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How To Buy Chinese Tea


(Excerpt from our guide: How To Buy Chinese Tea by Daniel Lui )


Westerners may be mystified by the ways Chinese tea is merchandised. Even Chinese have a difficult time understanding what they are buying as there is usually lots of cool graphics and writing on the packaging (almost always in Chinese language) but few if any details about the grade of the tea inside. Some Chinese stores might have a selection of tea and it might be right next to the housewares or cleaning products section, so it is unlikely that the people who work there will be able to advise you on what you are buying.

chinatownYou may not be fortunate to live near a Chinatown or have Chinese friends who are knowledgeable about tea. Most Chinese are tea drinkers but few have any more knowledge about tea cultivation, processing and grading than you might have about how hot dogs are manufactured. Some major cities have Chinese tea stores that are part of large Asian mega-chains. Here, tea is marketed and retailed much like any other product and many people working in Chinese tea shops have little training about what makes high grade tea. They simply have, like any other retail store, products that range in price from low to high. From a store's perspective, the most expensive tea is “high grade tea”. This may or may not be true but until you have developed your skill at identifying the quality of leaves, you can only know for sure by comparing teas with different prices from other sources. One thing is for certain. Chinese teas come in some of the most beautiful packaging you have ever seen, but this is no indication of the quality. In fact, it is often the opposite.

As a beginner, you will develop your skill, save money and be further ahead in the long run if you follow these 3 basic guidelines:

    keep detailed written notes of what you buy and how it tastes

    buy as many different teas as you can afford from as many different sources as possible

    buy the most expensive tea you can afford from the most knowledgeable source you can find, be it from a tea shop or an online store.

In learning a new skill, the beginner must accept that buying and trying teas is the cost of getting an education.

Why use high grade tea?

caddiesThere are 3 main reasons for buying the best grade of tea you can find;  it tastes better, lasts longer and is more cost-effective in the long run over low grade tea. High grade tea will last 6 - 10 brews with consistently good flavour depending on how strong you like your tea. Low grade tea may taste fine on the first or second brew but after that there is little flavour left, so you just end up using more tea. The better tea shops will always make a tea for you before you buy. Make sure to taste the fourth or fifth brew to really see what you are getting and pay attention to how it is being made.  You can even ask them to follow the same brew times you use. Try to get a sample or buy the smallest quantity you can for a new tea.

A wonderful characteristic of high grade tea that is not found in low grade tea is a unique sensation of sweetness in the mouth either during or sometimes many minutes after drinking, depending on the type of tea and how it is prepared. The Chinese term for this sensation is called “gum” and there is no equivalent term for it in the English language. It can only be described as a sensation as it subtly “overlays” and compliments the flavour of the tea one is drinking, be it grassy, flowery, bitter or earthy. Experiencing this sweetness is a very prized aspect of tea tasting and the Gong Fu Cha method of tea-making is the best way to create it.

Tea plants have fine delicate hairs that grow on the underside of the leaves. For the best quality tea, look for tea made from whole leaves and the fine hairs floating on the surface of the tea. The more hairs you see, the higher the grade of the tea.

Tea made from teabags is the by-product from manufacturing the leaves. Sophisticated marketing has made it a real profit-maker for tea manufacturers. One is not likely to experience what tea has to offer using tea bags.

CHART – QUALITY OF LEAVES BY TEA TYPE

Each category includes an enormous variety of teas; this chart provides a general guideline

  High Quality Leaves Low Quality Leaves
Black (known as Red Tea in China)
Green
White
Oolong
Pu-Erh

To learn about buying tea, read our guide How To Buy Chinese Tea by Daniel Lui.

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