Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

A Quick Tea Tutorial

Occasionally someone will send me a tea for matching.  These three that came recently prodded me to write because two of them were clearly labeled as specific grades, and the yet the teas inside clearly were not up to standards indicated on the package.

Ming Dragonwell)”]

These 4 characters on a tea tin say Ming Chien Lungching (Before [Qing

As we are at the cusp of a new year, the first to consider (shown above) is a Dragonwell called Ming Chien. This term is a reference to the time before spring: “ming” is shorthand for Qing Ming,  a grave-sweeping holiday that comes each spring. “Chien” means before, so from this, we are informed that this Dragonwell (or any other Green) was made before the official start of spring.

One look at the leaves though and you immediately recognize the dissonance between the label and the contents.

Tea leaves from the above-labeled tin: note the very uneven, mixed leaves.

The Dragonwell leaves are uneven, with some broken and some coarse. The tea shown in the photo immediately above would not even qualify as a third grade Lungching.

True Ming Chien Dragonwell would show uniform spear-like leaves, and a mark of true quality can be found in the infused leaves; indeed, these will show budsets more than leaves.

Here is a genuine, early spring Dragonwell:

Even this 1st grade Dragonwell, which is one step below Special Grade (Ming Chien) shows far better leaf quality.

In the above case, the dry leaves gave ready clues to the quality.  For a finer and more exacting comparison, the infused leaves would show budsets in the higher grade, where the packaged (mis-)labeled Ming Chien tea would show the same uneven leaves.

Another Dragonwell was one that had been scented with osmanthus blossoms.

Osmanthus Dragonwell Green tea

I have written earlier that these tiny yellow flowers can make a tasty, softly sweet addition to some Green teas.  The character of Dragonwell, however, is so distinctive that adding any scenting seems to be gilding the lily.  Good quality Dragonwell is naturally sweet, with a pleasing nutty, mellow finish.  The fragrance of osmathus in this instance definitely detracted from the deservedly famous Lungching.

The third tea is a Jasmine, labeled as “Yin Hao.”  Yin Hao is customarily appended to Jasmine tea and denotes the top grade in a recognized hierarchy; there are grade 1 through 6, then Special grade above 1st grade, and moving up a couple of more tiers brings us to Yin Hao Jasmine.  Yin Hao means “silver sproutings,” and whitish tips are, or should be, fairly abundant in a true Yin Hao.

Here is the tea labeled, inaccurately, as Yin Hao Jasmine:

Here the English is shown alongside the Chinese tea name.

And here is an authentic Yin Hao Jasmine:

Yin Hao Jasmine should show silver tips. (This is NOT the tea shown in the tin above.)

But the Jasmine shown above in the tan colored canister, marked as Yin Hao, would barely make a 1st grade tea or even 2nd grade.  (See next photo below.)  More disappointing, given the labeling, was the taste of the tea itself.

This Jasmine was labeled as Yin Hao quality, but the leaves tell a different story.

The photo immediately above shows no silvery tips in the tea.  Not only that, the leaves are not uniform nor fine but very mixed.  Unfortunately of course, because the tea was packaged, there would have been no way for a consumer to gauge the quality inside the tin.

Lower grade Jasmine teas such as those that go to many Chinese restaurants can have a raw, green edge; the bouquet is not as soft or alluring as higher grade Jasmines.  In fact, when assessing low-cost Jasmine teas, the object is to find one with the least of this green, raw note.  And the tea in this small canister displayed this harsher, unfinished quality.  Top-notch Jasmines, including a proper Yin Hao, not only have fine uniform leaves showing buds, but the scenting has been done several times, creating a pleasing aroma.

Next in our tasting were four Taiwan teas, sent by a potential new supplier after a meeting at a tea fair held in Sichuan in December 2012.  The prospect of a possible new vendor always builds some excitement but the teas here proved disappointing.  The look was right, but there was little flavor in each of the three Oolongs.

Here are two Oolongs, one marked as a “gold” grade and the other as Alishan; no indication of the varietal was given.  My guess is that these were made from Qing Xing bushes.

A Taiwan Oolong, marked as "gold" grade.

Here is the “Alishan” Oolong:

An "Alishan" Oolong

These two teas teach us a different lesson from the “Yin Hao” Jasmine and “Ming Chien” Dragonwell described above.  The Jasmine and Dragonwell examples illustrate how much the dry leaves can tell us, IF we can see them before buying.  The two Taiwan Oolongs show teas where the dry leaves don’t reveal as much.  The leaves of the two Oolongs certainly had the right look: lightly oxidized, rolled, some stems — all acceptable and unremarkable.  The two Oolongs required tasting — more than just a visual appraisal of the leaves.

In the cup, the brew color was fine but held little flavor:

The Alishan Taiwan in the cup

The last sample was more interesting, for here was a tea labeled as Black tea but with leaves that shouted Oolong.

A Taiwan Black -- except for the darker color, note how the leaves resemble typical Oolong leaves.

And in the cup:

The Black tea from the Taiwan samples group.

In fact, had I tasted the tea without seeing the leaves, I might have guessed something close to a Silver Tip (Oriental Beauty) Oolong and not a Black tea. This is more intriguing and warrants some looking into.

The misleading labels are a serious disservice because most consumers have so little solid information about teas to begin with.  Many packaged tea labels tend to promote calming or healthful effects; accurate information about varietals and processing are harder to come by.  A consumer venturing into teas will recognize Lungching/Dragonwell, as s/he will be familiar with the position of the nebbiolo grape in the context of wine, so the presentation of the tea shown above as a Ming Chien Dragonwell may very well turn cut short any interest in exploring Green teas.

I am not as dismayed by the Taiwan teas; these came loose and all it takes for someone to decide whether to buy is to ask for a taste.  Teas in packages are different: you buy based on the information shown on the label, and even if you’ve learned to appreciate what the leaves can tell you about quality, by the time you recognize the lower grades in these two tins, it’s too late for any returns.  A costly lesson here.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung