En Jie Rudd

Tea look matters

The Chinese traditional wisdom has always told me that ‘you cannot judge a person by his/her appearance’ (人不可貌相).

How is the look of a tea associated with its quality

tea leaf shootsI was reading a tea book (one of my earliest tea books) quite some time ago on how to assess the quality of different green teas. Each and every one started from the ‘look’ of a tea – a good tea has to have the right shape. I puzzled for a long time trying to understand how the look of a tea can make it taste better.

A few years later, I visited a family at Dong-Shan (Eastern Hill) of the Tai Lake where the best Bi-Luo-Chun has been historically produced. It all made sense after a day’s visit.

The production of DongTing Bi-Luo-Chun at Dong-Shan is still family based. Of the crops produced each year, they are graded/priced by the strict timing of the harvest – the earlier (of the spring season) a tea is harvested , the better the quality and therefore the higher price. All family members are involved in the tea harvesting, but the priciest tea leaves are only processed by the most experienced family members (the mother and father of the family in this case). The less experienced members only get to practice on the less valuable tea leaves until they become as experienced.

The link between the quality of a tea and its appearance

The link between the quality and the appearance is therefore:

The better the quality of the raw materials -> more likely to have a more experienced/skillful person to process it -> more likely for the end product to have all the right qualities including the appearance.

This is the very reason that the shape of the tea is mentioned frequently in the quality assessment, for example: a Dragon Well green tea has to be yellowish green and tight flat; A Taiwan High mountain rolled Oolong has to be dark green and in tight rolled pearls; A Pu-erh tea cake need to be firm with regular edge etc. 

Other products with the same principle

With time I understand this also applies to other products with high level manual/skill work, such as Yixing Zisha teapots. The experienced Zisha artists will not spend time and effort working on the low quality clay, and the inexperienced ‘starters’ do not often get to work on the premium Zisha clay.

 

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Unexpected objects found in loose leaf teas

A recent case

Dragon Well green teaWe have had a recent complaint from a customer who was genuinely upset because she found a couples of small sticks in the premium grade Dragon Well tea she purchased from us (shown in the image). She was upset because she understood the premium grade Dragon Well tea should only contain tip leaves, but not twigs – which is in the tea description. It took me quite some effort, inspections and sampling to convince her that the twigs are not part of the composition of the tea, but mixed in by accident which is not uncommon for a manually handled agricultural product like tea.

The cause

We are all aware that different categories of teas, green tea, white tea, Oolong tea, black tea, Pu-erh tea/Hei Cha and jasmine tea are processed differently. What is in common is that the premium loose teas are mostly handmade, in multiple stages and often carried out in the villages of the tea farmers with basic equipment. With manual work as such, very step and stage has the potential for some unwanted objects ‘to join in’.
The following link gives a glimpse of how manual it is to make a Pu-erh tea. The entire process of making a loose tea can take up days (some years if taking into account the after production storage period for the purpose of aging) with continuous manual involvement.

For those who have never witnessed an actual tea processing, finding a piece of human hair in the tea can certainly cause a panic which is understandable. For someone like me however who grew up with a tea culture like shown in the video clip, it is actually not so scary as I understand even with the best attempt by the tea farmers to avoid this, the chance of a piece hair fallen into the tea is rather high. For example, it is not really practical to expect the tea farms to ware factory caps when plucking the tea leaves in the tea fields or in the wild for teas like Pu-erh. If any human hair fell and mixed with tea leaves, unless it is spotted during the following stages and removed, it will show up when the tea is consumed. This is not to justify the existence of these foreign objects, but to explain how they happened.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE-aXKxPagY

Some examples of the foreign objects

Benign ones: 

  • Leaves of different grades, for example odd large old leaves
  • Tea twigs
  • Bamboo/straw pieces
  • Corn kernels
  • Tea flower seeds

More severe ones:

  • Small screws
  • Small insects
  • Small feathers
  • Human hair
  • Tarpaulin fabric

