There are stars, that float above our heads and inspire us: Savion Glover, Ferran Adria, and Beethoven.
Then, there is the rest – good – but stuck on the ground.
If we took away all the stories, the legends, the marketing and the packaging, how would we distinguish the stars from those that are destination earthbound? Is it all about looks? Is all that is left to do is to make shallow judgements based on appearances?
When it comes to tea, YES. We are allowed to judge the leaves by their looks alone. Even before tasting the brew, you can come to some conclusions about how it will taste and the skill of the tea maker.
What exactly are we supposed to be looking for?
I presented some expensive tea leaves to tea master Fu Chen. These were super rare and supposedly some of the most exquisite in the world. One pot for a consumer may cost over USD $100. I had already taste tested them and concluded that I wasn’t happy with it. However, it was expensive, grown in an exotic location, only 300 kilos produced a year, all picked by and produced by hand, with a legendary process and shape, requiring each leaf to be laid down piece by piece. I wanted her expert opinion and explanation, beyond my simple, “This isn’t that good.”
Tea master Fu Chen pulled one wet leaf out, took a look and said, “I don’t need to taste this. It’s going to be bitter and astringent. It will give me a stomach ache.” She didn’t taste it. Because she was right. The tea was bitter, astringent, and not that pleasant. It felt really dry and after a sip I instantly wished I had some matchajores as an antidote. (Cookies fix everything) The tea did have a very nice fragrance, and for that person who drops a few hundred dollars on a pot of tea, this may be enough to convince themselves that it is worth it. Not for Fu Chen. Nothing gets past her trained eyes.
What she looks for is the result of the withering process. A certain amount of water needs to leave the leaf before moving on to the next step of rolling. Withering is very important because when the leaves are too dry, or too wet, the wrong flavors become prominent.
When too much water is left in the leaf, the resulting brew could be too bitter. If the leaves were withered too much, the resulting brew could be sour.
There are a few ways to see this in the leaf.
This leaf looked pretty good to me, until things were explained.
The stem of this leaf is more reddish brown, while the leaves are green. The very fine young tip of the leaf is more white. All of these different colors within the leaf represents that the withering process was incomplete and too much water was left in the leaf before it was rolled. A leaf like that will probably taste grassy, and less floral, along with the unwanted astringency and bitterness.
A good tasting (and good looking) leaf will be almost uniform in color, like the star-quality leaf below on the left. The example on the left is a properly processed tea leaf. So what is wrong with the leaf on the right?
The leaf on the right looks ok. Uniform in color with a soft flexible stem. Full unbroken leaves.
Don’t be fooled!
Take a moment to squish the leaf between your fingers. If it shreds to pieces easily and feels papery dry, it means that the water within the leaf was not distributed evenly before rolling. If the water was not distributed evenly, the tea will be drying in the back of the throat and will have very little of that nice aftertaste. I squished those two leaves with equal pressure and length of time. (I promise!) You can see how the leaf on the right is more destroyed than the leaf on the left.
If the leaf is young, it will shred easily, but it should still feel slick and a little slimy-sticky between the fingers. This means it has those colloids I had tried to explain earlier, which means that it should have that wonderful gift of aftertaste.
So there it is. If you want to find that superstar tea, you need to start getting superficial. Go ahead and judge that book by its cover!