We wanted to give some guidelines about judging the tea that you buy. These are just guidelines, not rules; a starting point for judging tea. We realize that it is hard to determine much from what you see here on the internet – it's a huge difference being able to actually taste it before you buy, especially if it is an expensive tea. Even seeing and smelling can't be trusted for anything except avoiding those teas which are obviously inferior. That being said, we have done the most we could in effort to virtually hand you the teas for inspection. Our photo methodology has been limited to a Minolta G500 point-and-shoot digital camera, with a white table and simple teaware for the mounting and backdrop of every single photo found on GoldenTeahouse.com. The only photo corrections have been the contrast adjustments to help preserve the original tea colours. All the tea infusions that you see in the photos have gone through one full infusion to show their original colour. Our goal is for you to be able to hold your tea to the screen and see an exact duplicate image of the product.
Chinese tea is subject to a great deal of misinformation, mislabeling and a certain amount of 'Chinese Whsipers' as it gets passed from one merchant to the next. It is often the case that the retailer is selling the tea in good faith, but has been misled somewhere along the chain, and the tea is not really what the retailer, and therefore the consumer, thinks it is. So it is important to determine whether the retailer buys directly from the farms, or whether one, two, three or more (as is often the case) middle men are involved. Most tea goes from the farms to a broker, then to a market, then to another broker before making its way overseas, where it is often submitted to more of the same before it reaches the retailer.
The best way of doing this is to look at whether the retailer can promise where the tea has come from. If it is just a country or a vague province, or it doesn't even say, then it's a fair bet that the retailer himself doesn't know for sure where his product originated. Many online teas just have a style - for example, Lapsang Souchong - but in reality some of these don't even come from China, let alone the Lapsang Farm!
Additionally, it is very useful for the retailer or supplier to be fluent in Chinese! We have seen, on more than one occasion, tea labeled as 'first grade', next to a photo of a wrapper that clearly states (clearly if you can read Chinese, that is!) that it is of a lower grade altogether. Pu-erh tea is especially vulnerable to this mislabeling - or rather, it's easier for the Chinese speaker to be able to spot the mistakes!
We hope this will give you some way to evaluate the teas you buy on line
Tea, especially Chinese tea, has always failed to be graded in any kind of objective way, especially the good quality tea. We doubt it if ever will, or should be - it is not coffee! Can you imagine trying to grade fine wine? There are thousands of great teas to be discovered, and the best way to learn about tea is to experience it. Ultimately, the tea you like is great tea! We are very proud of our tea, but we encourage you to try other sites. So if you are exploring the vast world of tea, we hope this will help you.
1) By the look
The shape of the leaf, and the color. The shape varies for different kinds of tea. The unbroken tea leaf is always preferable, whether it is leaf or bud. Bitterness comes from broken leaves. Broken leaves are also a sign of machine-harvested tea. Keep in mind, however, that some tea, especially black tea, is cut to provide for stronger tasting tea. Also, many oolongs are deliberately 'bruised' or abraded to give flavor and improve appearance.
The dry leaves and wet leaves should be examined - wet leaves when they are fully opened. There is a lot to be learned from the wet leaf. How the leaf was oxidized is evident. The are many colors of dry green tea and the way it has been processed can be seen in the color. For example, hand fired leaves will be a little bit yellow, steamed tea has the look of a leafy green vegetable, like spinach, and baked green tea will be a very dark green. Upon brewing the tea it should become close to the color it was when it was picked. Age will affect the color of the tea water, causing it to be brown or very murky green. The color of black tea water should be bright reddish gold and should leave a ring in the cup. The dry tea leaves from dark fermented oolong, like WuYi Mountain and Dan Cong/Phoenix Mountain oolongs are a dark green/brown color. It is said that Tieguanyin oolongs appear like 'a dragonfly's head' - the color is a bright to dark green. Anxi oolongs are lighter than Taiwan oolongs. Good Green teas in general are smaller, more delicate buds and leaf, and oolongs are a bigger leaf where the 'created' edge is obvious.
2) By the smell
Generally, there are two smells to consider, the dry smell and the wet smell. The dry smell should be obvious. If there is no smell to the dry leaves they are very suspect. Green tea should have a light, fresh, soothing fragrance, from a light orchid to a chestnutty smell. Black tea should have a sweet, floral fragrance, and the smell should not be easily lost. The aroma of dry Oolongs can range from peach to Osmanthus flowers, whilst the smell of Tieguanyin should remind you of sweet corn. In judging scented tea (such as Jasmine), the smell should be maintained over multiple infusions. If a scented tea loses it's smell quickly, the quality is poor. It should be remembered that the fragrance of a tea is just as important in judging a tea as its taste.
3) By touch
Through touch you can determine if the tea leaves are smooth or coarse, whether or not it crumbles easily, and whether it is heavy or light. A good Green tea feels smooth, not coarse, and the wet leaves should be tender. Tieguanyin should be heavy and dense. Wet tea leaves from the true Tieguanyin bush should also be tender, almost like silk, but also sturdy. Whatever the tea, it should not crumble easily; if it does, it has been baked too long or is too old.
4) By the taste
The best way to judge a tea, of course, is by the taste. Green tea should taste fresh, not stale, and should not be too astringent. Black tea should be full bodied and fresh. In general, good Chinese tea has a sweet aftertaste and should feel very slippery going down the throat. The aftertaste should linger for a noticeably long time, like the feeling you have after listening to music, when a good tune lingers. Some teas can provide a very interesting taste by sipping some water while the aftertaste is present, the effect being quite dramatic. Remember that tasting Chinese tea is like tasting wine: slurp it to aerate it (unlike in Western countries, in China slurping your tea is a sign of appreciation and knowledge and not considered bad manners!), let it slide down the middle of the tongue in one sip, and down the sides of the tongue in the next, followed by the whole tongue with big slurping. Pay attention to the subtleties and the complexity of the tea. A large part of learning to appreciate tea is learning to slow down and pay attention to the subtleties.
We hope that these rough guidelines will have helped you enhance your Chinese tea experience. But, as we always say, it is really up to you. The best teas are the ones you enjoy drinking the most. And the only way to find those teas is by trying as many as possible. The world of tea is an exciting place to explore and we hope that we can be a part of your journey...