We talk about looking for good tea often enough, but what about bad tea? After all, there’s arguably far more bad tea out there than good tea, so it’s useful to be able to spot bad tea, no?
I think we can divide bad tea into various categories. What I can think of off the top of my head are the following.
1) Extremely low quality stuff
2) Adulterated tea – including fake tea trying to be something it isn’t, anything flavoured from Teavana, anything with a lot of added stuff, etc
3) Tea that is odd in some way – not necessarily bad, but has problems, usually one that is so significant that it makes it impossible to drink in an enjoyable way
4) Tea that is overpriced significantly
I think (1) is easy enough — everyone’s tried something like that before. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, visit your local McDonald’s and ask for a tea, and then take out the leaves from the bag and make it the way you normally make tea — yeah, that’s bad tea. No, I suggest you not actually try it. Insipid teas go here.
Category (2) is more difficult — I think what I am aiming for here is tea that has been tampered with in some fashion, to the point where the tea is no longer recognizable as tea. Anything overly fruity/sweet/artificial will fall into this category, as will, say, a cooked puerh trying to pretend to be a 1950s tea with added colour/chemicals/whatever. There are some genres of tea, such as Earl Grey or Lapsang, that is supposed to have this added element, but then, you sometimes have Earl Grey that is nothing but Bergamot oil or a smoke-only Lapsang — that however would fall into category (1) for me, rather than (2).
Category (3) is I think what puerh drinkers, and to a lesser extent oolong drinkers, encounter the most. The tea itself may be ok, but something is wrong, and you know it when you drink it. These flaws are often not obvious when you just look at the dry leaves — the tea can look perfectly fine, normal, even good. Once you pour hot water over it, the smell usually signals trouble, but it’s usually when you actually try it when the problems become apparent — odd flavours, weird texture, strange reactions (from you) are common. I bought some cheap, cheap loose puerh recently that falls straight into this category — odd smell, odd taste, don’t know what it is. I think it’s some Vietnamese border tea type thing, and with enough traditional storage and aging, it’ll gain that border tea spicy flavour. As it is, when it’s still pretty green, it’s disgusting.
Then there are the more subtle ones — for example, a puerh that won’t age, or an oolong that’s been over-roasted. Some people might like those things, so it’s not a universal “bad”, which is why I generally would put such teas into the “I don’t like” bin rather than simply “bad”. There’s a small distinction, but I think it’s an important one.
Category (4) is, of course, everyone’s favourite — overpriced tea. Overpriced tea, of course, is a relative term — a tea is only overpriced if you can get another similar or better one for less money, and everyone’s idea of a tea that is overpriced is different. I would generally consider a tea overpriced if I can find something subtantially cheaper with the same quality, while factoring into things such as distance from source (a US vendor is going to cost more, no matter what) and type of establishment (online vendor should be cheaper than a real world one). Aside from that though — it’s really dependent on your ability to find cheaper AND better teas.
What I think is most important though is for the drinker to be able to tell when something is wrong — when a tea is off, when a tea has oddities, or intractable problems. Initial impressions are not always right. I recently tasted a tea with a friend that was heavily traditional stored and has some pretty strange flavours in the first few infusions, only to see those odd tastes go away and turn to something fairly ok. Problems, if they are real, will never go away even after many infusions. Knowing what a good tea SHOULD taste like is half the battle in weeding out the bad ones.