For some teas, especially higher quality teas from Japan, the standard for measuring that quality is tea leaf uniformity. For other teas this uniformity of shape and size is irrelevant and even makes one ask if tea leaf uniformity matters. When looking into this, the answer seemed simple and fairly obvious, as you will see below.
2011 Spring Nonpareil Mt Wudong Song Variety Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid)
Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong
(photo used with permission from a review of our tea – click on image to read that review)
Let’s set aside first the concept of consistency, which some equate to uniformity. Consistency is more of a taste issue and is what name brand teas go for – the main reason they blend instead of offering the teas by garden and/or flush as we do. Their customers expect a certain taste every time (difficult to do since tea will be affected by a number of factors: location grown, when harvested, how processed, the type of water used, the water temperature, the infusion time, and the steeping vessel (especially when using a Yixing/zisha clay teapot versus a gaiwan, ceramic teapot, steeping glass, or other non-porous vessel). Here we’re strictly referring to the size and shape of the leaves, especially after processing, and how those characteristics affect infusion and thus tea flavor.
Tea leaf uniformity starts with the plucking. Experienced workers look for those matching a certain criteria, based on the type of tea being harvested. Then, there is the 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. Silver Needle is a prime example. The pluckers go only for the silvery closed “buds” (which are really formations at the end of the stem consisting of a tender inner leaf and two outer leaves wrapped tight around it, whereas a true bud develops into a flower). Partially opened buds, those without silvery silky “hairs,” and those 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. Being fairly uniform in many pu-erhs is also preferable since it will help the tea age consistently.
Getting back to Japan for a moment, this uniformity is one of the characteristics sought by judges in the Shizuoka tea competition. They pile tea up high, and the higher the stack, the more plump and consistent (uniform in length, size and shape) leaves (usually needle shaped) they are and supposedly the more harmonious the tea brew. (Shizuoka is a prefecture in Japan where tea has been grown since 1241; they produce about 45% of Japan’s entire tea production.)
Now a look at a tea where such lack of uniformity is just fine. One word here: oolongs. Yes, oolongs are rather un-uniform in their final shape and size of the processed leaves. A great sample is our 2011 Spring Nonpareil Mt Wudong Song Variety Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid) Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong (photo shown above – used with permission from this review of our tea). The lack of uniformity both before and after infusing the leaves is very evident. The list of oolongs is long, with this same variation being clear to see. Not only is uniformity not needed here, it’s a waste of effort and does not achieve any difference in quality of flavor and aroma worth mentioning.
So the answer here is: it depends on which tea you’re talking about. Overall, for your own selection of which teas to buy, unless you are seeking top grade Japanese green teas, pu-erhs or premium teas like Silver Needle, don’t worry about that uniformity factor for the tea leaves.