In regards to determining which teas are good quality, some people have asked me, What should tea look like? Why should we care what tea looks like, as long as it tastes good? Well, it matters because the quality of the tea must be determined before a person can be sure of having a tea that will taste good, and the appearance of the tea itself is critical to this quality determination process. According to experts at the Tea Research and Extension station in Yangmei Taiwan, “As a matter of fact, it is a good quality tea, as long as it looks good.”
Silas, from the Barismo blog, puts it this way: “When judging a tea by leaf appearance, one must look for several things. In the dry leaf, consistency, degree of oxidation, and roast or firing is evident. Also the skill with which the tea was handled and sorted is evident by the shape and consistency in size. The post steeped leaf can tell you how consistant the grading was and reveal flaws in the oxidation.” Loose tea leaves should be whole and mostly unbroken, because this indicates that they were picked and processed by hand, rather than machine. They should be uniform in size, because this indicates proper grading, or sorting, rather than having been chopped by machine into random pieces. Tea leaves grown high in the mountains are generally thicker than tea grown in lower elevations. All of these factors affect the taste and aroma of the tea!
Professional tea tasters use a set of vocabulary which describes the appearance of the tea, both in the leaf, and in the liquor, or liquid tea infusion. This terminology is used not only at professional tea tastings by tea vendors, but also in the descriptions in tea vendors’ product catalogs. It is a good plan to have at least some idea of what these terms mean, so that you can make educated choices when buying your own tea. It can be confusing to be confronted with an entire page of, say, Assam teas, and not know what sets each one apart from the others! Here is a glossary of terms from the Nothing But Tea website, that relate to the appearance of the tea, both in the leaf and the liquor form.
Colour – Colour of liquor, which varies from country to country and district to district. Colourey is used to denote a strong orange red colour as a good Kenya or Assam.
Coppery – Bright infusion the colour of a “new penny,” from good quality, well manufactured black tea.
Creaming Down – A milky film rising to the surface of the tasting cup as the liquor cools, accompanied by the thickening of the liquor in certain high grade teas.
Creepy – tea which is crimped in appearance, usually a BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) grade.
CTC – A cutting process (Cut, Tear, Curl), used to make small leaf grades required for teabags. Produces coloury fast liquoring teas.
Curly – Used when describing whole leaf grades, as opposed to wiry.
Dust – The smallest siftings resulting from the sieving process or leaf that has been reduced to a fine powder. Good quality dust gives the strongest tea, best colour and quickest infusion.
Fannings – Small grainy particles of leaf sifted out of the graded tea. Sought after for tea bags as they give a good quick infusion.
Fluff – Thick hairy down or bloom on the tea leaf, which becomes loosened in the blending and sifting process. It is collected and used in the manufacture of caffeine and instant tea.
Golden Tip – Visible buds in the made tea, coloured golden with dried tea juice.
Grainy – Term applied to well-made fannings and dust.
Uneven – Term used to describe tea leaf composed of irregular shaped pieces indicating bad sorting. When applied to the infused leaf the term means that it contains mixed red, green and black colours resulting from uneven withering, fermentation or rolling.
Well Twisted – Leaf which is tightly rolled or twisted, which in orthodox manufacture indicates ideally withered tea.
Wiry – Term applied to well twisted, thin leaf orange pekoe. A good OP has long, very black, even sized twisted leaf.
Hopefully, those sometimes-confusing tea descriptions will make more sense now! I hope you use this information to find yourself some really good tea! As the saying goes, “life is too short to drink bad tea.”
Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.
For more info: “Tea tasting 101: How to choose a tea to taste”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristigs of a good quality black tea”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristigs of a good quality oolong tea”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristics of a good quality green tea”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristics of a good quality pu-erh tea”
“Tea tasting 101: pu-erh tea, part 2”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristics of a good quality white tea”
“Dictionary of Tea Terms” from Upton Tea Imports
Luh Yu Tea Emporium
“Tea Dictionary” from Bigelow Teas
“Tea: Judging Leaf Appearance”
“Tea tasting: a man’s art”, by Doug Spiers