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How Much Does the Tea Leaf Consistency Matter?

For some Japanese teas, the standard of quality is consistency of the leaf shape and size. But for other teas this particular characteristic is of no consequence. That brings up the question: how much does the tea leaf consistency matter? And the answer is obvious: it depends on which tea you’re talking about.

A Buddha Hand Oolong where the consistency of the leaves both dry and wet are not an issue in terms of determining quality. (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)
A Buddha Hand Oolong where the consistency of the leaves both dry and wet are not an issue in terms of determining quality. (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

One thing to note before going further is that here being consistent is not the same as it is for many of those blended name brand teas (see my article What Is a Hand-Crafted Tea?) – this is more a matter of getting quality through careful processing, especially one step in particular. That processing step is sorting and is more critical for some teas than for others.

A good example of where consistency of tea leaves matters is Silver Needle where only the silvery closed “buds” (not a true bud but rather a tender inner leaf and two outer leaves wrapped tight around it) are used. Any partially opened buds or ones that don’t have those silvery silky “hairs” on them or that are damaged in any way are picked out and set aside. There shouldn’t be too many of these if the pluckers are experienced and very attentive to their task.

The Shizuoka tea competition is another time when this consistency does matter. The judges pile tea as high as they can, with the most plump and consistent (uniform in length, size and shape) leaves (usually needle shaped) stacking higher. The tea makers there believe that this uniformity means a harmonious tea brew. (Shizuoka, a prefecture in Japan, has been growing tea since 1241 and produces about 45% of Japan’s entire tea production.)

On the other hand, oolongs such as Tie Guan Yin and Buddha Hand (shown above) will have leaves of various shapes and sizes that at the end of the processing will be in tight wads of various sizes and shapes. Not only is consistency not needed here, it would be a waste of effort, with workers sorting for size, etc., but not achieving any difference in quality of flavor and aroma worth mentioning.

Overall, for your own selection of which teas to buy, unless you are seeking top grade Japanese green teas or even some Silver Needle, don’t worry about that consistency factor for the tea leaves.

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

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2 responses to “How Much Does the Tea Leaf Consistency Matter?”

  1. I know when a tea is approaching perfection if when I handle it the hair on my neck stand up. Its a curious shivery feeling and it is rare and comes not only for the conventional teas. I can remember the reaction in mid country Sri Lanka, near Ratnapura for a black tea special OP of just perfect make, also also for a particularly excellent CTC Pekoe Dust in Kenya – yes, you heard right CTC and Dust. It was the most perfect tea of its type I had ever handled, black, grainy and with superb bloom. Will you ever see it in the market? No it will be bought for blending at perhaps 5% into a regular supermarket blend for its color, strength and character – no value being given to its consistency appearance.

    1. Hi, Nigel, thanks for commenting. We’re aware of that issue, where these higher quality teas go into blends to improve them. I guess that’s the only way to get people to buy the lower teas. Sigh!

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