Tea quality judgment described in way it is applied in local Kunming tea markets. Highlighted mistakes of some vendors promoting Chinese tea quality and explanation of differences.
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Loose tea leaf quality
As you probably read in most of the articles dedicated to this topic , there is a way how to partially determine quality and grade of tea judging by the appearance. We highlighted the partially term because it’s not a 100% reliable method and doesn’t apply to the all teas ( explained further down ) .
1.Uniformity of the tea leafs
is the first thing which you would be advised to look at by most of the tea vendors and experienced tea drinkers. It is right way to start but unfortunately it does not apply to all tea and tea processing. It is very good lead for most of “tai di cha” ( bush / tableland teas ) like green, yellow, white, black, oolong and some pu-erh teas , but it could be misleading with older or big arbor tea tree material where uniformity can not be guaranteed and infact it would be more than likely suspicious ( means you were offered tai di cha instead of qiaou mu – arbor ). Tai Di Cha is harvested in ration 1bud ( tip ) , bud-1 or 2 leafs mostly but Qiao Mu ( arbor ) is harvested 1bud – 2 or 3 leafs where the size between 1st leaf ( the closest to the bud ) might be very different from the 3rd one ( significantly bigger ) and yes, they tend to break the most.
Yes, there is a still some uniformity even withing the arbor tree “mao cha” ( loose leaf – middle img.) but it is harder to read it since a presence of stems and broken big leafs is very common and sizes of leafs differ ( right image ).
2.Appearance of the tea leaf
There is not much you can read from the shape of the leaf in sense of the quality and taste of the tea, however full size leafs are ranked above the broken ones and proper shaping is also important in teas like oolong for example. Shaping and pressing is also important and we discuss that further down in this article.
What could be noticeable though , is “Yu Shui Cha” – rain water tea – which is the leaf harvested during the rainy season ( summer ) . Overall character of the tea leafs is that thy are sort of bloated / big , with thick stems ( as they’ve absorbed lots of water ) . This is not faulty but also not a high grade of the tea. Imagine that as a human muscle of athlete taking some proteins to gain the body mass. Good example would be supplement called Creatine which helps to grow the size thanks to water intake and storage but doesn’t increase performance ( So the size is not equivalent to strength ). Same is with those tea leafs, they are big , but not much “juice” in it. Some stage you can taste a water aside of the tea taste , like washing the hands under the two taps simultaneously running hot and cold water.
The best visual effect on those leafs is on the stem and it’s getting more obvious after brewing rather than in dry estate. When you look at it closely you will see the cracks on surface reminding a skin with cellulitis. Originally bloated / soaked tea leafs lost their large amount water very quickly during kill green processing therefore the outer skin couldn’t shrink evenly. Same as with human skin loosing the fat quickly.
3.Ratio of Tips ( buds ) , Stems and old tea leafs
Another factor which could be visible from the first look. Chinese tea leaf grading in markets is done usually by those 3 elements and their presence ratio.
Tea tips ( buds ) , the young undeveloped leafs growing on the top of the stem are considered as the best and the most valuable part of the tea so consequently the amount being present influences the price of mao cha. High ratio of buds is very common in bush tea production and as in Yunnan those mostly come from “Yun Keng Shi hao” type of bush which is richer on tea tips than other types. The actual value of those type of teas ( rich in tips ) is a very personal taste and brewing preference.
The old abror tea tree can not provide as many tips as bush tea so the higher ratio of those could reveal the tableland or small arbor tea material being in present ( mixed ) in mao cha . More in Fake Tea article.
Stems are generally considered as not welcomed part of the tea plant in mao cha and ratio of those is another element of grade, unless we talk about exceptions like some of the Liu An Hei Cha which could consist quite a lot of stems.
Why tea like this and why price is higher ? Well, try to select out stems from some lower grade ( with many stems ) and brew them separately. You will get an answer for 2 questions right-away. Stems it self are actually sweet ( just not releasing much ) and it’s a bit a work to select them out.
You can expect more and longer stems in old arbor tea tree mao cha and it’s still considered as a good grade , but getting those in bush tea material is a sign of bad plucking or missing selection part.
Liu An Hei Cha with lots of stems and “ma ti” ( horse hoof ) .
Ma Ti means in translation – horse hoof – and it’s a conical wooden bit at the end ( beginning ) of the stem relieving that the leafs are coming from the arbor tree. The taste of this bit is quite bitter, rather than sweet as the stem it self so high ratio of it being in present in mao cha is also not welcomed but it’s a sign of the origin of the tea leafs ( means the tea comes from arbor tea tree and not the bush ). Yes, it is the one of the elements which could help you to determine if tea is the arbor – Qiao Mu cha or bush – Tai Di Cha , but in some cases it has been also misleading, since some vendors mixing them in for that particular reason.
