Who Cares What the Tea Leaves Look Like?

Why do folks who review teas end up plastering large photos of the tea leaves all over the review? Who cares about the leaves and what they look like? Well, I do for one. And so do a lot of folks reading those tea reviews. Time to find out what all the fuss is about.

Before we begin: For those of you who stick with the dust-in-a-bag teas, enjoy your cuppa and don’t worry about any of this.

Okay, for you folks who are into steeping loose leaf teas, here are some reasons to care about what those leaves look like:

All teas are not created equal. Some very fine teas are supposed to be made from only new tight buds while others are meant to be comprised of larger, more mature leaves. But that’s not the only issue. Who is better at plucking the right leaves and processes them the best can really create a superior tea. A look at the tea leaves both before and after steeping can tell you the story here.

Some versions of Silver Needle, showing a wide difference in the leaves and hence the quality:


Plump, tight buds of
Silver Needle.
If they don’t look
like this, beware!


Another Silver Needle prior to steeping. Note the silvery appearance of the tight buds – the mark of a top quality tea.


A comparatively
low-brow version
of Silver Needle,
although the flavor
was passable.

The cultivar can make the difference. And new cultivars are being developed as we speak. Taiwanese oolongs and Darjeeling teas are well-known for these efforts. You can see the difference more clearly after steeping.

A couple of Ti Kuan Yin examples, showing the cultivar differences (sadly, the vendors don’t say which cultivars are used here):


Ti Kuan Yin oolong has a very different leaf appearance. Stems clearly included, more   lightly oxidized than the one below, appear to be leaves plucked from stem tops, probably after the first leaf-bud sets have been plucked.


Another Ti Kuan Yin oolong with larger, darker leaves. No stem pieces, larger leaves, more oxidizing than the one above, and a bit tougher in appearance.

Different versions of the same tea can vary widely. Terroir can make such a difference in tea taste that growing tea on one mountain can yield tea leaves that steep up a very different taste from those grown on another mountain. There are also seasonal factors, with the first flush tasting different from the second flush which tastes different from the autumnal flush, for example.

Shown here are several versions of Darjeeling teas. Note how very different the tea leaves are, and yes, the flavor does vary along with that leaf appearance. Some can have a flavor that is more complex and others are more intense.


A Darjeeling tea where the flush and garden are not specified.


A first flush Darjeeling from the Turzom Tea Estate.


A second flush Darjeeling from the Castleton Tea Estate.


A first flush Darjeeling from the Arya Tea Estate processed as a green tea.

Some very popular teas get imitated. Dragonwell is one of those teas that gained such a reputation for flavor that it has become a style of processing versus a combination of that processing and the tea leaves used to make it (which in authentic versions come only from tea plants around the Dragonwell village in China). You can see the different leaves used after steeping.

Three quite different looking versions of Dragonwell (Long Jing, Lung Ching):


A version of Dragonwell that looks more like an oolong after steeping.


A version of Dragonwell that looks rather crushed.


Still another version of Dragonwell that’s a
delight to behold, with tender leaf-bud combos.

Aesthetics are important, too. Sometimes, the leaves are just so gosh darn beautiful to behold, such as this one:


Congou Keemun black tea – a far cry from dust in a bag.

Yes, I care about the appearance of the tea leaves, and so do others. And now you know why!

(Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One thought on “Who Cares What the Tea Leaves Look Like?

  1. Pingback: The Best of the English Tea Store Tea Blog in 2013 | Tea Blog

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