Soom Estate Tea (ETS image)

Soom Estate Tea (ETS image)

The push is on for artisanal teas (usually marketed as “artisan teas”). A quick online search popped up thousands of hits and a number of tea vendors who even use the words “artisan” and “artisanal” in their company name. Marketing gimmick? Possibly. But that is not to say that artisanal teas aren’t worth a bit above the ordinary. Time to take a closer look.

Ever one to stress correct word usage (even as I get a word wrong up here and there), I looked up a definition of “artisanal” (from Dictionary.com):

1. pertaining to or noting a person skilled in an applied art: The men were taught artisanal skills such as bricklaying and carpentry.
2. pertaining to or noting a high-quality or distinctive product made in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods: artisanal cheese; artisanal cheesemakers.

The second definition seems to be the pertinent one here. Artisanal teas are generally hand-made in small batches by artisans with much skill and years of knowledge. In other words, they are a continuation of centuries of teamaking, often with young children being taught by their parents, growing up to become tea artisans themselves and teach their children. Some tea artisans learned later in life and not from their teamaking parents. These are usually people who fell in love with the growing and processing of teas during visits to the areas where these are done and had been for centuries.

I am seeing some teas classified as “artisanal” because they are one of the following:

  • Single estate – the tea leaves come from one estate only, as opposed to being a blend of leaves from two or more tea estates (gardens, plantations).
  • Single flush – a step up from single estate, being composed of tea leaves from a single estate and from the same flush (period of growth and then harvest).
  • Fancy leaf – this could even be from a particular clonal or cultivar tea plant, like one I tried not long ago from Sri Lanka where it was composed of special long wiry leaves.

One troubling thing is the misuse of the terms “artisan” and “artisanal” here. Some people using it are not what I would personally classify this way. They are certainly knowledgeable but don’t even come close to having the level of expertise that I would associate with a true tea artisan. Most of these people are here in the U.S. and are the ones using these terms more as a marketing tactic rather than a true indication of the level of quality of their products. It’s like labeling things “premium” or other such terms to indicate superior quality.

The real goal here seems to be for some tea growers, especially smaller ones, in Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Africa, and elsewhere to raise their profile in the market (increase the actual quality plus the perception of that quality by consumers, both essential to convince tea buyers pinching their pennies to spend a bit more). This is a counter of the large growers and processors who now dominate a lot of the tea market.

I drink both. Famous brands like Typhoo, PG Tips, Taylors of Harrogate, Lyon’s, and Barry’s are staples in my tea pantry. But also there are teas from a number of tea gardens in Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Yunnan, Anxi, Anhui, Japan, and other tea growing areas. The brands provide one type of tea experience that I appreciate very much: consistent taste and quality and a good basic cuppa to start the day (and often to enjoy later, too). The artisanal teas are the ones I turn to for that special experience, not just now and then, but often two or three times a day (I drink a lot of tea). They give me variety and mentally transport me to those tea gardens.

Whether these “artisanal teas” will succeed in raising up the fortunes of tea growers remains to be seen. I am hoping that through education of would-be tea drinkers that they will. Enjoy!

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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