How to minimise the potential harm

To start, the potential harm imposed by these objects are rather low mainly because we only consume the tea brew but not digesting the tea leave. We also always advise the following when preparing a tea brew:

  • Inspect the dry tea leaves before adding to the tea vessel
  • Rinse the tea leaves with hot water before brewing, especially those that are aged such as Pu-erh tea and Hei Cha

Final note: 

  1. Some teas are more likely than the others to have these objects discovered. For example, there are regular reports of foreign objects found in Pu-erh cakes or bricks, largely due to the traditional processing methods and practices. 
  2. The objects are not indicative of the quality grade of the teas. There might have been more attention paid to the exclusive grade tea products, but the potential of discovery of foreign objects still exists. 
  3. The Chinese have consumed their teas exactly the same way for a long history. There is more concern caused the synthetic materials used in the agriculture - hazard caused by the foreign objects is almost unheard of. 

 

 

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Sky prices of Chinese teas

Teas that are more expensive than gold

buy Pu erh teaThere are some exclusive ‘breeds’ of Chinese teas that are currently fetching prices more than gold, a phenomenon that struck many.

Some examples are:

  • The Wu Yi Oolong Da Hong Pao from the original Da Hong Pao tea tree of Jiu-Long-Ke (九龙窠), is priced for 5,200,000 Yuan/500g, that is 10,400 Yuan/g - equivalent to the value of 10 residential apartments in the Wu Yi area, or 34 times of the gold price.
  • The Mao Cha harvested from the Pu-erh king tree of Lao-Ban-Zhang was sold for 240,000 Yuan/500g in 2108.
  • The most famous Rou Gui (a premium Wu Yi rock tea) from the Niu-Lan-Keng (牛栏坑) is being sold for 30,000 Yuan/500g on the current market.
  • 1,280,000 Yuan/500g Longjing (Dragon Well green tea) in 2018.
  • 745,000 Yuan/500g Xin-Yang Mao Jian green tea in 2019.

Note: 1USD=6.7 Chinese Yuan

The above products are not only selling, but hard to get in some cases. The list of sky prices Chinse teas is also growing.

To understand this phenomenon, we need to take a few steps back and start from some fundamentals.

Tea is more than a beverage in China

In China, tea is a beverage, a culture, an obsession and inspiration to many historical and modern artists. Many Chinese ancient poems feature teas and tea consumption as spiritual elements, romantised if not centred in their works.

At the same time, the art of producing the finest teas has been an obsession by the tea farmers, right down to the finest details. High quality teas = demands = profits. The highly developed skills are guarded as intellectual properties and passed down only to the male descendants of the families and kept secret.

The determinants of the quality of a tea

There are tow crucial determinants of the quality of a tea: the quality of the tea leaves and the skills to process them.

There are numerous factors that influence the quality of the tea leaves. The area of production, the species (or particular plant/plants) of the tea bushes/trees and the harvesting time are among the most important ones.

Contributing factors of the sky prices

The affordability that came with the fast expansion of wealth in China is an obviously one.

The one to pay attention here is also a unique obsession about the ‘exclusiveness’ of products that is almost unique to the Chinese. If a product is exclusive (paired with the quality), sky is the limit for its price.

For the sky price teas: they are often marketed as:

  • Tea leaves from xxx tea trees, such as Pu-erh; or xxx area such as Rou Gui; or both such as Da Hong Pao
  • Hand made by xxx tea master

The real statement behind is: there is not another one like it on the current market.

Then it comes the practice of ‘faking’ the exclusive

Tea industry is a market that is relatively difficult to regulate, as it is difficult to standardise the tea quality especially at the top end. Tea consumers are the judge, and many are often not experienced enough to differentiate the subtle differences.

With the astonishing profit margins, a ‘faking’ practice is unfortunately in the brew. Examples are:

  • Tea vendors use ‘blended’ teas to mimic various aspects of certain top end teas. Close but surely not the same and asking for the same or slightly lower prices.
  • False adverting. For example, some vendors would pay to erect the company signages at the exclusive tea fields (eg Niu-Lan-Keng 牛栏坑 for Rou Gui) for purely advertising purpose, such as showing to visitors or in the company advertising materials. Many never use a leaf from these fields in their products.
  • The claims made ‘hand made by xxx’, the truth is that he/she barely looked at the process.

