When looking for good-quality tea, most of us can simply trust the palate and skill of the professional tea tasters from the most influential and respected tea companies. Knowledge of the positive characteristics that indicate good quality, is usually all that is needed for amateurs to choose a good tea. However, since San Jose’s local ethnic communities keep really close culinary ties to their countries of origin, many small businesses import tea directly from the tea plantations. While these teas have been checked by the F.D.A. for safety before being sold in the United States, it is still useful for the non-professional to know about any undesirable flavor, aroma and visual points to watch out for. While most of the problem comes from improper processing or storage, some factors that result in lower-quality tea are related to the tea plant itself and the soil where it was grown.
For example, there are some tea plantations in the area of the Black Sea that were contaminated during and following the Chernobyl disaster. While most of the tea crop that was growing at the time was discarded, and clean-up efforts have rendered the soil usable for crops that are safe for human consumption, it is said that certain teas from that area still taste unusually bitter or even chemical-like, and are often considered lower quality by tea buyers outside the area. While a certain amount of pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers are allowed to commercial tea farmers, some Chinese and Indian teas have been accused of being tainted by excessive pesticide use. These teas are not generally purchased by most American tea vendors, but they are drunk in their countries of origin and may be imported to the United States for sale in certain communities. It is useful to everyone to know which flavor, aroma and visual characteristics to avoid! Here are some terms from the Nothing But Tea website, defining some of the qualities that indicate low-quality tea.
Bakey – An aroma indicative of tea from which too much moisture has been driven off.
Blistered – Leaf which is swollen and hollow inside. Blisters are formed during the firing of a leaf which has been dried too quickly.
Brownish – Undesireable leaf colour in black tea, generally resulting from firing under-withered tea at too high a temperature, or due to poor plucking. However, some tippy teas have a brown leaf which is desirable.
Dark/Dull – Tea liquor that is not clear and bright, denoting a poor tea.
Denaturised Tea – Tea which has been deemed unfit for consumption. It is often used for mulching tea bushes.
Earthy – Except in pu-erh tea, an unpleasant liquor taste found in tea stored under damp conditions.
Flat – Lacking briskness and pungency.
Fully Fired – Liquor from a tea that has been slightly over fired.
Gone Off – A tea that is moulded, tainted, out of condition or old.
Green – Colour of infused black or oolong tea leaf which has undergone poor withering or rolling.
Grey – An unattractive colour characteristic of black leaf that has undergone too much rubbing during sorting and cutting.
High Fired – A slightly burnt tea, but not so badly fired as to be called burnt. Results from keeping tea in the drier too long or at too high a temperature.
Lie Tea – A Chinese mixture of willow and other spurious leaf with genuine tea leaf, fraudulently sold as tea. Adulteration of tea was a problem when it was heavily taxed in previous centuries.
Mushy – A soft tea suggesting that it had been packed too moist.
Musty – Tea that has been attacked by mildew as a result of being packed too moist.
Plain – Term used to describe dull liquor often with a rather sour taste.
Ragged – Denotes uneven leaf in a grade.
Rawness – Harsh and bitter taste of immature tea.
Stewy – Often due to too long a fermentation (oxidation) or to drying at too low a temperature.
Tainted – May result from infection by micro-organisms during manufacture or storage. Usually refers to a flavour entirely foreign to tea such as oil, petrol, onion, etc.
Tarry – An excessively smokey aroma or taste. Remember, some teas are supposed to be smokey!
Weak – Denotes a thin liquor. Often due to over-withering or under-fermenting.
Woody – Denotes an undesirable hay flavour in tea, often due to long storage.
So! Now we’ve discussed a lot of things to look out for in your loose tea, and I hope you’re not overwhelmed with information! Generally, if a tea is bad quality, it will be obvious in the aroma and the flavor; everyone knows that if tea tastes metallic, or like burnt charcoal, that’s not a good thing! But now you have a vocabulary to use in talking about your own tea experiences, even the unpleasant ones. Hopefully, having this information will help prevent those unpleasant tea experiences!
Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.
For more info: “Tea tasting 101: How to choose a tea to taste”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristics of good quality black tea”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristics of good quality oolong tea”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristics of good quality green tea”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristics of good quality pu-erh tea”
Glossary of Tea Terms from the Nothing But Tea website
“Dictionary of Tea Terms” from Upton Tea Imports
“Tea Dictionary” from Bigelow Teas
PAN Pesticide Database
“Sustainable Agriculture” from the Strand Tea Company
“Green tea from China found to be contaminated …” by Mike Adams
“Radiocesium activity in Turkish tea followed the Chernobyl after thirteen years”, by Ozlem Epik, et al.
“Rad storm rising”, by Gabriel Schoenfeld, The Atlantic, December 1990.
“Tea: Chernobyl’s lingering legacy”, from Science News, January 1995.
Tea contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl, in the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum Collection
“Chernobyl and Trade” from the Trade and Environment Database