How to Analyze Tea
There are over 2,000 varietals, of the tea plant--accounting for thousands of different types of tea, each with their own unique characteristics and flavor profiles. Like fine wine, tea's flavor is influenced by the tea bush varietal, country of origin, season of harvest, climate, soil, elevation, at what time of day and how it is picked, processing, degree of oxidation, blending, packaging, transportation and storage.
Below is a brief summary of some of the key factors and how they influence the final product.
Teas need mostly sunny weather for best results. In regions with long rainy seasons harvesting takes place only six months of the year.
Altitudes play a significant role in the final characteristics of the teas. The world’s finest teas are grown in the highest altitudes. The reason for this is the cooler temperatures slow the growth of the leaves, which in the process allows for the development of distinctive qualities.
During harvesting, only the top 1-2 inches of the plant are picked. These buds and leaves are called “flushes.” A plant will grow a new flush several times during the growing season – depending on the region teas can be plucked 3-4 times/season. The flavor of the tealeaf changes with each flush throughout the summer and into fall.
- 1st or 2nd flushes produce the best teas because it takes the plant all year to store the proper nutrients to create high quality leaves.
- 3rd and 4rth flushes are usually used for Mass-produced teabags
The leaves used during processing greatly influence both quality and taste. While some tea plantations use machines to assist in manufacturing, the best and most expensive teas are still harvested as they were thousands of years ago—by hand. Tea pickers, carrying straw baskets on their backs, collect each leaf individually from rows of tea plants. Women Harvesting Tea
When evaluating the appearance of the leaf as an indicator of quality, it is important to consider what size, shape and style is appropriate to that specific variety of tea. Some extremely high quality Japanese teas come from tiny, needle-like leaves that half the size of their lower-quality counterparts, which come from larger, older leaves. Also, because some teas are tightly rolled during processing, the actual size of the leaf may not be visible until after it unfurls in hot water.
Also, some teas (often black teas) can be made from broken leaf grades and still be exceptional in quality and flavor. In fact, certain types of tea are purposely broken into small pieces during processing to enhance flavor. The smaller leaf-size allows the water to extract more flavor in a shorter period of time. Broken-leaf teas are not to be confused with "fannings" or "dust" used in common paper tea bags, which consist of the poorest quality tea that becomes stale very quickly due to its powdered consistency and high surface-to-air ration.