We love traditional teas, and we believe that expertise passed down through generations of tea farmers and crafters is key to maximizing quality. But we also know the value of innovation. Many of our favorite teas are produced in new and unique ways, whether it’s the experimental oxidation level of our Xin Gong Yi white tea or the blend of varieties in our Three Cultivar Red black tea. And in this modern age, most of our best teas are crafted with the help of machinery, which helps automate crafting processes long done by hand.
It may not fit the romantic image presented to tourists or pictured in documentaries, but the advantages of using machines in the crafting process are hard to deny, especially as premium tea farms face labor shortages and volatile weather conditions. While teas harvested or crafted by machine are sometimes derided by purists, artisans making every style of tea now use machinery specifically developed to mimic the traditional methods of crafting that have been passed down to them. Rather than compromising the quality of the tea, these machines help maintain quality, consistency, and cleanliness during the production process.
Tea crafting is a difficult business, even when it comes to the most straightforward crafting styles, like those used for white tea. The traditional process of fading was done in the sun, letting the leaves slowly wilt and bake on wide bamboo racks. This is about as simple as the tea crafting process can get, but it still requires incredible expertise, along with a heavy dose of luck. Wilting leaves must be carefully monitored and rotated for even effects, and great skill is necessary to account for weather conditions. If it is cloudy and cool, the leaves may oxidize too much before they are dry, while too much sun can “scorch” the leaves, also causing them to brown.
Today, to produce the perfect downy buds in a tea like Silver Needle, white tea crafters use climate-controlled rooms and indoor wilting tables mounted over fans in order to develop the perfect level of mild oxidation during the air-drying process. Not only do they make the process easier and more efficient, these technological advances also extend the shelf life of these teas by ensuring that all moisture is removed from the leaf before shipping.
Dragonwell green teas are some of the most popular in China, and the West Lake region of Zhejiang where they originated is a popular spot for tea pilgrims to get a taste of traditional tea culture. Demonstrations of traditional techniques show a craftsman intent over a wok, pressing a small batch of leaves against the hot metal with the palm of his bare hand to flatten them into their characteristic shape. It is easy to imagine the long hours of work required during the harvest season, when leaves must be processed when they’re perfectly wilted, no matter what time of the day or night.
Modern producers of Dragonwell teas must still use expertise learned through experience to gauge the perfect time for roasting, but they can avoid burning their palms with new roasting machines that use a wide paddle to press the leaves back and forth against the hot metal. A comb moves through the fresh leaves, filtering a small amount down to the roasting surface, where the machine imitates the motions of hand-firing before releasing the finished leaves onto a waiting tray. The gently toasted flavor is consistent through each small batch, and artisans are able to spend fewer sleep-deprived hours sweating over a hot wok.
Pu-erh teas go through long processing steps as they undergo fermentation, and rely on the presence of the right microbes to develop desired flavors. Because this region is not historically wealthy, traditional methods of processing teas by hand are more prevalent, even today. Romantic images of rustic craftsmen show men standing on a stone to press the tea into molded discs, feet bare and cigarette dangling from their lips. While fascinating, this hardly fits our first world standards for food safety, and as many pu-erh fans can attest, the experience of finding hair, stones, or even cigarette butts in a batch of aged tea is regrettably common.
With the rising popularity of pu-erh, however, some producers have embraced modern developments to create facilities that are ISO compliant, complete with dress codes and hair coverings. Modern machinery makes it easy to press tea cakes with hydraulic technology, and we can rest a little easier knowing our teas will continue to get better with age, without any microbial surprises to disturb the process.
Machines used in tea production often get a bad reputation for sacrificing quality, thanks to the tools of mass production, and it is easy to use automated systems to make mediocre tea. But thoughtful technology is also capable of enhancing the skills of experienced crafters to make teas better, and more consistent. For us, the romance is in the flavor.
Curious about how your favorite teas are crafted? Check out our Learn section to find more information about each tea type!
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