Huang Pian means in translation – yellow leafs – and stands for old overgrowth leafs. Those leafs are being selected out mostly in spring harvest from arbor tea trees and presence of those in mao cha also influence the grade . The leafs it self have sweet-honey notes and due to it’s characteristic also obtain some smokey notes during the processing because heat “kill green” roast them much faster than younger green leafs. Huang pian also don’t give much so need to be brewed in bigger amounts or longer infusions where also tend to turn bit bitter. Sad that , those leafs are as a daily drinker for tea farmers and brewed / boiled in big teapots which are on the table all day.
It’s very common to keep ( not select out ) “huang pian” from the autumn tea in order to keep some sweet body of already weaker tea ( compare to spring one ), or even sold separately in pressed or loose form.
Cha Guo means in translation – the fruit of the tea tree and could be found in autumn teas. There is no any harm if it’s there and it doesn’t influence the tea taste ( it doesn’t release pretty much anything when in hot water unless it’s crushed ). It is generally used for production of tea tree oil or like a seed for tea planting. Those are selected from the mao cha and big amount shouldn’t be present in higher grade of tea.
Cha Hua means the tea flower and can show up in your summer or autumn tea. Same as “cha guo” , you are not going to get much out of it and it’s usually selected out. Flowers also can be just dried and sold in loose or in pressed form.
The tea flower which can be found in pu-erh or black tea looks bit different ( since it has gone trough some processing ) than the pressed one on the picture . We will update the image of once we come across of it again.
Rubbish can be found in tea as well , especially in older pressed pu-erh tea from years around 2007. From sunflower seed shell , pieces of other plants to small rocks , pieces of glass or even old man’s tooth. Yep , that how harsh it can get with pressed pu-erh teas. Although that’s all unwanted rubbish lowering the tea grade ( although not a taste ) , in older teas it’s not causing devaluation / decreasing much price since the value is appreciated due to the different factors.
Quality of Processing
This is the part which is very difficult explain by writing since it has require tasting and comparing. It’s also hard visible form the images and also requires sometimes to touch brewed tea leafs ( shu pu-erh ) , smell dry leafs from heated gaiwan and of course taste the tea trough the few infusions. However some elements can be spotted.
Heat processing is the step common for most of the fresh tea leafs and faulty can occur with wrong temperature , wrong timing or both. With high temp. on tea leafs it will appear more than likely in burned estate. That usually can happen with hand processed teas same as the red ages of the tea leafs ( which is one of the possible elements to how determine hand made tea ) but too many burned leafs or too much red on leafs is not good. Low temp. or short time problem we came across in our tea trip to Fengqing ( full article here ) where many tea processing companies in order to preserve some characteristic of the tea go very light in those steps which causes the fresh leaf fermentation odor / notes being present and after heat processing come out as boiling raw potato scent ( tolerance to this scent / flavor is very individual, but since we experienced the smell of fresh leafs fermentation, we try to avoid those type of teas ) .
Fermentation processing faulty might be visible on tea leafs as a green spots ( not the picture above! that’s sheng puerh ) . These are the parts of the tea leaf which haven’t gone trough this processing. Uneven fermentation is tolerated mostly with medium or light fermented pu-erh teas.
Right fermentation is not going to change low grade mao cha to higher grade but can make the tea price much higher than if it’s sold in “green” not fermented form ( and not only because additional work / value has been done ) .
The point of writing that is to highlight the fact that the taste in many occasions is what counts more than grade so in fermented / oxidized teas ( shu puerh and black teas , dark teas – hei cha..etc ) the processing is very crucial. In many cases more important then tea leaf it self , which “eliminates” all grading / judging quality elements mentioned above. You can have nice uniformed tea leafs full of buds and no stems but wrong processing which turns the tea to non drinkable pile of grass. Would you still consider it as a high quality tea?
The scent intensity of tea leaf
Probably the biggest mistake of tea drinkers and many tea vendors is the judging the tea quality by smelling the dry tea leafs. You are not going to smell much from 10g of dry tea leafs in your hand or in small sample zip bag. Different case would be sticking the head into the 10kg bag.
Yes , most of the green teas , oolongs , “gao xiang” made black teas or flavored teas have very distinctive scent , but that doesn’t mean that other ones are low quality.
The best way how to smell the dry tea leafs is to put them into the hot gaiwan, close the lid , shake it , then slightly shift the lid and smell it trough the gap.
Smelling small amount of dry tea leafs can be used in shu pu-erhs where “dui wei” odor can reveal bad processing or young age of the tea.
Shaping & pressing tea quality
Machine or hand rolled processing also have an impact on final product ( hand are more gentle to the tea leaf ) . Machine rolled are usually pressed tighter so the leafs behave ( releases ) bit different way ( usually slower ) and changing overall drinking session. Some people say even the taste of the tea.
Hand rolled / pressed tea is ranked higher not only for additional work done by human ( therefore higher expenses ) , but also because usually the better tea leafs / higher grade mao cha is used for pressing. Machine pressed “Long Zhu” have usually obvious rim around caused by pressing 2 parts together.
How to read Puerh Tea Cake?
Apart of the traditional way of reading the wrapper , which in some cases , only Shu or Sheng information might be true 😉 ( Fake Tea Article ) there are other options how to “Read Puerh Cake”. From smell of the dry leafs you can already distinguish the storage between Kunming and Guangzhou for example ( wet wood, laundry room ..etc. ) . Also smokey notes might reveal the way of processing ( like traditional Lincang production ) .
