Chinese Tea Quality Versus Taste

Is it possible to tell the quality and taste of a tea without actually tasting it?

In the previous The Chinese Tea Shop’s Blog post (“Welcome to the World of Engineered Teas“) I commented that there is a way to tell the quality and taste of a tea (like Oolong Tea, Puerh Tea (Pu-erh), or White Tea) without tasting it.

If you’ve ever watched professional tea tasters at work or have seen the Chinese method of tea-making called Gong Fu Cha (Tea With Great Skill), you may have noticed tall and slender cups being used.

These are smelling cups and they can tell you a lot about the quality of a tea and how it will taste – without even tasting it.

The aromatic compounds in tea dissolve in water at different rates. This is the basis for Gong Fu Cha where a small amount of leaves is brewed many times to concentrate the flavour. Each brew reveals a different taste as the different compounds dissolve. A similar thing happens when tea oils are exposed to air. As tea oils oxidize, the aroma changes. This is the same thing that happens with perfumes. This oxidization of oils approximates what will happen when the leaves are brewed in water.

A tea that may start with a spicy aroma and ends up with a flowery aroma will taste spicy in the early brews and flowery in the later brews. Using a smelling cup allows the tea maker to know what to expect from a new tea they have not made before and how to brew the leaves to get the best taste.

When you rinse your tea leaves (see Gong Fu Cha), pour out the tea into a smelling cup and then empty the cup and smell. You will smell the “top notes” of the tea which are the most delicate compounds that oxidize quickly. These notes are what you will taste on the first brews. After a minute, smell again and you will notice the aroma has changed. And a few minutes after that, still more changing.

A low quality tea will cease to have an aroma after a few minutes because the oils are of poor quality. They oxidize quickly and will dissolve quickly in water and you will get fewer brews from that tea. The aroma from a high quality tea will last many minutes showing that you will get many good tasting brews from it.

If you’re looking to explore the best Chinese teas the city has to offer, visit The Chinese Tea Shop online now. 

Welcome to the World of Engineered Teas!

The other day I visited some tea shops with one of my students. We really noticed how western marketing techniques have impacted how tea is sold.  But more importantly, we noticed how this is affecting what consumers are really getting for their money.

In the 16th century, it was the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the French, and finally the British who brought Chinese tea to the West. The British especially have been able to make tea an inexpensive commodity worldwide and it is Indian Black teas which are consumed in the West more than any other. A fascinating history of Black Tea and its impact on history is here, in The Chinese Tea Shop’s website resources section.

Today, consumers want more and more variety. Tea manufacturers have responded with an incredible selection of scented and flavoured teas with fruit, berries, spices and all sorts of other natural and synthetic enhancements. It is now possible for a tea shop to offer a new tea flavour every day of the year and still not exhaust the selection that is available.

Many of these teas are made from low grade Indian black teas which are designed to have a good aroma from the package. Western consumers are now being conditioned to purchase tea based on aroma rather than on the taste. This has been a bonanza for tea shops, making things more efficient and profitable as they no longer have to make tea before customers buy, as has been done at better tea shops for centuries.

This is a shame for consumers because, as tea experts know, many of the finest teas have little or no aroma. Of those that do, the aroma may not indicate the complexity of what a tea has to offer. The only way to assess the taste and quality of a tea is to taste it!  (There is another advanced technique but more about that on another day.)

Scented and flavoured teas are an old tradition and there are some well known tea houses that make very high quality blends.  The new designer teas do give consumers lots of choices but for the most part, they are really just a way for the tea industry to disguise low grade tea leaves at designer prices and consumers are not likely to experience the best of what tea drinking has to offer.

Click here to learn more about all types of Chinese tea, including Black Tea, Oolong Tea, Puerh Tea (or Pu-erh Tea), and White Tea.

How To Store Chinese Tea To Make It Last Longer

Did you know that it’s actually possible to improve the taste of any tea by following a few simple rules for storing? It is!  

A good storage location should:

  • Be cool and dark
  • Have good air circulation
  • Have  little fluctuation in temperature and humidity
  • Be kept away from odours

Kitchen shelves might be convenient but are not the best choice for storage.  I have conducted many experiments over the years and with some of my students and we have found there are specific techniques you can use to make your tea taste better.

Non-Fermented and Partially Fermented Teas (Green Tea, Yellow Tea, White Tea and Oolong Tea)

These teas have the least amount of processing during manufacture and so most closely resemble the original leaves. Store these teas in a refrigerator in an airtight container. But there is a catch: Once you commit to refrigeration, you must keep the leaves there. You cannot put the tea back on the shelf for a while and then put it back in the fridge. Tea leaves like stable temperatureS and humidity and any changes must be gradual. The airtight container is also a must as tea leaves absorb odours, and fridges can be very smelly places. If you follow these simple rules, your tea will actually improve in taste and last much longer.

Fully Fermented Teas (Black Teas)

Black teas use more processing in their manufacture than Green teas and do not respond well to refrigeration like green and Oolong teas. Keep in a paper bag or cardboard container that breathes a little but make sure these have no odours from printing or glue as these will be absorbed by the tea over time.

Post-Fermented Teas -Pu-erh Tea

Storage is the same as Black tea but the best method is to store in unglazed clay containers. Clay allows some air flow, mitigates the changes in temperature and humidity and the taste develops more fully and quickly. Read more about storing pu-erh tea.

Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) and Aged Oolongs

These are Oolong teas that can be stored like Black teas, but we have found that these teas do best when kept in a non-airtight porcelain container.

Learn more about tea (including puerh tea (or pu-erh tea), oolong tea, and white tea) and how to best store tea for improved taste.