For a while already, a term has been “ghosting” through tea terature, which I have also been using on my pages quite frequently during the last few years. Well, every time I write “artisan tea”, I wonder, whether the reader’s idea of this term will match mine. Interestingly, no one ever asked me about it. However, we might just have gotten all too used to the omnipresence of nice-sounding promotional terms and attributes. So much so that we might have stopped wondering whether such terms mean anything at all, and if so, then what.
Where I use the term “Artisan tea”, I am not so much concerned with the advertising effect, at least not in the first place. Instead, I mean something very specific with this term, and what ecatly that is finds exploration in this article. On the one hand, my intention is to increase the reader’s understanding of my deliberations. On the other hand, I consider the concept of “artisan tea” to be an essential criterion for delimiting two fundamentally different worlds within the world of tea from each other. Because the other end of the scale, whose one end is artisan tea, is mass tea.
What is Artisan Tea?
Actually, I can come up with a definition of artisan tea in one single short sentence:
Artisan Tea is tea produced by master hand in best-possible quality.
Let us now throw a closer look at the individual parts of this apparantly rather banal statement:
The highly defining attribute states that an artisan tea is always created by a master. A master is a person who has both extensive knowledge and many years of experience in tea production.
Manual production is also one of the most essential criteria for Artisan tea. At this, one end of the scale is the fully automated production. This begins with the automated fertilization of the monoculturally exploited soil and extends from the mechanical picking to the feeding of the leaf material into a fully automatic processing sequence, at whose end stands the final tea product. Here, there’s no need for a master… rather for a skilled technician…
The other end of the scale marks a consistently manual process that spans the entire cycle of cultivation, picking and processing. Today, we can rarely find such in its pure form. However, what we still find very often, are hybrids of the two. In my opinion, a tea can still be considered an artisan tea, where individual processing steps are supported by mechanical devices, but are subject to the supervision and control of a master each.
Producing here means more than just processing tea leaves of whatever kind. Instead, producing here means an end-to-end or holistic process. Which tea plant, terroir, picking season, picking standard, processing mode? And there’s more to consider … Mostly, there will be centuries-old traditions that predetermine these factors for an Artisan tea.
Accordingly, a master producing an Artisan tea will seek to consider all these factors. In the best case, he grows the tea that he processes himself, and the picking is done according to his specifications. The Artisan process requires the monitoring and control of each step in the becoming of a tea. A standard may apply, but its detailed design will be adapted to the result of each examination by the master. That is also the reason, why such a tea will never be exactly the same twice.
Well, the fact that an Artisan tea will always be tea in the narrower sense, i. e. pure Camellia Sinensis, may be obvious to most readers. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness…
This attribute means that the master – taking into account all the factors and circumstances mentioned above – produces the best possible tea.
Artisan Tea vs. Mass Tea
From the above, it seems almost futile to reiterate the obvious differences to mass tea. For the description of the mass tea concept, it suffices to convert the mentioned definitional properties into their analogous opposites. In other words, the standard replaces the master, the machine replaces the hand, automation replaces individualism, quantity replaces quality. For example, environmental aspects for the mass tea manufacturer are relevant only to the extent required by law. For the Artisan producer, however, they are an integral part of the quality concept.
The difference between the two concepts becomes most obvious with the comparison of the two underlying economic principles:
The artisan producer’s goal is to
produce the best possible tea, in order to reach the best possible price with it
As opposed to this, the mass tea producer’s goal is to
produce as much tea as possible at the cheapest possible price
When comparing both principles, it becomes apparent that their respective products are fundamentally uncomparable. In addition, the comparison draws attention to another fundamental difference between Artisan tea and mass tea. Namely their quantitative availability.
The RARE Character of Artisan Tea
First of all, Artisan teas ARE rare. Anyone who has read the above must understand that such teas are always kilos, never tons or even containers. The impact of Artisan production on our environment is accordingly low. To this end, in addition to small “size”, the eco-friendliness integral to any holistic concept will further contribute. Or, from the opposite perspective, mass production of tea tends not to take place in biodiverse environments.
Therefore, Artisan teas are always limited in quantity. However, since the Artisan producer also wants to live off his work and its products, the scarcity of such teas contributes further to their relatively high price. Accordingly, no Artisan tea will ever be represented in retail chains! For one thing, they are not sufficiently available to fill the shelves of their branches. And secondly, they are… far too expensive for the majority of customers there.
THE Argument against Artisan Tea
In the context of relevant discuissions, advocates of modern mass tea cultivation always come up with ONE “very good” argument against Artisan teas. Namely, that the world won’t have enough acreage to grow enough tea for all of its tea drinkers. Well, they are perfectly right about this, of course. However, the question is not at all, whether 5 billion people can drink Artisan tea or not. The question is, whether WE can! And to this end, I wouldn’t know a single argument why we wouldn’t. And even the more, why we actually should.
In a perfect world…
The concept of Artisan tea evokes the dream of a perfect world. To preserve our natural habitat, tea leaves come from wild picking or biodiverse cultivation. Thus, the tea leaves’ active and flavor ingredients boast the entire wealth of nature. Picking might take place once a year for a short time only, when the content of healthy ingredients is highest. B-qualities? Will remain at the tea bush! The master oversees the picking and carefully examines every single basket. Tea leaves not meeting his requirements won’t even make it to the tea factory.
Unaffected by economic pressure or doubts, the master finally takes on the processing of the freshly picked tea leaves. Nothing’s too much for him, and only little is good enough. Because perfect timing is everything with tea processing, he accompanies every single processing step with all of his senses. Because he knows they are out there, the people who will reward his work and pay him a handsome price for his masterful tea.
Did you notice something? Exactly, this sounds much like a fairy tale … But while a perfect world probably doesn’t exist, many Artisan teas get at least close to the ideal. And once in the cup, such tea requires neither philosophy nor esotericism to stand out. Because it is right here, where the dictum “enjoy with all your senses” becomes tangible reality. With an Artisan tea, look, feel, smell and taste become a composition … and thus a work of art.
By the way, you will find a great love of the art in my unique collection of preciuous Artisan teas from different countries of origin at