Jul 13 2015

How To Distinguish High-Quality Tea Leaves From Cheaper Ones

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.

quality dahongpao loose leaf tea

High quality dahongpao oolong tea from Fujian province in China.

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.


Jan 4 2015

Why is Iron Goddess of Mercy China’s Favorite Oolong Tea?

When it comes to green tea, we think of Japan and China. When it comes to black tea most people probably think of India and Sri Lanka, but China also has a lot of black tea. In fact they have my favorite variety, called Golden Monkey tea. When it comes to white tea there’s only China. When it comes to oolong tea, the same is true. While white tea is becoming more well known, it is still difficult to find. For that reason, I feel that wulong tea is the most Chinese of all the teas. It is the quintessential Chinese tea.

Loose leaf tie guan yin tea

Iron Goddess of Mercy tea leaves

So obviously, when I went to China, high on my list of things to do was trying oolong tea. Now, I am fully aware of white tea and absolutely love it, so that was high on my list, too. Which one of these two do you think was easier? It was the oolong tea. By far.

In three years in China I have not yet seen white tea sold in a regular store. You have to go to specialty shops and really search for it. It is not generally sold, but I suppose that is because white tea is so distinguished and is always very high quality. The teas you find in the supermarket aren’t generally that great, although compared to what you would buy in the West, the quality is actually exceptionally high. And since the prices are low, they make great bargains. In fact, I buy most of my tees from supermarkets. This includes big chains like Walmart. It sounds strange, but they actually have great bargains on teas because they are so cheap.

Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that I made my first purchase of Wulong Tea at Walmart. I also made my second and my third purchase of oolong tea at Walmart. When I buy tea at Walmart, I always start with the cheapest I can find, just to give it a try. It’s usually not very good and I never buy it again. But once or twice I have found a great bargain this way. That did not work out with oolong tea.

Iron Goddess of Mercy tea leaves

Ti Kuan tea leaves close up

Surprisingly, to me at least, the one variety I found in every store in China is Iron Goddess of Mercy tea. I don’t know why but this seems to be the most popular variety in China. Since I was seeing it everywhere, this was my first purchase. I bought the cheapest one they had. It was absolutely horrible. I figured this was because I bought the cheapest, so I bought a more expensive one. It was slightly better, but still not something I would ever buy again.

A month or two after that first purchase, a coworker of mine, friendly old Chinese man, let me try some of his Tie Guan Yin. He had a very expensive variety and he assured me once I’ve had it, I would change my mind about Ti Kuan. It’s true, his tea was much better and it was actually enjoyable, but it was certainly not worth the money. I have had very cheap green teas that tasted so much better than this very expensive iron goddess tea.

For those who don’t know, this variety of oolong tea is barely oxidized at all. It is very, very close to a green tea. The problem is, green tea simply tastes better. I don’t understand the popularity of this variety of tea in China. Since that time, I have bought many oolong teas, but never again an iron goddess. My favorite so far was Big Red Robe tea, but that is probably not a surprise, given its high price and its status as one of the most distinguished teas of all.

If you ever make it to China I highly recommend you try some Tie Guan Yin for yourself. Chances are you won’t like it, but so many Chinese people seem to enjoy it, maybe you will, too. I would be very curious to know, actually. I want to know if it’s just me, if I simply don’t enjoy that taste, or if it’s just something that’s uniquely Chinese and all Westerners don’t like the taste of this tea.

For more on Tie Guan Yin: http://www.holymtn.com/tea/kwanyin.htm


Mar 31 2014

Why to Buy Oolong Tea From Online Tea Stores

I came to love oolong tea during my stay in China. I lived there for six years, but for a long time my only exposure to wulong tea was the bottled variety. And I only bought this, because in China the bottled green tea generally has sugar in it. It is very hard to find any tea without sugar, apart from oolong. When I did finally buy some actual tea leaves, it was purely by accident.

I meant to buy green tea, but since I couldn’t read much Chinese at the time, I ended up with something else. I did know the characters for green tea and also the characters for all the other types of tea, but I did not know the characters for the individual varieties. Since these varieties are so well known in China, the packages generally just state the name and don’t bother mentioning what type of tea it is. For that reason, I ended up buying a pouch of Tie Guan Yin tea leaves.

buy tea in Asia

Can you tell the difference between these oolong teas at an Asian supermarket?

This tea, also known as Iron Goddess, is actually one of the mildest forms of oolong tea, so the difference between it and green tea really isn’t that large. Nevertheless, I did notice that it was different and upon doing a bit of research, I realized my mistake. It didn’t matter though, because the tea was delicious and I since learned that other types of wulong tea, ones that are much more oxidized and thus a bit stronger, taste even better.

The real point of the story is this, though. I bought this tie guan yin tea in a regular supermarket. In Chinese supermarkets they sell cheap tea leaves as well as ones that are pretty high quality. The highest quality leaves are usually sold in tea shops, but there is almost always one attached to a supermarket anyway. You could always grow your own in a little indoor tent, I suppose.

Now that I live in the US, this is one of the things I miss the most from China: the ability to buy really good tea at a regular supermarket. Here in the US, it is much more difficult to find a high quality tea, especially high quality oolong tea. Actually, finding any quality of wulong tea is pretty hard, at least if you’re looking for a decent price. Most big cities and, these days, many shopping malls have specialty tea stores. The stores do sell all manner of teas, but they unfortunately do so at a fairly inflated price. You will not generally find good deals at these types of stores. In fact, I would not be surprised if they bought their tea leaves online and then simply turned around and sold them at a much higher price at their shops.

Even if they are not doing this, you should be. I’m not talking about the selling part, obviously, but the part where you purchase tea online. There are so many good online tea shops that sell high-quality loose leaf tea at great prices. It makes no sense to buy lesser tea and to pay more for it. On top of all that, buying tea online is simply much more convenient.

That said, there is one drawback: many of the online shops are not all that good and some are downright scams. They give you a substandard tea and if you are not that familiar with how these teas should taste, you may not ever even realize this. Your best bet is to find a site that reviews and compares online tea vendors to help you choose the right one.

You can find a number of websites like this, but you have to be careful to find one that actually knows what they’re talking about. The one above is a good site that has detailed reviews of some of the better online tea vendors. In fact, none of the vendors reviewed on that site are bad, so you could buy from any one of them safely. The review and comparison page simply helps you find the best one for you. I highly recommend using it if you plan to buy tea online.