Harvesting Loose-Leaf Tea By Machine VS. By Hand
The marketing trends of modern tea production in Taiwan have, for a number of reasons, resulted in a clear discrimination of the quality and value of tea that is harvested by machine compared with tea harvested by hand. These initial reasons have been conveyed to foreign purveyors of Taiwanese teas, who consequently represent the product as such today. Much less conveyed is the fact that tea production methods have evolved significantly in Taiwan in recent decades. This calls for a current assessment of the state of the industry today.
What is the difference in quality between hand-picked and machine-harvested tea?
The fundamental difference is the integrity of the new growth that is maintained by hand picking, and selecting by hand the leaves that are at the proper maturity for harvest. These two factors are compromised when a certain proportion of leaves are cut by clippers when machine-harvested, and both immature and over-mature growth are harvested. To the extent that the integrity of the leaves has been compromised by cuttings, the efficiency in uniform moisture depletion and oxidation of the leaves is challenged — particularly in the making of high quality Oolong Tea. This is much less of an issue in the making of both Green and Black Tea. When there are stems and leaves that are two large or too small, the overall batch cannot be processed evenly. This is the basic difference between these two harvesting methods (excluding all other factors, such as environment, farming practice, etc.
We've asked tea farmers and tea makers and professional tea judges this question for many years, and they all agree on the following statement: Assessment of quality and value of tea cannot be based on the harvesting method alone.
Farming, and even more so, the processing of tea, is a complex science. It starts with the soil the plants grow from, and continues with all the other contributing factors that comprise both the ongoing and seasonal growing conditions and farming methods. It then involves the harvesting method. Finally, the batch specific methods of processing the tea leaves are essential in determining the quality. All reputable tea makers will tell you that the most important factor is how skillfully and carefully the leaves are processed AFTER harvesting (apart from the quality of the raw produce that results from overall growing conditions).
Two questions to be asked about the quality of tea production
1. What exactly determines whether loose-leaf teas are harvested by machine or by hand in Taiwan?
2. To what extent do these harvesting methods affect the final product, and what are the variables within each method?
Five Factors That Determine The Answers
- Labor Force
- Quality Control
So let's look at each of these factors individually.
The population drain from rural areas in recent generations has heavily impacted the local labor force in the agriculture industry, and tea harvesting is one striking example. There used to be a community infrastructure, where all the families of tea farmers helped each other to harvest their crops. This cooperative, community-based labor force had its own quality control. Now, only a very small fraction of this labor force remains in certain areas, and it is mostly comprised of elderly local residents.
At high elevation plantations, where the volume and the value of the produce can absorb the cost, this has been remedied by hiring an outsourced labor force. At lower elevations where much smaller residential farms have much less volume, along with less market value, this is not a cost effective option. So more and more of the smaller residential farms who are committed to sustaining their livelihood as tea farmers have transitioned to harvesting their crops with a machine. This machine is a two-person hand-held hedge clipper with a canvas catchment bag. Now there is a one-person machine on the market as well. The photo below shows this year's spring crop being harvested at our source of Wenshan Baozhong Tea.
The most significant factor in favor of machine harvesting is the ability to control the timing of the harvest. Tea leaves are ideally harvested after the morning dew or prior evening rain has evaporated from their surface, and while their is still ample afternoon sunlight for optimal solar withering conditions. Harvesting by machine is very time-efficient, and allows the farmer to harvest at the ideal time of day.
In addition to this, there are none of the complications of scheduling a team of pickers weeks in advance to harvest a crop on a given day, only to have the harvest postponed due to rainy weather. In this case, not only that crop, but all of the subsequent crops that were scheduled to be harvested are delayed until weather permits. Since harvesting by hand is much slower, the harvest typically has to begin in the early morning and continue until mid-afternoon at least. This compromises quality to an extent, but much more significantly, if it is raining in the morning, the entire day's harvest is cancelled. Whereas with machine harvesting, if the sun comes out by 10 a.m., the 2-person team can go harvest a whole crop between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.! This is the most obvious plus of the machine harvesting method. Machine harvesting allows the crop to be harvested at the ideal stage of leaf growth — due to the time and labor-efficient harvesting method, as well as harvesting at the ideal time of day.
On large, higher elevation conventionally farmed tea plantations, the crop is normally producing at maximum yield per acreage. This allows for the payment to be based on quantity rather than time (daily wage). Teams of pickers are transported to a plot of tea and work as fast as they can to get the most profit for their time. In terms of cost, this is a win-win situation for both the farmers and the pickers.
