What is Quality Tea?

For many, tea bags are considered to be low quality, and they are often avoided by tea drinkers who have discovered loose leaf tea.  For those of us who prefer loose leaf tea, there are plenty of valid reasons why they are our teas of choice.  They offer greater appreciation for the product consumed, better understanding of where it comes from, and appreciation of the sheer beauty of the loose leaf.  But what really makes loose leaf tea “high quality tea” and to whom?  There are many different views on quality tea that are worth exploring.  Ultimately, for the blender “quality tea” is more a discussion of appropriate fitness for the intended product.  For consumers it comes down to what you want from your tea experience and how adventurous you want to be (i.e. drink what you like).

Quality Tea Flavor

Star anise may be an ingredient in quality tea blends.

Star Anise by Flickr User Arria Belli CC BY SA 2.0

There are any number of flavors that can be ascribed to tea.  A single estate or blended tea may have malty, grassy, fruity, or other tastes associated with it.  In order to appeal to a broader set of customers, producers and sellers often reach for additional ingredients.  Candied fruits, herbs, spices, roots, dried berries and many other additions can create interesting teas.  Some of the ingredients complement the base tea, some overpower the flavor of the base tea, and still others have no tea at all and are simply herbals or tisanes.  When the standard fruits, nuts, berries, and other additions don’t quite provide enough flavor or aroma for the producer or blender they reach for natural and artificial flavors.  These additions provide extra concentrated flavor for which a little goes a long way.  For some consumers the measure of quality tea will be lack of additional “flavors”, for others it will be the size and quantity of additional ingredients, and for still others it will be the balance of flavors which allow the base tea flavor to come through.

Whole Leaf or Broken Leaf Tea

Fullness of the leaf or leaf size can be a measure of quality tea for some.  Tea leaf size ranging from extremely small particles, called dust and fannings, all the way up to full leaf (the likes of FOP, OP, TGFOP, etc).  While some tea drinkers prefer only whole or nearly whole leaf, the measure of quality tea along leaf size is really focused on two areas for producers; consistency in size and properties that come from a specific leaf size.

Quality tea blends won't separate into layers.

Tea, like liquids of different densities, will separate.

Consistency of leaf size is important due to surface area exposed to water.  Lack of consistent size of the leaf during the infusion process means flavor and color is extracted from the leaves at different rates.  While the infusion of smaller particles may be well past its prime, larger leaf may yet to fully infuse and release its flavor, anti-oxidants, and other properties.  With black tea, over-steeping the smaller particles is less of a problem.  However, with green tea, over-steeping leads to bitterness that many dislike.  So it’s important, especially with green teas, to have consistent leaf size.  Tea bags are primarily to satisfy convenience requirements, chief among them is fast brewing time.  Dust and fannings require only seconds to brew making the right size (small) a point of quality for tea bag manufacturers.

Specific leaf size is very important to blenders.  As one attempts to make a blend that works for consumers, the specific leaf size becomes important in relation to other ingredients.  Size and weight greatly impacts how the dry product settles in bags and tins.  Having the wrong leaf size for a given blend means that the ingredients settle out with heavier ingredients sinking to the bottom and lighter floating on the surface.  Think of the school science project with oil and water where the two separate out.  With tea, if the finished product separates into layers the flavor, ultimately, is not what is expected by the consumer and would dramatically change as different portions of the batch is consumed.

Single Estate and Authenticity in Quality Tea Production

There is a growing awareness and appreciation in the United States for unique, artisan tea production.  In particular, an increasing number of consumers are looking for a connoisseur experience when purchasing tea.  Single Estate Teas generally eliminates the blending and flavoring, providing the connoisseur the opportunity to experience and appreciate a single tea, from a very specific corner of the globe, and realize the differences between batches and production years.  Similarly, connoisseurs are often seeking authenticity in production.  Meaning they prefer an authentic Dragonwell or Bai Hao Silver needle vs attempts by producers in different provinces or even entirely different countries to sell knock-offs at artificially high prices.  In this case the measure of quality tea, for some consumers, comes from the amount of knowledge available about the producing estate or how closely the product tracks to established norms of production style and production region.

Less Subjective Quality Issues in Tea

While the other tea quality measures discussed thus far are really more in the eye of the beholder, there are certainly objective quality issues with tea from time to time.  Specifically, production and storage problems.  During production there are any number of issues that can impact the quality of tea.  For example, tea can be picked at the wrong pluck standard for a given style, it can be left out to wither too long (or not long enough), during firing it could be left with too much moisture causing mold and mildew problems.  On the other end of the spectrum, tea can be stored improperly causing off flavors.  Since tea is hygroscopic, it readily absorbs moisture from the air as well as odors.  Storing a tea open to the air, even for a few hours with something as strong as mint nearby, can easily ruin the taste and aroma of an otherwise great tea.

Quality Tea is Subjective:  Do You Want a Conventional, Adventurous, or Connoisseur Tea Experience?

Infused Bai Hao Silver Needle Leaf

Bai Hao Silver Needle Full Leaf

In the end, quality tea is very much situational and subjective.  Try to tell a producer of fannings and dust that it’s not a high quality tea product and a heated discussion will very likely ensue.  So trying to identify “quality tea” is really a misnomer.  Instead it’s far more important to identify what you want in your tea experience.  If you want something quick with a consistent taste and aren’t interested in the back-story then teabags will likely suffice.  Perhaps you want a conventional tea experience with a bit more variety and understanding about the tea you are consuming.  You may be a bit more adventurous and interested in getting to know more single origin teas or the individual teas that make up your favorite blends.  Or are you looking for the connoisseur experience; appreciating individual growing regions, estates, or specialty styles.  Each experience has its own marks of “quality” or the standards to which they are held and from our perspective it’s more important to explore the different nuances to different styles of tea than it is to adhere to somewhat arbitrary definitions of quality tea.

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