Blog 105: What’s the Real Handcrafted Tea?
In industrial age, hand-made things become rare and expensive. A luxury Mercedes-Benz can cost as low as $30,000, but a “handcrafted” version of the same brand will set you back at least $100,000. To be honest, no cars can be 100% made by hand. At some point of the production, workers have to use a machine to finish the job. People pay a premium for a “handcrafted” car because the craftsmanship and all those extra labor hours make it just a little bit better.
In the world of tea, we also appreciate craftsmanship. The jewel in the crown, of course, is the handcrafted tea by a famed tea master. The price of such tea can go as high as tens of thousands of dollars per pound. In fact, our tea maker Mr. Wang Guo Xing’s handcrafted Wuyi oolong “Niu Lan Keng Rou Gui” is usually sold at over $10,000 per pound, (yes, US dollars) and you have to get on a long waitlist first.
As its name suggests, a handcrafted tea is made by hand in all tea-making steps. Although the concept of handcrafted tea is straightforward, in reality, the definition of “a handcrafted tea” can be a little ambiguous.
First of all, tea production is an agricultural activity. Tea makers have been making tea for thousands of years before any modern machinery existed. Strictly speaking, machines don’t make tea or tea-making better. They are only here to help unload some of tea makers’ physical work.
Therefore, wether or not a handcrafted tea makes sense is entirely up to how complex the tea-making is.
A “handcrafted” tea doesn’t necessarily mean it is better or special. For teas that have a simple tea-making process, such as green tea and white tea, almost all of them are made by hand. “Handcrafted” here only shows that this tea is made with a standard process.
Nowadays, the production of black tea and oolong tea often involve some semi-mechanized process (especially Wuyi oolong tea). This is why 100% handmade black tea and Wuyi oolong are rare and extremely sought-after.
Let’s take the making of Wuyi oolong for example. In modern tea-making, machines are usually employed in harvesting, withering, oxidizing (the shaking process, please see Blog 12 for details), rolling, sorting and selecting. The rest of the tea-making, including hot fixation and roasting, are still mainly done by hand.
A handcrafted Wuyi oolong, evidently, has all tea-making steps made by hand. In this case, the benefit of handcrafting is a more precise, more individualized treatment of fresh green leaves.
Instead of processing hundreds of pounds of fresh leaves in machines each time, experienced tea makers can adjust their techniques and the duration of each tea-making step based on the state of a single batch of fresh leaves (usually weights a couple pounds). The downside of handcrafting is the lower tea processing capability and efficiency.
Because of the production limitation of handcrafted teas, only a selected amount of fresh leaves are made by hand.
Typically, there are only two types of Wuyi oolong that are handcrafted:
1. Special single-variety cultivars with small annual yield, such as White Comb.
2. The most premium quality fresh leaves from the most prestiges sites with a small annual output, such as Rou Gui leaves from the famed production site Niu Lan Keng.
In these 2 situations, handcrafting tea offers flexibility that machines cannot provide. For example, the roller machines used in the shaking process need to be filled with at least 350-400 pounds of fresh leaves to function properly.
The harvest of small output cultivars and premium leaves is just not large enough to be processed by machines. In other words, these teas have to be handcrafted.
Ultimately, the quality of tea still depends on the tea maker’s experience and skills. In our everyday tea drinking, we should not focus too much on whether a tea is handmade or not. A handcrafted tea by an inexperienced, unqualified tea maker is still a bad tea.
The purpose of handcrafting a tea is to unleash all the potential of fresh green leaves. “Handcrafting” a tea won’t magically make a tea better. Only in the hands of an expert tea maker, fresh leaves can become a true handcrafted tea.
We hope you enjoyed today’s blog. As always, if you have questions or suggestions, please leave a comment, tweet us @valleybrooktea or email the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also follow us on Instagram @valleybrooktea and join our mail list to get our daily tea updates and our latest promotions!
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