We all want to buy high quality tea leaves, but we don’t want to pay too much for them. This is especially important for oolong tea. Unfortunately, when we try to save money on the leaves, there is a good chance we will end up buying a tea of a lower quality. Most people don’t know enough to be able to distinguish the differences, but if you know what to look for it becomes much easier.
That said, knowing what to look for can differ greatly from tea to tea. Let’s look at the main varieties and find out what we need to look out for when buying loose leaf tea.
With green tea, there are so many different varieties, that one rule will not fit all of them. Generally, one of the first things to look out for is the uniformity of the leaves. This is especially important for the Chinese Dragon well tea. High quality longjing leaves are flat, bright green and all the same size. Any expensive variety of green tea should consist mainly of leaves. They should be no, or very few, stems mixed in.
When it comes to the green tea powder matcha, look for a finely ground powder that is bright green. This indicates that only the highest quality leaves were used and is also indicative of a powder from Japan, specifically from one of Japan’s famous tea growing areas, like the Uji region near Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto.
White tea is much easier, since there are only two main types. White hair silver needle tea is made from the youngest tea buds, so there should be no large leaves at all. Look for needle-like leaves covered in fine white hairs. I suppose the tea’s name could tell you this.
White Peony tea on the other hand, is made from one bud and two shoots. This tea will actually look quite cheap, but that doesn’t mean it is. Basically, you’ll see stems with two larger leaves attached and one smaller shoot.
The highest quality black teas are also made from very young leaves. Top-quality Yunnan gold and China’s famous golden monkey tea are both examples of this. Here again, you look for very small, pointy tea leaves and, as the names might suggest, they will have golden colored shoots mixed in.
I won’t go into the other types of tea here, mainly because oolong tea and pu-erh are very complicated, but basically the main thing you want to look for is uniformity. You want the leaves to all look similar and their to be no visibly different types mixed in. This will generally ensure at least a decent quality oolong tea. The resulting brew should also taste clean, with no hint of of any impurities. Cheap teas will always discolor your cups and pots. Any good tea shop will always let you taste their teas before purchasing. In fact, they will encourage it.
Now you might be wondering how the tea makers ensure this uniformity in their leaves. Well, they have tea inspectors. Are you picturing some old guy with a magnifying glass hunched over a conveyor belt carefully inspecting each oolong leaf as it passes? I kind of like that image and think it’s funny, but it is not quite what happens.
The inspectors are generally just peasants who command a very low salary. One, or several, of them pick out all the anomalies to ensure that the high quality tea stays uniform. Those anomalies are then generally sold as lower quality tea. If what they pick out his complete crap, it is ground down to a fine powder and sold in teabags. Do you see now why I recommend never buying teabags? You are literally getting the bottom of the barrel.
Naturally, there is much more to the art of choosing high quality tea leaves, but this should be enough to get you started. If you’re thinking that it seems like a bit of a guessing game, then you’re right. Oftentimes, the best thing to do is just buy a small quantity of the tea you’re interested in and give it a try. If you like it, buy more next time. If you don’t, get a different tea. If the tea you bought was supposed to be high-quality according to the store and it wasn’t, find a new store. Good luck and enjoy your delicious cup of oolong tea.
You can read about tea leaf grading on wikipedia.