On smaller farms, it's logistically much more difficult to schedule a small team of pickers to harvest a small plot of tea that provides less of a volume-based wage. Add to this the organically farmed, or even just more sustainably cultivated plots of tea that are not pumped with fertilizer to produce a higher yield, and the payment becomes a daily wage instead of by weight. This exacerbates the already high cost of harvesting tea by hand. So the smaller, lower elevation farms with a much lower value on their produce are left with the only cost effective option of machine harvesting their crop.
The video above shows spring tea being harvested at our source of Shan Lin Xi High Mountain Oolong Tea. The slope gradation is reasonable, and there are plots of tea cultivated on much steeper slopes at high elevations throughout central and northern Taiwan. However, we walked up this slope and it is not at all easy! The point being that most high elevation farms are not at all conducive to machine harvesting, due to the steepness of the landscape. For a majority of high mountain tea farms, it is not a feasible option.
Secondly, the climate at higher elevations in Taiwan unquestionably produces higher quality raw produce. This is the primary reason that there is more investment in producing the best quality tea possible. The cost of developing and maintaining remote high elevation farms is far greater than for lower residential farms, and the demand, hence the market value of high elevation tea is much higher. So harvesting by hand is basically built into the value chain of this produce. Not to mention that machine harvesting is virtually impossible in most cases!
Quality Control and Farm Management
This aspect of quality control is the most widely misunderstood part of assessing the quality of machine-harvested tea in Taiwan today. This misunderstanding is the aftermath of the role machine harvesting played in the Taiwanese tea industry more than 20 years ago. In the wake of the "High Mountain Tea Explosion" that happened in the 80's and 90's, the pre-existing low elevation tea producers (mainly in Songboling, Nantou County) transitioned into high volume, low quality tea production for the tea beverage industry (bottled drinks and tea bag tea). The flat, expansive plots of land at a sufficient elevation of 400m were ideal for this. This micro-industry was very successful, for a time. In the early 2000's this level of tea production moved to mainland China and southeast Asia where production costs were significantly lower.
We ourselves passed this area on our way to Lugu for almost 20 years before we started learning about and exploring it's most recent incarnation in tea production in the last decade! There now exists a significant contingent of smaller volume, low elevation tea farmers who are putting their previous generations of experience to use in producing the best quality tea they can with their inherited resources. Many of these farmers have transitioned to organic, but others are simply developing sustainable farm management methods to maximize the quality and value of their produce. This is the most exciting new evolution in the Taiwanese tea industry today!
The most notable improvement in farm management has been to improve the quality of produce by harvesting less frequently. At low elevation, it is possible to harvest six times a year. However, doing so stresses the health of the tea trees and results in less quality produce. Machine harvesting also causes the trees to sprout more branches in response to being trimmed. This creates a higher yield, but overly prolific leaf growth results in a thinner, less substantial leaf that makes lesser quality tea. So, supporting the health of the tea trees by just letting them be intermittently to grow naturally improves quality. After a season of "rest", the trees are trimmed in preparation for a new growing season, to allow the new growth to sprout more evenly on the top surface area of the bushes. This makes it more conducive to machine harvesting when the new leaves are all at a similar growth stage. The above photo of the spring Wenshan Baozhong crop represents a relatively even layer of new growth on the tops of the trees, which optimizes processing.
There are many more relevant aspects of farm management to be discussed, but for brevity sake, we'll have to make that a separate post!
- The general consensus in Taiwan and beyond is that harvesting by hand provides a difference in quality that warrants a value that is multiple times that of machine-harvested tea.
- The prominent determining factor of quality is not actually the harvesting method, but the elevation/climate and quality control/farm management factors.
- The quality control (and the overall sustainability) of hand-picking has been significantly compromised in the transition from a community based infrastructure to an outsourced labor force.
- Machine harvesting initially got a bad reputation, but has improved significantly, at least in many cases, in the last two decades.
It is our hope that this detailed analysis will assist both the producers and consumers of specialty loose leaf tea in their assessment of quality vs. value. We believe that this level of understanding and acknowledgment is necessary in sustaining the specialty tea industry in a realistic and practical way.
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We can see in the photo of the dried leaves above that they were hand-plucked while still very young and tender. This is evident not only by the size of the leaves, but also in the protective fur that is still on the whitish colored leaf buds. It is this stage of leaf growth, along with the heirloom cultivar of tea tree that give Bi Luo Chun its distinctive character among Green Teas — especially when it is from the first flush of spring tea buds!