Sunday, August 5, 2007

An Experiment Investigating Tea Grading

The larger the tea leaf the better? Well, if I have the choice between leaves from the bottom or the top of the barrel, I am going to buy the large, whole leaves that float to the top, not the "dust" at the bottom. The larger leaf grades of any given tea generally sell at higher prices than the broken bits do.

So, I go to my local tea store and buy a nice Ceylon bulk tea, with big, 2" leaves. These are nothing like the fannings I am used to seeing in black tea bags, although the bags are often composed of Ceylon black tea as well. So... I measure out about 2 grams, the same amount found in a standard tea bag. I brew it with boiling hot water, for about 4 minutes, just as I would a teabag, without the spatial constraint of the bag. The big leaves float around, uncurl nicely, and release their sweet tea goodness. But lo, the leaves produce a weak, insipid tea. I like my tea strong, that's why I went to buy the best grade Ceylon I could find!

With my usual morning tea needs not in the least bit satiated, I decide to take my frustration out on my new tea and commit the ultimate act of tea aficionado sacrilege. I take about 2 grams of the glorious leaves, that spread their wings wider than any tea exported from Ceylon, and I crush them into smithereens. And what do I get? Nothing less than expected--a potently dark cup of cha. YES!

So why is it that we like to pay lots more for big leaves, and then brew them so ineffectively? Hasn't it ever occurred to us to learn from our coffee-drinking rivals, and grind our high grade tea down for better extraction? Sure, big leaves look pretty, but they just don't do the trick unless a huge amount is brewed, or unless their big-headed megalomaniacal egos are properly put in their place and pummeled into the low ranks of the tea profiling hierarchy.



Hobbes said...

Dear Perplexd,

I suggest that constraining the amount of leaves to the quantity found in a teabag is at fault. If you take 2g of leaf, and 2g of BOP/fannings/dust, your results are probably to be expected.

Remember that the low quantity of leaf in bagged tea is only effective because:

i. the tea oils from inside the leaf dry onto the fragmented surfaces (thanks to the Crush-Tear-Curl, CTC process), allowing for a brew of acceptable colour and strength

ii. the broken leaves infuse more quickly.

Broken leaves exude bitterness quickly, however (which is why many pu'er drinkers take great pains to un-bing their leaves without breaking them). By having the advantages of rapid infusion, broken tea-bag grades are necessarily limited in the leaf quantity, otherwise it will simply become too bitter.

This is one of the reasons that I prefer the gongfucha method: unbroken leaves allow (and necessitate) the use of greater quantities - this can result in a richer flavour, with more subtleties discerned.

Also, one is obliged to use shorter infusions with higher quantities of leaf, and this allows the evolution of a tea to be observed from infusion to infusion. By using small leaf quantities and long, long infusion times (> 2 mins), the result is rather homogenising, and many of the subtle changes and nuances in the tea's character become obscured.

It's admirable that you managed to find whole-leaf Ceylon - that's certainly an achievement in its own right. I am 99% sure that none of the so-called "quality" tea vendors near me sell anything quite as whole.

Thanks for the article, and toodlepip,


Space Samurai said...

Well, Hobbes said anything I was going to say, and much, much better at that.

perpleXd said...

You are right about the bitterness factor, it is not only dependent on brew time but also the brokenness of the leaves. I think that is one thing that was so unsatisfactory about this ceylon when brewed whole--it not only didn't have the strength, but lacked the bitterness I was used to with other smaller grade ceylons. Thanks for the input!