Many of the traditional tea processes are now fully or at least partially automated.
Both consumer demand and productivity efficiencies drive the move towards more automated production methods.
Whilst many tea factories operate automatic production methods in part or in full, such as kill green, withering and rolling, our brewing methods remain somewhat resistant to automation.
Tea processing is one of the major energy intensive food processing industries, from growing to plucking, all the way up to the cup. It makes sense therefore to make it less energy intensive and less reliant on inefficient processing.
Despite some resistance to automation, within the tea production industry many of the well known factories have been undertaking it for years without loss of quality or value of the final product.
It therefore makes me question why as tea drinkers should we resist automation within the tea consumption experience?
There are many reasons why tea consumers/drinkers may resist any form of automation, including the way it may remove the social ritual of tea or even reduce the tangible physical contact with the tea medicine and it processes.
Tea brewing stations or vending machines have been around for a number of years and have been designed to brew tea for commercial establishments such as restaurants and fast food outlets. Often the tea is pre-packaged or capsuled into single servings and designed to give a standard brew based on pre-programmed parameters.
In Japan and South Korea vending machines dispensing teas are very popular but often don’t involve any brewing process, rather reheating pre-brewed and pre-bottled tea. I shudder to think of the health implications of these in regard to concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine!!
Attempts to bring something similar into our home experience has been successful with coffee but remains less so with Tea. MarshalN’s blog post upon K-cups remains an interesting reflection, especially so in regard to cost and outcomes.
Less sophisticated attempts to automate our tea sessions include machines that brew raw leaf material based on pre-programmed parameters.
There are many of these type of machines around, often built more around aesthetics that process and technically they are not that more complex than the Teasmade my Dad had in the 1970s.
The Teasmade is essentially a machine for making tea automatically and generally includes an analogue alarm clock and designed to be used at the bedside enabling tea to be ready first thing in the morning or at a set time.
It includes a receptacle for boiling water that is pre-filled (AKA a kettle!!) and a receptacle pre-filled with tea for brewing (AKA a teapot!!)
Not dissimilar are contemporary automated tea stations for the home;
The above picture illustrating the Teaforia, which includes a water tank and heating element (AKA kettle), a brewing container (AKA teapot) and a serving receptacle (AKA cha hai).
There is something to be said in having all your significant artifacts for tea brewing contained in one place (i.e. kettle, teapot and cha hai) but does it really enhance or automate the process?
There is something unique in pressing a button, and seeing lights flashing with very other little involvement other than enjoying the end product. It is somewhat clean and clinical and itself imposes a design ethic that removes “fuss”/”mess”/”unevenesss” that perhaps our contemporary busy and stressful lives demands.
Indeed the design of the automatic tea machines often incorporate smooth and neat lines, minimal and reductionist geometrical symmetry whilst boasting modern technological advances.
Aesthetic appeal resemble something out of a futuristic clean, clinical and zen like science fiction future devoid of wabi-sabi.
This makes me think that the aesthetics have to replace something lost in the automation.
Automatic brewing systems also tend to add additional value in their design that I feel somewhat is to disguise their simplicity and replace the value lost from old school brewing methods. these include wifi integration to your smart phone or special scan codes/labels that adjust your device according to the tea you are brewing.
Interestingly such automatic tea brewing devices still use terms such as “ritual” to brand market themselves, suggesting that the key point in any tea consumption is not the process but the ritual. To have to add this in through brand marketing , suggests it ws never really there in the device in the first place.
Experiment: Machine vs Man
I though I would test my opinion by conducting a not so scientific but comment-able experiment.
I here compare my own gaiwan techniques to a machine.
As there is to some degree of bias inherent in using myself as experimenter and commentator I will not disclose the make or name of the machine used.
I however do disclose the following parameters to compare:
Tea type: Shu Puerh
Manufacturer: Chung Pu Nong Jia
Age/Production: 2014 Tributary Cake
Tea weight: 4.5g
I used rinse or refresh function on the machine to get the initial wash, discarding the water to keep it as close to the gaiwan as possible. In the gaiwan I did two washes.
The automatic brew is shown above and on the left of the picture.
The automatic brew was darker and more cloudier, with the gaiwan clearer and brighter.
This was also reflected in the taste in that the gaiwan brew was brighter and bolder in flavour and had more life to it than the automatic brew.
The automatic brew probably got to temperature but didn’t retain it as well or in the same way as a ceramic gaiwan, which may explain for it lacking clarity and life. The gaiwan technique was judged by feeling and connection to the brew rather than mechanical timed parameters giving it something extra that cannot be so easily defined or programmed into a machines parameters.
I also feel that perhaps in gaiwan technique there was more mixing of air and oxygen into the pour which gives it more life in the cup and agitates chemicals such as saponins. This does not occur as much in the automatic brew, leaving the brew flatter.
Its also arguable that there is more disruption of water structure in the automated machine that doesn’t occur in manual brewing.
Without pulling the machine a part, I understand that most work by passing water through or over a heated element, water tends to heat as it is pushed through. This is different than water heated and circulated by convection currents in a kettle then poured into a brewing vessel. Again this may subtly change the water structure.
Reassuringly, I don’t think automation will ever be the death of us. I don’t believe any machine will be able to modify or modulate brewing technique, time and other parameters to supersede the human senses, eyes and hands. We could talk about AI and #machinelearning but all enjoyment of the interaction between human, ceramic, water and leaf is removed.
Practically speaking I can take my gaiwan anywhere I go, even on long journeys. I can take it into the city or into the woods, somewhere machines can’t go. With this comes the experience of tea which is wider than drinking a cup of fluid. With this comes a bigger medicine.
I challenge any machine to replace this, to deliver something the human soul requires through the ritual of tea. I also challenge any machine to be able to match even the poorest of tea brewing skills of a human and still deliver that rich experience when manual techniques are enrobed with human spirit.
Maybe this is me throwing a gauntlet down to tea machine manufacturers, maybe its a comment or even a warning about our future pathways in tea culture. But I’d rather like it to be a call out to encourage the physical and social contact with tea that you can only be rewarded through manual brewing techniques.