There is an insider information from the Wu-Yi Oolong indsutary that 98% of the Niu-Lan-Keng (牛栏坑) Rou Gui is not from  Niu-Lan-Keng.

The obvious victims of these practices: tea farmers and consumers.

 

 

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The sky rocketed white tea price

The authentic Fuding white teas

fuding white tea planationThe authentic white teas produced in the white teas’ heartland Fuding and Zhenghe of the Fujian Province (south-east of China), made from the plant species Fuding Da Bai Hao (福鼎大白毫 -Fuding Big White Fur/down) have always been considered as one of the top premium Chinese teas and have their unique role on the premium Chinese teas’ stage.

What is so special about Fuding white teas

Fuding white teas are known for their:

  • Limited production – only produced in a small pocket area of the Fujian Province of China.
  • Made from the unique species of the tea plan Fuding Da Bai Hao (福鼎大白毫 -Fuding Big White Fur/down), the tea leaves are strong, bold and rich in flavour.
  • Least processed tea of all teas, no rubbing, pressing or baking, simply withered and sun dried (with highly developed skills).
  • Refreshingly sweet in nature when fresh, age into mature teas with potent medicinal functions if stored probably.

Reasons for Fuding white teas' price hike

The Fuding white teas’ prices have in fact sky rocketed during the recent years. The market announced a 10-20% price hike over the 2018 new year after 10-35% increase in 2017 – determined by the market demand and supply ratio.

There reasons behind the hikes are as follow.  

Aged tea consumption culture

There has been a general increase in interest in consuming quality aged teas. Different from other well processed aged teas, such as Pu-erh tea and Hei Cha, white teas are:

  • Fresh and delicate to drink when young, similar to their green tea cousins. 
  • Age as un-processed teas while reserves all the natural ‘goodness’.

The ageing value only lays with the authentic Fuding white teas

White teas produced using other tea tree species, or using other methods than the original Fuding white teas' processing method do not possess the Fuding white teas' ageing potential and health properties.

Buy new tea, drink aged tea

Unlike most of other tea varieties, which are at their prime either fresh or well aged, white teas are ideal for consumption both young and aged. The locals have a tradition of buying seasonal white teas and drinking aged white teas.

The all rounded natures of Fuding white teas, the bold and elegant appearance, the gentle yet delicate pure flavour and the potent health effects all contribute to their increasing favour among tea consumers. 

 

 

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The age of a Pu-erh when there is not a production date

As we all know, often the first thing we check on a compressed Pu-erh is the date on the back of its packaging – age equals the value and quality in many Pu-erh consumer’s mind. A date on the back Yunnan Pu-erh teawas however not required until 2007 as part of the local government's attempt to regular the Pu-erh production industry. So how do you decide the age of a Pu-erh produced before 2007 with a blank back like the one in the image?

A production date was regarded as not essential for Pu-erh teas until 2007, mainly due to there is not an expiry date for Pu-erh teas – the more they are aged the better, and the traditional way of how they were produced – in the villages and families. During the recent decades, various methods have been used to ‘fake’ Pu-erh’s age for the purpose of fetching a high price on the market. There are various aspects associated with an aged Pu-erh, such as tea colour and texture etc, each one can be manipulated up to certain point. The multiple aspects and dynamic nature of Pu-erh teas make judging their actual age hard, not only for the beginners buy also for many experienced Pu-erh consumers.

To establish some standards, the local governments in the Yunnan Province introduced the 12 points of information, such as the production date, the manufacturer and location etc, to be printed on the back of a Pu-erh product (apart from Maocha) in 2007 to offer consumers some references.

For the products produced before 2007 with a blank back, one can only go back to the very basics of aged Pu-erh teas drawn from experiences: colour, aroma, taste, texture and aftertaste.Buy Pu-erh tea

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