What makes a quality tea? Part 1

  • 4 minutes reading

    There's so many factors to consider when evaluating whether a tea is of high quality or not. I understand that it can feel daunting, but I've gathered a small checklist which hopefully helps you along the way. One thing to remember is to focus on all the areas on the checklist, not just one as it doesn't give you the whole picture. In this first section I'll focus on origin, as it is the most important factor in quality tea.

    One tip is to compare things how they are with wine or coffee, they grow the same way and the importance of origin is equally as important in tea as with coffee and wine.

    Tea farm in Malawi



    Quality is made in origin, so whether a tea is of high quality or not, it's revealed by looking at the origin. It's the combination of a carefully deliberated, high quality habitat and the skilled processing after the tea is picked = terroir (a term well-known in the wine industry). A tea grower knows its farm best and the tea farmer needs to choose the right kind of tea plant which is suitable to their farm, altitude, soil, climate etc. Then they need to have the know-how to extract all the yummy flavours that have been developing in the tea plant by processing the tea properly for just the specific tea that they're processing at that time. This at its best optimizes the flavours, and the meaning is to bring forth the unique flavors that can only be found in this specific plant from this specific place and with this specific processing. Just like wine.

    Orthodox tea processing in Satemwa

    Quality teas often come from small farms and are always whole leaf, meaning not broken at all.This kind of tea cultivation is called orthodox tea. This way of growing tea has it's focus on the tea plant, providing the most possibilities for the plant to develop interesting flavours in a sufficient amount of time (for example by choosing a high altitude which makes the plant grow slower, giving more time for flavours to develop) then processing the leaves the way that supports these flavours that have been produced within the leaf before picking. In ortodox tea there's only the bud (=unopened top leaf) and max. two upper leaves picked. Again, this is because orthodox tea focuses on the flavours of the plant: this top part includes the most aroma compounds, the freshest flavours and the most nutrients and caffeine. 

    The opposite of orthodox tea is CTC tea. Meaning crush, tear, curl. This way of tea cultivation has its focus on providing the largest amount of tea possible, at the lowest cost. This is mass-production, in huge tea estates. The tea leaves are always ground to small pieces, as the name CTC suggests. They don't focus on the taste development in the plant, as the flavours are made in the processing step, the aim is to produce a strong and cheap tea where the specific nuances are lost, as these teas most likely end up in tea bags, blended with other CTC teas from other areas, countries and continents to create a strong and powerful taste. So here you'll not taste the flavours of tea leaf itself, you taste the flavours of rough and violent processing. That's why all teas are picked by machines, tearing so much more leaves than the top bud and two leaves. So again compare it with wine: you don't want to have the strongest wine possible in quality wines, you want the wine that has most interesting flavours, and this can only be by choosing a wine that comes from one specific place that has been allowed to grow in an optimal habitat and processed with utmost care.

    Of course there are more skilled tea growers and less skilled ones even within orthodox tea. You will taste the difference.

    Transparency is everything. Normally in tea world there's about 8-10 middlemen from tea farm to consumer. That info about origin and processing gets lost, and suddenly all teas, good and bad, stand on the same line because there's no information about the origin. Then it's impossible to determine the quality level of tea, when you have no information about the origin, the farmer and the plant. Every bit of information that you can get from the farm and the plant is key to determining the quality level of tea. Here you need to have more information than "The tea grows in the Szechuan district in China". The narrower the place description, the higher chance for the tea to be of higher quality. We sell only Single Estate teas, meaning they come from only one farm. That way the flavours are so much clearer and more nuanced, again, just like wine.

    CTC tea warehouse

    The tea packages seldom say whether they are orthodox or CTC teas, as the consumers aren't there yet with their knowledge base, so there's no point in highlighting these terms. This is because the tea has traditionally been traded through middlemen for centuries so people haven't got the access to origin information. But this is changing, luckily, as with everything from clothes to food industry: the transparency is a huge focus area as the information increases and consumers are becoming more aware of what they're consuming.

    The more information about the tea, the better. Trust me, if the tea is of high-quality, the tea seller tells you the information regarding the exact location, more information about the tea farm, tea grower and processing.

    Checklist origin:

    • Does the tea seller tell you the farm(s) the tea comes from?
    • Does the tea seller tell you how the tea's been processed (as this is an important factor when creating flavours)?
    • Does the tea seller have the picking date?

    One thing to remember: even orthodox teas can be of low quality, this way of processing isn't the only thing to consider when assessing the level of tea quality. Same applies for the knowledge of information about the origin: even though you'd know the exact farm where the tea comes from, it doesn't mean it automatically makes it a high quality tea. 

    The following sections open up a deeper understanding, which other factors alongside origin makes a quality tea.