I think I’m not alone here in being asked, more often than warranted, the question of “how do you know what’s a good tea?” It’s a question that teaheads get asked by their friends often, as we seem to have some nominal expertise on the subject. I find this question to be particularly difficult to answer though, because it is actually quite complicated in a very nerdy way, and which requires a great deal of experience to at least make sense of. Otherwise, it’s just talk and means very little. Most of the time when I evaluate a tea that I have not encountered before, I look at it as an aggregate whole without really breaking it down into pieces. That, of course, doesn’t help anybody, so I will try to do it here. Price is a separate matter, and I will talk about that in another post.
Just looking at a tea, I think I look at a tea in the following way:
1) Shape. I think this is obvious, but looking at a tea’s shape can tell you a lot, if you know what you’re looking for. For longjing, for example, you can usually tell the grade of the longjing just by looking at it — fat, thick, light coloured ones with lots of fur are usually high grade, whereas dark, thin, papery ones are normally low grade stuff. That, at the very least, establishes a baseline. There are also signs, such as the way the tea is made and the way it’s shaped, such as the tightness of the rolling and the level of oxidation, for certain oolongs, for example. This can come in handy in evaluating some vendor claims. For example, someone who’s telling you a tea is really a 1980s TGY from Fujian, and you see the tea is tightly rolled — something’s not quite adding up there. Lastly, and this is the most obvious — the shape of the leaves tell you what type of tea it is. Learning to recognize all these things are important. Some, of course, are harder than others. Different kinds of black tea can be very difficult to tell apart form shape alone. Likewise, yancha of various sorts are nearly impossible to tell apart without additional clues. Oolongs and greens, and to a lesser extent puerh, can be at least broadly distinguished using shape alone.
2) Colour. Something I already alluded to above — the colour of longjing leaves is a big clue as to its quality level. The best way to learn such things is to, unfortunately, go to a tea store that has a variety of grades of the same tea, and just look at them, together. I remember doing this at various places at various times, the first was probably at Great Wall (now defunct) in NYC’s Chinatown, where they put all the teas in glass jars and where I first had a taste of a really expensive longjing (of which I paid for, therefore being acutely aware of its price). The gradations then become very clear. It’s more difficult to achieve this by purchasing the “same” tea from different places, because then the grades can be very mixed and you won’t get the same effect. The same can be said of tieguanyin, although these days many light or no-roast tieguanyin are basically nuclear green. The various colours of an oolong, however, are clues as to their level of oxidation, and very useful in determining how to steep a tea. Obviously, the colour of puerh leaves can instantly tell you if a tea is raw or cooked (combined with other physical attributes), and roughly, its storage condition.
3) Size. Size matters, although in different ways for different teas. For some teas, size does not, in any way, denote quality. Puerh, for example, largely falls into this category, where the size of the leaves have very little to do with how good or bad a tea is. A cake with large leaves can be terrible, while one with small leaves can also be terrible. It does not tell you what season the tea is picked, nor does it tell you where it’s from. At most, it can tell you what it’s NOT — broad, large, and long leaves means it’s not tea from certain regions that only have small leaf varietals, for example. That’s really the extent of it.
Then you have things like oolongs, where size, again, tells you relatively little. It’s very difficult to evaluate ball shaped oolongs and the size of the leaves, and since we’re sticking to the pre-brewed tea at this point, I’d refrain from commenting on that. For oolongs the size often has to do with the roasting level, which is also betrayed by the tea’s colour. The roasting process, when done properly, would normally result in some breakage of the leaves. Also, size, for some teas, does denote quality, or perceived quality, at any rate. For example, for lapsang souchong.
I think in terms of purely looking at a tea physically, that’s about it. More later.