real merit of tea is in the taste of the product, not its moniker.

 

 

 

That’s my take. What do you think?

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