How to Identify Quality Tea
How to Identify Quality Tea
Whether you’re new to tea or have been sipping for years, it’s important to be able to identify high-quality loose leaf tea. Simply relying on four of your senses will help you on your path to becoming a tea connoisseur. Here’s what to note each step of the way.
Sight: Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of tea processing: CTC (cut, tear, curl) and Orthodox. In the CTC method, tea leaves are sent through a machine that cuts, tears and curls them into small pellets. CTC processing is suitable for teabags and delivers a dark stong brew quickly, though sometimes at the expense of the more subtle aromas of tea. In the Orthodox (or “long leaf”) method, tea leaves are delicately handled to ensure minimal breakage. Orthodox-prepared teas are rolled, preserving the leaves’ aromatic compounds and retaining the tea’s complex flavors. Therefore, high-quality loose leaf tea leaves should look, well, like tea leaves. Avoid loose leaf tea that looks crumbly or appears to contain a lot of stalks and woody fragments, as it will be less flavorful and complex. As you steep the tea, the leaves should unfurl slowly.
Touch: In general, high-quality dried tea leaves should feel how they look: smooth, whole and sturdy. It should also have a slight heft in your hands; if your tea feels feather-light, it may be an indication that it was over-dried or is getting old. High-quality loose leaf should not crumble or disintegrate with gentle handling. Steeped tea leaves should feel slippery and smooth to the touch.
Smell: No matter what kind it is, high-quality tea will have a distinct aroma. If you inhale deeply and are getting only trace amounts of scent, this could be a sign that the tea is low quality or getting old and stale. Green tea should smell grassy, light and fresh, while black tea should smell earthy, floral and sweet. When steeped, excellent tea should be deeply aromatic and amplify the unique scents of the dry tea leaves.
Taste: Great tea will have a strong, recognizable taste and mouthfeel. Sip slowly, allowing the tea to roll over different parts of your tongue; you should be able notice different flavor notes and mouthfeels. The best-tasting green tea will feel and taste smooth, bright and refreshing; while black tea has a deeper, more intense taste. Regardless of what type of tea you’re sipping, excellent tea will activate different flavor sensations on your tongue as you drink. Flavors that are barely noticeable, overly astringent or unpleasantly chemical-tasting are an indication that you are drinking low-quality or old tea.
Next time you sample a new tea, be sure to run through these four senses: sight, touch, smell and taste. The more tea you’re able to try, the easier it will become to tell high-quality tea apart from lesser options. Interested in learning more about tea-making and preparation? Be sure to check our short documentary, Journey with a Tea Master.