"Premium," "gourmet," "specialty," "topend," "whole-leaf," "full-leaf." Tea marketers use these adjectives in hopes of differentiating their brands of tea from commercial grades of bag tea. However, because there is no commonly accepted retail grading scheme for tea, all too often the only differences are the words the salesperson uses and the packaging, not the tea itself. There are teas, which I will refer to as "choice rare teas" that truly are a level of quality above these so-called "premium" teas.
Relatively few people in North America, outside of an elite circle of connoisseurs, know of these high-quality teas. Properly prepared, choice rare teas offer tea drinkers an experience akin to the drinking of very fine coffees or wines. Choice rare teas have rich aromas, complex flavors and lingering aftertastes.
Just as the supplies of the best coffees and wines are limited, the supply of choice rare teas is limited. Growing conditions, required expertise in the manufacturing process and market forces work together to limit the supply of these teas.
Such factors as elevation, soil moisture, and the age of the tea plant itself determine the quality of leaves from a tea bush. Carefully cultivated, pruned and maintained, the best teas grow at high elevations on small farms or in the gardens of larger estates. While many factors are in control of the estate manager, such external factors as weather can make the difference between a great harvest and an ordinary one.
Tea bushes typically produce "flushes," or growths of tea leaves that are harvested many times a year. Bushes at higher elevations produce fewer flushes than those at lower elevations, resulting in a smaller quantity of tea leaves produced. And, while older tea plants produce better teas, they often produce fewer tea leaves than younger plants. Typically, tea plants must be at least 50 years old to produce choice rare teas. Very old bushes produce flushes that lack the intensity of tea liquor produced by bushes in their prime.
Not all tea leaves that a bush produces are of equal quality. The top two leaves and the bud of each branch are the "fine pluck," the best the tea bush has to offer.
These leaves are the youngest and most succulent on the bush and offer the most flavor potential. These two leaves and a bud, or in the case of China green tea, the single top leaf and the bud, are the raw material of the choice teas of the world.
As with many agricultural products, market forces tend to favor quantity of production over quality. As market demand for all grades of tea increases, growers of tea are under pressure to produce and sell larger volumes of tea leaves and to cut production costs. As a result, only a few growers are able to continue the traditional practices that can yield superb teas.
The harvest/processing of choice rare teas is a time-consuming art. The estate manager makes a myriad of interrelated decisions that effect the quality of the finished product. The decisions include when to pick leaves (before or after the rains, what time of day), how to process the teas (what type of drying procedure to use, how long to dry) and similar decisions in other steps of the process that relate to withering and oxidizing. The knowledge and skill to make these decisions correctly come from a legacy of many generations and experience gained through years of practice. Only the correct application of the proper procedures at the exact time achieves the most sought after of successes, the production of choice rare teas. Only a few teas each year achieve this level of quality and they are highly sought after.
Giant tea houses purchase tea fannings by metric tons through a global network of international brokers. The distribution of choice rare teas is not so modernized. In the end, their distribution still is determined largely by personal relationships. To gain access to the few chests of those teas, prospective buyers must work with one of a small number of experienced brokers. The choice lots are, with rare exception, sold at private auction.
These "by invitation only" affairs are complete with sealed bids, a setting similar to the bazaars in which choice rare teas were sold in the days of Marco Polo.
When a broker captures the prize of a small amount of these teas, the broker sends out samples to a select network of tea merchants, who appreciate the best in tea and are willing to take the expense of covering up-front expenses. Tea merchants purchase their lots only after a master taster, with an encylopedic knowledge of the teas of the world, samples the teas.
Therefore, the only practical alternative for establishments that wish to offer their customers the unique experience of choice rare teas is to enter into relationships with tea merchants that they can trust.
Much of the taste experience of tea is really "aroma/flavor," as detected, experienced and catalogued by the many sensors of the olfactory system. Concentrations of one part in 100,000 are detectable by our sense of smell, a mere whiff of a scent might trigger a distant memory. Only the best teas have an intense and distinctive flavor, an aroma balanced in the mouth by an astringent pungency and followed by a distinct aftertaste that leads to a lasting memory print. Once a person raises a tea cup to this type of sensory experience, it is not soon forgotten. As a result, people who drink choice rare teas are often able to remember clearly cups of tea they drank many years ago.
In order to fully experience the flavor of tea, the tea drinker should take a drink of tea, close his mouth, hold the tea in the back of the mouth, swallow the tea and exhale through the nose, while keeping his mouth closed. This heightens the "flavor" experience.
Drinking choice rare tea is more than a mere consumption of a beverage. It is here I speak for TEA! Drinking these teas gives the drinker a variety of benefits, including memorable moments, tastes and flavors. The higher the quality of the tea drunk, the more benefits the tea will give. Those who experience choice rare teas properly prepared will find that the tea will wash away the dust of everyday living and bring tranquility to their souls.
Drinkers of rare tea should make a ritual of preparing their tea properly and drinking it so that they experience special moments in their day, and for this, TEA will give them back special moments in life.