A little bit like buying a fancy bottle of wine, knowing how to choose Chinese tea like a local can be, well, a little confusing.
In fact, because the art and science of tea has a modern history, as well as an ancient one. More recent influences on the maintaining the quality of tea emerged in China from the 1950s to the 1980s. During this time, the production of tea came under a system called the ‘commodity allocation plan’, which developed a standard based on eight elements for assessing tea quality. In true Chinese style, this assessment was multi-faceted, taking into consideration the ‘inner’ quality of tea and ‘outer’ quality of tea in equal measure.
The inner quality of tea refers to the aroma, taste, color and selection of tea leaves. Of these criteria, aroma and taste are most important. In terms of the outer shape of tea that influences tea quality, connoisseurs look for the shape and color of leaves, as well as the uniformity of shape, and how clean the leaves are. Although all elements are important, the shape of tea leaves takes priority.
With color, clarity, and aroma among the many factors to consider, it’s any wonder that western travelers on a China tour feel the overwhelm of indecision and confusion when pressed to choose a Chinese tea on their own.
The truth is, learning how to choose a Chinese tea involves more than a dose of good luck. There is an art and science to planting, growing and producing tea, so if it’s a genuine quality product you’re after while on tour, then take notes!
We’ve covered it all in this and other blogs in our article series on Chinese tea.
When it comes to tea, 8 is a lucky number
We’re the first to admit that 8 is an auspicious number in all things Chinese, that’s why it’s no surprise there are exactly eight things to look for if you want to choose Chinese tea like a local.
Ready? Here goes.
1. Look for a consistent shape
A consistent shape in dried tea leaves is just one of the eight elements considered important when assessing tea quality. Tiao Suo (条索) specifies the shape of dried tea leaves. For example, with panning green tea we look for long strips; for gunpowder (pearl) tea we look for the roundness of the ‘pearl’; with Longjing tea the defining characteristic in terms of shape is how flat the leaf is; while black tea is valued for the way it is crushed. When it comes to shape, there are different Tiao Suo which point to the quality of a tea. When considering tea shaped as a long strip, look for whether the leaves are tight, straight, strong, and heavy. For round tea, the tightness of the small round pearl, along with how solid and evenly distributed the weight in the pearl. For flat tea, smooth and even is the core factor.
2. Choose a quality color
Not surprisingly, the best Chinese tea must have visual appeal too. When looking at tea for its color, be sure to check for an even spread and gloss across the tea leaf.
3. Whole shredding? We’ve got you covered
Another term not immediately associated with tea, but is in fact, integral to how to choose Chinese tea like a local: whole shredding. It’s a term that can be a little confusing because whole shredding actually means the tea leaves must maintain their natural shape, even when dried.
4. Tea clarity
While clarity is a wine term referring to a wine’s reflective quality, that is, whether it is brilliant, dull, clear, or hazy, clarity in tea refers to the number of impurities. It goes without saying that the finest quality teas are free from contamination. This no doubt explains the reason some of the most expensive Chinese tea is produced in pristine regions like the mountains of Fujian and the Li Shan (Pear Mountain) tea district of Taiwan where the chance of contamination is greatly reduced.