There are comments being bandied about regarding machine-harvested tea vs. hand-harvested tea, asserting that the latter tastes better than the former. Such statements, however, are subjective and cannot be categorized as strict assurances as if you were saying “This is an apple and that is an orange.” Time for a little objectivity here, if I may be so bold.
Certainly, some things are better done by the hand of man than by machine, such as bathing a baby or mountain climbing. In the case of tea, whether to harvest by machine or by hand is more a matter of your goal. Do you want to end up with an Orthodox Assam, White Peony, Silver Needle, Golden Bi Luo? Or are you intending to bag the tea and need the leaves ground up finely for that purpose? The former needs careful harvesting by experienced workers. The latter needs only good growth and good hacking by that harvesting machine; with all the processing that tea leaves go through to get into those teabags (more details on that in a future article), by the time they reach your teapot, you would never know how they were harvested.
One way to visualize the difference between hand- vs. machine-harvesting is to think about how you trim shrubberies on you property. It’s not so much about the shrub, but the pieces that are trimmed off. I’ve used both electric hedge trimmers and hand held pruning shears. The pieces the electric trimmers left on the ground were torn up and in a fairly disgraceful condition. The pieces left on the ground after I had trimmed using the hand held pruners were much more regular, with whole leaves and cleanly cut stems for the most part.
The same goes for tea. Machine harvested tea is in such a state that it cannot be used for the higher end teas, especially those using only the tip-most leaves and buds. The machine, unlike a trained harvest worker, cannot distinguish those tips from the rest, nor can it distinguish between perfectly ripe leaves vs. those not quite ripe. If you’re harvesting for a high-end tea, you will want to harvest manually. Otherwise, machine harvesting is a good way to go.
Time is of great consideration here. So is labor cost. Harvesting all teas by hand would never have allowed tea consumption to grow as it has, since supply would not have been able to keep up with demand, and therefore costs would have remained high. Hand harvesting is, therefore, common in areas where there is a sufficient labor force that are properly trained to go into the tea gardens at harvest time and whose wages, while often high relatively to other professions in their local economy, are low enough to make the tea harvest still saleable at competitive prices on the open market (a delicate balancing act all companies face).
By the way, in case you think these tea harvesting machines are akin to the behemoth crop harvesters used in the U.S. Midwest, not necessarily. I know a tea grower in Japan who has machines so portable that two men can handle it. Even so, they can be hard to wield on mountain slopes, so many Darjeelings and other teas grown in mountainous areas are still hand-harvested, accounting in part for their higher cost.
Tidbit: In 1958, the Soviets, in order to gain “tea independence” from their main supplier, China, started growing their own tea (mainly in The Ukraine) and using machines to harvest it. This was at a time when tea growers generally agreed that machine harvesting was not possible. Tea had become so important a part of the life of Russians that they were willing to take the chance.
Hope you enjoy your tea, whether machine- or hand-harvested.
Make sure to reap the harvest of A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!