Gyokuro Japanese Green Tea (ETS image)

Gyokuro Japanese Green Tea (ETS image)

Once upon a time the best teas were reserved for the aristocrats, monarchs, emperors, etc., and were presented as “tribute teas.” It was at first voluntary and then mandated. That meant that the rest of the tea drinkers around got the leftovers, which were often quite passable, just not of premium quality. The tribute tea system has long since gone by the wayside, in part due to demand from other parts of the world for that level of quality and in part due to a rise in demand for cheaper teas to satiate a seemingly insatiable public. Tea cultivation spread to more and more countries with the focus on quantity and speedier production (meaning big shiny machines). After a couple of centuries of this, the pendulum in tea production and enjoyment seems to be swinging back toward those premium teas. Does that mean they are becoming more mainstream? I sure hope so!

Some Key Factors in Premium Teas

Premium teas aren’t just a tea that someone slaps a label on bearing the word “premium.” Such teas need to meet certain key standards. I’ve listed a few I look for:

  • Hand-harvested – this goes for teas like Silver Needle, Bi Luo Chun, or a nice tippy Assam.
  • Hand-processed – the teas named above are usually hand-processed, and this is preferred for a tea to be considered premium, but other teas such as matcha can be machine-harvested and –processed or hand-processed and still claim that honor.
  • Overall exceptionalism – that is where the matcha figures in here, along with top-grade gyokuro, and many private label pu-erhs put together by true tea masters.
  • General form – with the exception of matcha (and possibly some others), premium teas will generally not be in that “ground to dust” form filling those millions of teabags out there; in fact, they will usually not be in teabags but will be packed loose in a sealed pouch or tea tin.

Some Signs that Availability Is Increasing

You know how you can tell when your pristine, golfcourse-looking lawn has a dandelion problem? Yep, those bright yellow flowers dotting the landscape. Well, tea is a bit like that. Smaller vendors have been popping up like those sunny weedy flowers. I’m talking about the ones that focus on those premium teas, not the ones that focus on flavored teas (with lots of stuff added in among the tea leaves), and have them as 90% or more of their total tea line-up. Another sign of those premium teas becoming more mainstream is when you see big vendors start to carry them. I received several samples like that recently. The vendor generally carries only bagged teas in those tall, round tins. But they have brought out several more premium teas such as a first flush Darjeeling and a Milk Oolong. Still another sign for me was a photo of a guy in London… yes, that’s London, England! …who was demonstrating the gongfu style of preparing tea. Boy, things have sure changed in Merry Olde England! Yippee!

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

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