Artisanal ≠ Good

It’s pretty common to see listings of tea with the word “artisnal” thrown in there. What does the word really mean in these context? Obviously it’s derived from the word “artisan” and generally mean that the tea you’re about to buy was made by an artisan. Ok, so far so good. So what?

More specifically, when is a tea not made by an artisan?

I suppose you can use this term to apply to teas that are purely hand made, farmed without machinery, and so on. I can assure you, however, that any tea you buy online does not fall into that category – teas like that are exceedingly expensive and very rarely done. Lots of farmers in China and Taiwan are independent farmers, but almost all of them use machinery as aids in the process of producing the tea. This can be large scale farming equipment, to something as simple as a roller and a shaqing machine for their teas. For oolongs, for example, rolling is a particularly backbreaking task – takes forever, lots of work, and hand (or foot) rolled teas are not as pretty as machine rolled ones. So these days they’re all machine rolled. Those balled up oolongs you love so much from Taiwan? It’s thanks to the machines that you have that shape.

Nor should we romanticize the past as some golden age when people made everything by hand. Sure, they did that, maybe, but that’s mostly because they couldn’t afford the machines that would make their life easier. Nobody prefers to spend hours rolling a ball of tea or sweating in front of a giant wok frying the tea when they can just do it more evenly, more predictably, and with less effort by the possession of a machine. These contraptions exist for at least a century now. I’ve read colonial period Taiwanese books on tea horticulture that detail the use of these things – rollers, shaqing, shakers, whatever you need. The problem was not so much invention – that’s the easy part. The problem was access. It was too expensive to afford a lot of these things. So at first, a whole village would invest in one and people would take turns using it. Then, as the cost of the machinery got lower over time, everyone had one.

We saw this type of change happen in Yunnan as well in the past decade. Before 2004, and before the crazy boom of puerh prices, Yunnan farmers were dirt poor. People cut down tea trees, sometimes really old ones, to plant rubber trees instead, because rubber was worth a lot more. Those who kept their tea trees got lucky, and now many of them have machines to aid them in the processing of teas – shaqing being most common, but also other measures. Tea picking has also been farmed out, often times, to people from poorer areas or villages. It’s hard work, and those farmers lucky enough to live in rich tea villages don’t really want to do that stuff anymore.

There’s also the relative skillsets involved – just because you made it by hand doesn’t automatically make it better. An old tea hand I know in Taiwan told me that a certain tea farmer in Pinglin used to be good – in the days of their grandfather, but the skills have either been lost or just not there, and so this generation’s teas are so-so. Some people are just better at some things than other, and variation is to be expected. Within a whole group of people, some will be better at a task than others. They can all do things basically the same way and the outcomes will be different. An artisanal tea grown in, say, Lantau Island in Hong Kong is still going to be terrible, because the climate just isn’t right and the tea is grown in a pretty bad environment. The skills of the artisan also just isn’t there (yes, I’ve tried the tea). Artisanal doesn’t mean anything.

Even long history is no protection – yes, they might have family secrets passed down if the family’s been in the business for a long time, or they might not. In fact, think of it another way, a family might be in a tea business for so long not because they were successful, but because they weren’t successful enough (and thus didn’t make enough money) to move into other more lucrative ventures. Very few people choose to remain smallholding tea farmers if they had a choice – tough work and low reward even with machinery as aids, especially in a rapidly industrializing society with lots of new opportunities. Better off going to school and becoming an engineer. Before you say I’m just being cynical, I have family relatives whose families did make tea and then moved away from it. It’s a very real option and most people, when given the choice, will choose to leave the farm.

Then you have stuff like this

Yes, some of you will object that this is large scale industrialized tea made for mediocrity. That’s right, but there’s lots of skill here, and the fact that a tea blender can easily re-create a recipe given the raw ingredients just by tasting is nothing short of amazing.

So next time you see that description of the tea you want to buy as “artisanal”, please remember that it means basically nothing.


Comments

Artisanal ≠ Good — 12 Comments

  1. Indeed… I always find it funny how one sees “handmade” or “half-handmade” as a pseudo-proof of quality – but when one looks back to the time of industrial revolution, this was quite reversed and “machine-made” ment quality and certain uniformity, which was appealing.

    As with many things, I guess the result of work is what is important, more than the process of making (for the end customer, at least). Is it more important whether a teapot was made by hand, by a teapot-master who cut his beloved wife’s throat and used her blood to give finish to the pot (then committing suicide, making the teapot one-of-a-kind), or whether the teapot pours well and makes good tea? For me, it’s certainly the latter. I guess that if one is a collector of teapots and history, it may be different, but if a teapot is a tool, there is a good chance that a machine-made thing will do well.

    • In the right hands, sure, hand-made is great, but those will usually cost you a fortune. Absent that, handmade is not very useful as an indicator of quality. When I look at my baby’s doll and it says “handmade with love in China” I know the workers in that factory didn’t think much about love for my kid – it’s probably pretty poor conditions and them sewing that doll up every 20 seconds.

      With tea, because the goods is so anonymous (it’s just some loose leaves) the stories about how, where, when, etc is really pretty meaningless. The tea is either good or it’s not. That’s the basis for judgement. Everything else should be cast aside when making purchase decisions.

  2. Very insightful. I’ve had similar musings on the topic and it’s nice to see organized ideas from a close perspective.

    It’s very true that there is still a lot of skill and value in things at which people usually scoff, like the Lipton brand and their tasters, the tea farmers juxtaposed with the engineer, or in a recent debate I had with a friend, the beautician compared to a more “economical” or “cognitively demanding” pursuit. There is something to be learned from everything; Something to cherish, or a way (for everyone) to utilize ideas from seemingly unrelated practices if they are creative and open enough. I find that, tea, since it is very subjective, causes a growing enthusiast like myself to affirm these ideas and come closer to achieving balance in many aspects of life. Maybe you realize you need to break the rules a little in your brewing and use your intuition, or maybe you realize that some people might like their tea a way you don’t. Whatever the issue, there is something to think about and learn to accept as nobody is “correct”. You learn to apply this to many situations, even more so if you had the mindset already, and then grow from your experiences the best you can, because you can think more clearly.

    What’s important is to realize the truth and work with it how you see fit. In this case, the truth is that “artisan” is rather meaningless when it comes to being better or worse. As you also said,”artisan” is exactly what it means: Someone created the product. It applies to just about everything. It has nothing to do with how pleasant it is for you. The issue is that, like “organic” or “anti-oxidant”, is that “artisan” has become another buzzword and draw for the mass market. Rather than relying on these words to decide what we want, we should learn by experiencing.

    • My post here probably applies to anything that tends to be labeled “artisanal” – most of it is pretty meaningless. Yeah, organic and what not definitely have problems too, and the worst of them is probably the idea of fair-trade – it sounds great but isn’t nearly as good in practice.

  3. The story is always a big part of a sales margin increase and any smart tea vendor knows this. In the end it’s mostly just a way to increase the markup, even if it’s really hand picked and hand processed.

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