Choosing Quality Tea
How do we (and you) know if a tea is a good tea? Simply put, any tea you enjoy drinking is a good tea. That being said, there are some universal indicators of quality that will help you understand more about how we choose our teas, and what you should be looking for in your own tea purchases. Good tea should be:
- Packed in opaque and airtight packaging (sunlight and moisture damage tea)
- Have a pleasant aroma (mustiness is a sign of storage issues - steer clear!)
- Not contain any other plant material (this is for buying pure teas. To read about the difference between flavored teas and pure teas, including scented teas, click here)
If you know a bit more about tea (or are willing to do the research) then you should also be able to distinguish whether the tea:
- Conforms to the appropriate picking standard (what picking standards are is explained further down)
- Is picked at the optimal time for the qualities you are looking for (picking time is also explained further down)
Growth Rate & Quality
In the world of specialty tea, the higher the altitude the better the tea. This is because there is an inverse relationship between speed of growth and the taste and fragrance of tea. Cooler conditions up in the mountains, where sunlight has to pierce through cloud and fog to reach the plants, slows down growth. This slower growth concentrates antioxidants and flavor in the leaves, making for a more delicous and nourishing cup. Tea grown for quantity over quality is usually fertilized with nitrogen and harvested multiple times a year. This means commericial tea plants rush out new leaves, increasing yield, but decreasing the presence of the compounds responsible for aroma, taste, and health benefits. Shading tea plants for a few weeks before harvest to increase desirable compounds is actually a method for producing premium Japanese green teas such as gyokuro (10-30% sunlight penetration) and kabuse (50% sunlight penetration).
Misty tea farm in Anxi, China
Color & Taste
Humans are visual creatures and as result we strongly associate color with taste. In one infamous 1980s study, respondents were blindfolded and asked to tell whether what they were drinking was flavored orange - only one in five could. The respondents were then allowed to see the drink (which was colored orange) and all of them identified the orange flavor. Conversely, when a lime-flavored drink was colored orange, nearly half the respondents thought they could taste orange - but none did when the drink was colored green.
Companies use color associations to their advantage, by emphasising what they want us to taste (or not taste) by adjusting the color of their products. Darker teas are perceived as having a stronger flavor, despite the compounds that produce flavor being colorless. The same goes for an association between color and caffeine, with darker teas thought to have more caffeine than lighter teas, even though caffeine is also colorless. Sometimes color can indicate quality - for example, bright green matcha is usually superior to more yellow or dull versions, but it pays to be aware that color isn't everything, especially when it comes to the color of loose leaf brews.
Picking standards refer to what part of the tea plant gets plucked. Generally speaking, the younger the leaf, the more refined the taste, with larger, older leaves further down the stem containing less of the desirable compounds mentioned above. Examples of picking standards include buds only, buds + 1 leaf (the leaf closest to the bud), buds + 2 leaves, and so on, as shown below:
For some types of tea, the picking standard is a hallmark of the tea. A good example is Silver Needle, a precious white tea made from pure buds. The name itself refers to the narrow shape of the tea buds which are covered with silvery white hair. White Peony, another kind of white tea, is made using the Bud + 2 leaves picking standard. For any tea that is distinguished by a particular picking standard, you should expect to be able to see the standard in the loose leaves. A White Peony (also sold by its Chinese name, Bai Mu Dan) that is crushed so that the leaves are indistinguishable from one another is not a premium tea. Picking standards are only relevant for tea that has been hand-picked and sold as loose leaf tea, rather than machine-harvested tea or compressed tea.
That being said, a good tea doesn't have to be specially groomed. Some tea vendors pay for workers to groom their teas by picking out stems and other 'ugly' parts of the tea - a practice that significantly raises the price due to additional labor costs and wastage (the stems are thrown out). This is unnecessary as it does not improve the taste oof the tea. In fact, kukicha, a Japanese tea made only from tea stems, is known for its pleasant, naturally sweet taste.
Different types of tea can be harvested at different times of the year, although most teas are harvested at least once per year in Spring, when the plants are experiencing new growth and the leaves are at their best. If tea is harvested more than once per year, these harvests are known as 'flushes'. First flush, or the earliest picking of the season, is usually the most prized. Some exceptions apply to Darjeeling tea, where both the first and second flushes can be equally prized, depending on what characteristics the drinker is looking for. For example, first flush Darjeeling tea is supposed to be more lively and floral, while second flushes are characterized by a fruity, muscatel taste.