Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

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After twenty plus years of working in specialty teas, the subject continues to fascinate.  It is especially gratifying to see the burgeoning interest in this beverage in this country.

A little knowledge about tea processing can go a long way in informing a tea drinker about evaluating the tea in the cup set before him or her.  To me, part of a pleasure of fine tea is visual: the leaves, in their dry and wet forms, and how they got that way.  With ever wider sampling and just really looking closely at the leaves, one can develop a frame of reference that will enhance the enjoyment of that cup, whether it’s milk tea taken as a quick pick-me-up or a grand Single Trunk Oolong after dinner that invites lingering.  Once attuned to certain features in processing, it’s easier to assess leaf quality or color or to arrive at that aha moment when you detect certain notes in a tea as you’ve seen or heard it described.

In sharing some of my thoughts and what I’ve learned about teas, foremost in my viewpoint is that this is an educational process that is enjoyable.  Whether the tea before us is an everyday cup or one costing over $100/lb (with good reason), learning about it engages and sharpens not only our memory and sense of taste and smell, but heightens our visual acuity.  Not only do we learn to drink better teas but the overall experience is improved by paying a bit of attention to the leaves.

There are many packaged and loose teas out there.  Some of the teas I describe may not be easy to find or may be costlier than most; in including these I mean for their attributes and qualities to be a guide along the way.  The key is to identify good value teas.

Mall rents and fancy decor may inflate one shop’s tea prices with no guarantee that those teas are superior.  It’s a no-brainer to select a Superfine Dragonwell over others if the choices are there, but I would question whether the leaf quality and taste really warrant paying extra when a first, second or even third grade Dragonwell is available.

One may not be able to find a Rock Oolong at a neighborhood tea retailer, but some knowledge about Oolong processing will help that tea buyer evaluate other Oolong teas on offer.  If one understands the processing difference between a lightly oxidized Oolong and a more heavily fired one, that consumer should be able to recognize one from the other at s/he stands before a shelf of teas and will also be able to predict with some accuracy the flavor profile of each.

I will highlight certain Green teas, but if those cannot be easily found, perhaps from reading between the lines you will stay away from lower grades of Gunpowder and Chunmee teas, if what you are looking for in a Green tea is something clean, refreshing, and with a hint of sweetness.  On the other hand, if you prefer your Green tea robust and smoky, the deep orange-tan color that Gunpowder and Chunmee brew up shouldn’t surprise you unduly.  If you have been accustomed to drinking flavored Green teas because “straight” Green teas don’t taste very good, perhaps it’s time to give the latter another chance by broadening your choices.

Not many tea shops offer a Hao Ya grade in Keemuns, and it’s fine for those who truly care about getting the tippiest quality.  There are other more affordable Keemuns that offer its distinctive Keemun aroma and sweet finish; yet you also don’t want to buy a generic tea labeled Keemun (lower leaves on the bush, but still from the Keemun region) only to find hardly any of the attributes that define the tea as a Keemun.

Few retailers announce the grades of the teas they carry; those who offer many teas on their menus may include more than one grade of certain popular teas, such as Darjeelings, Keemuns, or Ti Kuan Yin Oolongs, and the escalating prices will suffice in this regard.  So how is one to judge quality, especially relative to value, if there is only one of a particular type of tea?  A tea such as Jasmine Pearls comes in a big range of prices; what do you get if you pay more? Is it worth the premium?

Compared to what was available in the way of specialty teas twenty-five years ago, the array displayed on supermarket shelves today (not just in specialty food or coffee and tea shops) is astonishing.  White tea, of all things, is available in bottles, in teabags, in boxes and tins, and moreover, there are many brands from which to choose.  But before grabbing that spiffy bottle with the bright red raspberry on the label, pause to consider if you are really after the tea or just happen to enjoy that fruit flavor and relish the idea of drinking tea.

Products such as a bottle of raspberry White or several ounces of Mandarin Orange White tea have obviously drawn many people to tea.  But there are many unsung, little known, and superb teas to be explored without the need to spend a fortune, and continuing to sample and taste will not only sharpen your tea acumen and palate, but makes for a delicious experience.

I’ve found that the tea journey is one that brings humility, and I hope that in sharing this learning path, I will ignite just a spark of curiosity about the vast array of teas worth sampling, about how they end up tasting as they do, and how one plant is transformed – naturally, by the exposure to air or not, to heat and by some rolling – into so many wonderful yet different looking products.

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