Just like people, not all tea leaves are created equal. Some of us are taller, wider, thinner, shorter, more humorous, and so on. Tea leaves also vary. This is especially important when you are buying premium teas that are usually carefully sorted to be of a certain type and grade, unlike blends that have teas of all grades in them. Getting the grade you want, though, can depend a lot on how those leaves are graded. Grading standards developed over the years tend to vary between tea growing countries and for the type of tea being produced. They tend to take certain factors into account.
The Leaf Appearance and Size Uniformity
- 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.
Harvesting Early vs. Late in the Growing Season
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.
Processed Leaf Piece Sizes
The range of sizes of the finished tea leaf pieces goes from full leaf, broken leaf, and fannings, to dust. There is a debate among experts on both sides about this factor, with some swearing that only full leaf teas offer a complete tea experience (a view I can wholly support) and others saying dust steeps up a strong liquid from less tea leaf material.
One of the best-known grading systems 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). Definitely a system that holds to the “full leaf is better” side of the debate.
Processing by Hand versus by Machine
There is much debate among tea professionals about the relative grade of a tea that is hand-processed versus one that is machine-processed with 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.
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. The Kenyan tea is less likely to be bitter.
What It All Adds Up To
Not saying that one thing is better than another. Try different tea grades to see which suits you best. Go exploring and have some wonderful tea adventures, no matter what the grade of the tea is. And don’t let anyone tell you that liking something of a “lower” grade is not good. You like what you like.