Friends have often asked me, “which company sells the best Earl Grey, or black, or oolong tea?” The answer is, “whatever company sells the Earl Grey (or oolong, or black tea) blend that you happen to like best.” In choosing a particular tea, it is helpful to keep in mind that, like with wine, the characteristics that separate “the best” from “the good” teas, are largely subjective. Apart from basic quality and sanitation standards – and if you buy tea that is actually bad quality when it gets to you, the company should give you a refund — all teas available on the American market are “good” and will appeal to someone’s individual taste.
Certain companies specialize in unflavored teas from a single region or even a single estate or plantation, while others specialize in flavored blends that they create from other companies’ teas. You have to decide what sort of tea you would like, then sample a bunch to narrow your choices down. Most reputable tea vendors offer small samples of their teas for a few dollars each, and several have staff who can help you decide which samples to try.
In general, high quality teas share the same basic characteristics:
1. aroma that is fresh and strong, with no staleness or rancid smell
2. when dry, the leaves are intact and similar in size and shape to one another, with no appearance of mold or mildew (Keep in mind that some tea has a naturally “fuzzy” appearance due to the texture of the leaves. This is not mold!)
3. when infused, the liquor is clear and bright in color, with a fragrant, lively flavor and aroma, and it should have a pleasant aftertaste.
In contrast, low quality teas will have:
1. little to no aroma, or it will have a stale or rancid aroma
2. big and small tea leaves, and/or whole and broken tea leaves will all be jumbled together within the blend
3. mold or mildew will be apparent, either visually, or by its particular smell
4. when infused properly, the liquor will be bitter, watery, or have no aftertaste. (Keep in mind that some good-quality teas – especially delicate white teas – have a stronger aroma and a more delicate flavor, so don’t write off a tea as bad, just by the weakness or strength of its taste!)
International trade laws, and industry standards control the general cleanliness and uniformity of leaf size within each blend and type of tea, so unless you’re buying tea straight from Asia, Africa, or wherever it was grown, you are unlikely to experience a really inferior tea. What is much more likely, is that you will drink tea that has been improperly stored or, especially improperly prepared! Here is a glossary of terms, from the Nothing But Tea website, describing the basic vocabulary for black and oolong teas:
Black Tea – Any tea that has been thoroughly oxidized before being fired.
Character – When tasting teas, a desirable liquor quality that permits identification of country of origin and district within that country.
Clean – A term used to describe leaf free from fiber, dust and stalk, and which denotes an evenly sorted grade containing no other grades. May also apply to a liquor of a plain tea, which has no particular unpleasant taste qualities.
Infusion – Properly speaking the solid leaf that is left after decanting the liquor. The colour and form of the infusion can reveal much about the manufacturing conditions.
Java – Teas grown in the island of Java now known as Indonesia. They are almost entirely black teas.
Liquor – The liquid that results from infusing the leaves with hot water.
Nose – Tea tasters’ name for the aroma of tea.
Scented Tea – Flower aroma teas traditionally made in China and Taiwan by introducing jasmine, gardenia, lychee or yulan blossoms during the packing process.
Sumatra – Tea grown on the island of Sumatra.
Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.
Characteristics of a good quality oolong tea.
Characteristics of a good quality green tea.
Characteristics of a good quality white tea.
Glossary of Tea Terms from the Nothing But Tea website
“Tea Dictionary” from Bigelow Teas
“Tea tasting: a man’s art”, by Doug Spiers
“Dictionary of Tea Terms” from Upton Tea Imports
glossary from Imperial Tea Court website