The first element in evaluating quality in specialty tea is the finished tea leaf. The examination of the leaf tells many stories. With few exceptions, a well-processed tea leaf should be completely intact, unbroken, pristine, with wulongs being one of the exceptions. This element is the first to consider because it establishes the skill of the tea maker. It takes skill not to break a tea leaf during the tea making process.
The condition of the leaf is the most obvious element in judging quality. The larger the percentage of broken leaf, the greater the devaluation of the tea.
Why is an unbroken leaf important? The answer relates to the biology of the tea plant. Plants are not passive when it comes to defending themselves against predators; the type of defense the tea plant uses is a chemical one. The first bite a predator takes will be bitter and unpleasant. The second bite, for many predators, can even be toxic. The plant can concentrate chemicals like caffeine and other chemicals along the edge of the leaf where the insect bit. These chemicals are bitter for the tea drinker too. The bitterness that comes from a broken leaf differs from the natural astringency found in good quality tea. Both excite the same taste buds, but the broken leaf bitterness stays the same throughout the drinking experience whereas the natural astringency is more complicated and ever changing on the palate.
Tea making is a process with the goal to remove bitterness from the raw tea leaf and to preserve it for later consumption. When the aim of tea making changed from quality to quantity, the condition of the leaf changed as well. This change took place in Assam. The point was to make the oxidation of the tea leaf for black tea quicker. The rolling process ripped the leaf apart causing a lot of bitterness. A reduction in production time resulted. Access to cheap sugar played an important role, as did milk, and in India, spices too, for market acceptance. Now the CTC (cut tear and curl) process leaves none of the leaf even apparent as flakes.
The Chinese began the practice of breaking the leaf too, but this was done after production completed. Merchants and tea makers jumped up and down on the leaf of black tea to get more inside a chest, smashing the leaves. I witnessed a Darjeeling tea maker shred tea that he had made with great care for a German company that needed to fill a package with a certain amount. The tea would have maintained good taste, but the sign of his skill as a tea maker disappeared from the final product.
Breaking the leaf during processing creates a defect. Recognizing the defect eliminates mechanically harvested tea as qualifying for specialty distinction. The Japanese both use mechanical harvesting and make tea completely by machine. Sellers would have to stop calling most Japanese tea “specialty tea.”
Shu puer, sometimes called cooked or black puer, would suffer from elimination from the specialty category. It currently is the practice in China to use lower quality maocha, the basic ingredient, in the production of shu puer, and this tea is broken during the composting process. Here again, the taste might no be greatly affected, but it would leave us with no way to judge the quality of the maocha. It is possible to make shu puer with good quality maocha and not break the leaf, but that is currently not done.
There are a lot of nuances to this standard, so expect to see a lot of conversation. The cases in Assam, Japan, and Yunnan that are listed above are just a few of examples where there is bound to be resistance against standards for specialty tea, and there will be a lot more. By no means am I saying that Assam, Japan, or black puer tea makers in Yunnan are incapable of making truly quality tea. They are capable of making great tea — and are more likely to do so if customers recognize the value. Customers are inclined to pay a better price when they are assured of the value. I think it will be especially true for this element because it is so recognizable to consumers.
Recognizing unbroken leaf as a standard for quality gives an unsophisticated tea drinker the ability to make a more informed purchase, even online. The goal of standards is to give that power to the consumer, and bring recognition to the tea maker. Please support standards by signing up here.