5 Keys to Grading Teas

Sad to say, but not all tea leaves are created equal. This is especially important when you are buying premium teas, unlike blends that have teas of all grades in them. Grading standards have been developed over the years but tend to vary between tea growing countries and for the type of tea being produced.

The size of a tea leaf (this is Buddha Hand Oolong – a high grade of oolong) is not necessarily an indication of the grade of the leaf. (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)
The size of a tea leaf (this is Buddha Hand Oolong – a high grade of oolong) is not necessarily an indication of the grade of the leaf. (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

Whichever grading standard you are using, it is usually based on these key factors:

1 Uniform Appearance, including Size

Uniformity is very important to some teas, such as Silver Needle, Longjing (Dragonwell), and Bi Luo Chun. The harvested leaves are sorted for factors such as these:

  • Single bud – open or closed tight, green or covered with silvery hairs (not used for Longjing, for Silver Needle the buds should be closed and covered with silvery hairs).
  • One bud with one adjacent leaf that is shorter than the bud (for Zhejiang Longjing this is a high grade).
  • One bud with two slightly opened leaves that are as long as the bud (another high grade for fine green teas, including Xihu Longjing).
  • One bud with two leaves that are longer than the bud (a mediocre grade).

Smaller buds and leaves are considered higher grade for many teas. For example, Bi Luo Chun’s grading is by the size of the bud (smaller buds are higher grades). Oolong tea is made from half-matured leaves, with the classic Anxi Tie Guan Yin being made from a bud with 2 to 4 leaves.

2 Early vs. Late Harvest

The harvests done earlier in the year (in China that is usually before their Spring festival called Qing Ming where they honor their ancestors) will have smaller buds and leaves. Later harvests will have somewhat larger leaves (for that particular variety or cultivar). The earlier teas can cost as much as four times what the later harvest teas do. One reason is that they are less likely to have any bitterness in the flavor.

3 Leaf Piece Size

Here we’re talking about full leaf, broken leaf, fannings, and dust. There is a rather fair amount of debate going on, with experts on both sides, about this factor. Some swear that only full leaf teas offer a complete tea experience while others say dust steeps up a strong cuppa from a lesser amount of tea leaf material.

One of the best-known grading systems regards full leaves as the best. It is the Orange Pekoe (pek’-oh) system used for many black teas, especially the ones from India and Sri Lanka which are graded by this full leaf condition but also the quality of the tea leaf itself. (“Orange” may derive from a from a reference to the Dutch House of Orange  and indicating higher quality.) The grades range from dust and fannings at the bottom, to broken leaf grades, souchong, pekoe, orange pekoe, up to Special Fine/Fancy Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP).

4 Hand- versus Machine-Processed

Another area of much debate amongst tea professionals is the relative grade of a tea that is hand-processed versus one that is machine-processed. There are legitimate arguments on both sides. The hand-processed teas are usually done in small batches and take many hours of hard work, making them fairly rare and costly, but often full of more complex aromas and flavors. The machine-processed teas help meet the needs of a mass market around the world and can assure consistency at an affordable price. Which is better depends on personal taste and, of course, on the quality of the tea leaves used. I drink both and relish both types for their individual qualities, insisting on only one thing: steeping loose – no infuser ball, T-sac, or other item coming between the water and the tea leaves.

5 Location, Location, Location

Terroir is another factor that comes up repeatedly. Rainfall amounts, mountain mists, soil type, temperature ranges (day to night and during the seasons) are some examples that will affect the grade of your tea. A tea grown from Camellia sinensis var. assamica in Kenya will taste different from one grown in Assam, India. At least they do to me. The Kenyan tea is less likely to be bitter.

Bottom Line

As always, I do not state any one thing being better than another. To put an absolute on these things is to deny your individual taste. Try out several different tea grades and see which suits you best. Many people like a tea that is said to be of a lower grade. Hubby and I like a nice CTC Assam (a fairly low-grade machine-processed tea from India that steeps up rather bitter but fairly strong and with a true malty character) since this tea will shine through the milk we add to it. A touch of sweetener quells the bitterness. We also like a nice pu-erh or some Longjing. And then there’s Gen Mai Cha, one of the few teas with non-tea stuff added to it (in this case, toasted rice) that we can tolerate anymore.

Go exploring and have some wonderful tea adventures, no matter what the grade of the tea is!

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.

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