The actual visual appearance of the pressed tea can not only reveal the grade but you can also estimate the taste ( yet few conditions are bounded with that ability ) .
You can spot right away yellow tea leafs “huang pian” , which doesn’t have to ruin the tea taste ( in fact in many cases makes tea sweeter ) , but in higher grades those are being picked out from mao cha before pressing.
Broken tea leafs ( like those from the bottom of the box ) being pressed in mixture with large leafs. It is usually done inside or at the back of the cake. Many puerh cakes made back in 2007 during “puerh fever ” will have few different grades pressed and might be visible even from the front, because that time nobody even bothered to conceal it. It was just the quality of mao cha in general , made cheap – sell expensive.
Tips are very obvious and considered as the top material from the tea tree , yet ( as we mentioned already ) the old arbor trees can not provide too many , so the ratio ( tips : leafs ) is significantly different from the small arbors or bush tea. The presented cake ( 3rd image ) is being sold as Lao Ban Zhang Gu Shu 500 y old tree for relatively cheap price to what is claimed to be. If you see the density of the tips ( sometimes it could be pressed like that only from the front ) , the tea would have much higher price.
I didn’t bother to mark the stems , which are obvious even for beginner , since they are not different from regular leaf stem. The ratio of those ( too many not good ) also can tell about the grade of the mao cha peing pressed.
Estimate taste can be achieved if you are familiar with mentioned parts of the tea tree in taste as individual. For example , some huang pian might be very honey sweet, some might be too smokey. Stems can be bitter ( although those don’t brew out much “juice” )
Tea grade & tea quality
There is a reason to distinguish between those two aspects which together influence the value of the tea and consequently the price.
The grade , as already mentioned above , is usually defined by overall material appearance ( harvested tea leaf ). Quality is mostly determined by processing (of course if tea leafs have some issues , even the best processing might not be able to raise the overall quality of the final product ).
The value and price comes after , is very individual aspect also based on personal preference. Simple example : Shu Pu-erh Gong Ting which is made mostly of the small top tea leafs and tips is the very high grade the shu pu-erh. Jin Ya shu puerh , made only from tips is the highest grade in it’s group. The high price of those comes from work ( longer time and more tea bushes needs to be harvested in order to make 1 kg of such a tea ). The taste of such a product is the matter of personal preference of course but measurable is the brewing sustainability.
Those who are familiar with Gongting puerh know that it doesn’t last many infusions ( although those few are thick and rich in flavor ) , therefore you might consider what is actually worth your money.
Other issue is that many beginning tea drinkers confuse the quality with type of the tree. Thinking that Gu Shu tea is the high quality and Tai Di Cha ( bush tea ) is the low quality. Experienced tea drinkers will know that for example some spring harvest from high altitude plantations might be much better ( not using the term “quality ” to compare ) than some arbor tea trees growing in less tea friendly areas. Let alone if compare with some “huang pian” or other grade. In order to compare quality you need to compare identical grade , type and harvest season , sometimes even location. There are always differences between qualities and grades within subcategories.
The tea quality as a final product ( just a theory )
Example: Good quality fresh tea leafs processed well and sold for some price. If you take exactly the same tea and crush the leafs, then you lower the price. Have you lowered the quality or grade ? The broken leafs will brew faster but will not hold many infusions , yet you need much smaller amount of it in gaiwan in order to achieve same results as with full leaf.
The lower price doesn’t come with the actual tea liqour taste differences but the fact that broken leafs are not suitable for longer storage since they drying out faster.
If using adequate amounts and steeping times of those two examples , you hardly will spot the difference in actual taste. The problem is , that there is no formula to give you exact coefficients for getting it right , so please take this as a theory. More than welcome to share your thoughts.
In fact, every year we giving away the “tea dust” ( small bits and pieces of tea ) from the bottom of the box for free to our friends and receiving very positive feedback on those. Some tea , like autumn harvest , is much better to crush slightly in order to get faster and richer tea soup ( yet the light infusion as with full leafs also can be achieved , as mentioned above ) .
The whole point of writing this above , is to highlight that choosing the right tea for you , is better to focus more on personal taste preference, drinking & brewing habits , rather than on notoriously promoted quality and grades aspects, which have been commercially abused for so many years.
At the end of the day , the overall enjoyment of drinking tea matters and the level of it is not directly related to the grade of tea. Take it as an example rich & poor people , the happiness doesn’t come with luxury ( higher grade ). There is a common misconception of that higher grade is better , tastes better.
As an example I know some puerh drinkers who love shu puerh which we would consider as very bad fermentation , yet they munching on it. Having a good time with friends during the tea session and spent very little money since the price of such a product is not high.
Of course, there are some arguments about to the health issues , especially with badly processed tea ( bad bacteria ) or bush tea ( pesticides issues ). Unless we have a solid , lab proved facts on certain products , we do no feel to comment it further.
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