What can we learn from the shape of black tea?
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
Even before picking, there is a lot the shape of a tea leaf can tell us. Consider the photo above: by simply twisting the leaf Mr. Xie can know if a leaf is ready to be picked, and processed, into black tea. If the leaf is too young, it will be too tender and fall apart. If the leaf is too old, it will be too inflexible and will tear. Only when the leaf is at the optimal level of maturity will it twist into a tight strip. Once this test is performed, Mr. Xie will know if it is the right time to harvest. Unfortunately, not all farmers know this sort of trick. When picked too early, or too late, in the season, a farmer can end up producing tea of an inferior quality. In the following photos, we provide a short study on what information you can learn from the shape of processed tea.
For our study we procured three Red Jade black teas from three different farmers. On the outside, we have two Red Jades from the Mingjian region of Nantou County. The one on the left we will call Mingjian A, and the one on the right we will call Mingjian B. In the middle we have a Red Jade produced by Mr. Xie in Yuchi Township.
During our visual inspection of Mingjian A, we unfortunately find several problems with this production. The leaves are coarse, of an uneven size, and we believe that they picked old leaves, as well as new buds. We believe this because the picking does not follow the standard of one bud, two leaves that most high quality Red Jade is picked at. Using old leaf material is a sure way to reduce the quality of your tea. This is because new buds typically have more intense flavors than older growth leaves. When we try this tea, we find that the defining characteristics of Red Jade (mainly a hing of mint) are missing. That being said, this tea is by no means bad. It is drinkable, and would perhaps suite a cold brew method.
Mingjian B is unfortunately far too weak to make any positive impression. The flavor is incredibly light, and does not give you any hint that it is a Red Jade. The mouthfeel is also tannic, and produces an unpleasant dryness. Like Mingjian A, the leaves seem to be a mix of old and new growth. However, Mingjian B also shows signs of being produced in a rush. The leaves are unevenly twisted. While this may seem like a small thing, it can lead to a lot of problems for the finished tea. By having an uneven shape and size, the leaf may be processed to differing levels of finish. A more open strip may get too dried out, while a more tightly twisted strip may still be somewhat damp inside. This could lead to the note of tannin we found in this tea.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Mr. Xie's Red Jade. We think the difference of his production is obvious. The leaves are uniform in size, and are all tightly twisted into a strip shape. We can also see that there are no old growth leaves mixed in with his production. This is because Mr. Xie follows the standard of one bud, two leaves. Because of these factors, we can tell just by the shape of his tea that he produces tea with an eye towards quality. We are happy to say that this commitment to quality bears fruit in the taste of his tea. His Red Jade has the fragrance of cinnamon and mint. The taste is minty with a delicate sweetness, and has undertones of bakers spice and wood. The mouthfeel is soft, and could best be described as "round". All in all, this is a phenomenal Red Jade.