Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Plain Teabags, Fancy Teabags

In mid-November the N. American Tea Championship event was focused on Single Serve Teas, so the entries ranged from single and double-chamber teabags, round teabags, instant teas in small packets,  to loose-leaf sachets.  (All identifying tags had been removed prior to brewing.)

Asked later to summarize, here are a few observations:

1.  It may come as a surprise to many consumers that the ordinary and familiar teabag (i.e., filled with fannings) may actually fare better in a competition like this than teabags filled with loose leaf tea.  Most tea drinkers are probably predisposed  to dismiss the lowly teabag in favor of sachets, etc. that come in fancier packaging.  However, as this Single Serve competition illustrated, such a generalization is too simple. There were instances where the traditional teabag yielded flavor that surpassed that the loose-leaf teabag.  Just as there are indeed low quality fannings, there are also loose leaf teas that are not necessarily better just by dint of being in leaf form.
We could see which type of bag was submitted (identifying tags of course had been removed), but I think I speak for all of us in saying that this did not exert much influence or predispose us in any way.  Our scoring was based on brew color, aroma, and flavor; in this competition, leaf appearance was not a factor.  So, kudos to those entrants whose “lowly” teabags rose to the top.
A few days before, I had just received a traditional teabag sample of a lightly oxidized Ti Kuan Yin.  Had I not know the cup was brewed from a teabag, I could have readily accepted the brew as coming from loose leaf tea.  The cup color was bright and golden, with the familiar, friendly, floral flavor that makes this green Oolong so popular.  Being only lightly oxidized, such a tea will not keep as well as its more roasted/fired counterpart, so a foil envelope would be called for.  A nice find and one to develop for our packaged tea line.
2. As I’ve stated before, it is surprising to find that an entrant would err in the category for which a tea is submitted.. After scoring, this of course sparks lively discussion as to what the intent of the entrant might have been; how are we to interpret the submission, as a simple oversight? Or does it reflect insufficient knowledge about their own product, which would presumably make them ill-prepared to guide their customers…?
The specifics here (a tea submitted under one type of green category but which was later revealed by its package name/label as belong in another category) are less significant than the fact of the occurrence, and it happens more often than one would expect, since this is a trade event.  (Another example: ingredients added to enhance a tea, which has its own category, but entered in a group that excludes such additions.)  All this underlines the need for continued education: if we know how a tea was processed, we have some expectation of why it tastes the way it does.  The minimalist processing of green teas, when properly understood and appreciated, will prepare us for what we taste and not lead us to expect showy, florid flavors.
In cupping sessions the issue of quality vs. preference is a constant, but as specialists in the trade, it is our obligation to broaden product knowledge so consumers have the guidelines to judge quality for themselves, not just based on how the tea is marketed or packaged.
3. There was only one tea submitted for the unblended/unflavored Puer category, and the company who entered this was informed about this and welcomed any comments from a tasting.  This was a traditional teabag (filled with fannings) and the cup was full and rich tasting, with the deep dark color characteristic of Puer.
In a related but separate category, flavored Puers, however, we found very light cups.  The flavors added to complement Puer were interesting, but the light orange brews caught our attention.  From looking at the infusions in the glass mugs, we might have never guessed that they were some form of Puer.
4. By far, the largest number of teas entered was for the flavored Black tea category; I think there were 24 teas.  My impression is that the flavored category always had more entries than the unblended/unflavored one.  This sums up what people seem to prefer when they drink tea.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung