I opened the bag, looked in, and let out a sigh.
“You don’t think it's good?” asked the shop owner in chinese.
Since she asked I replied honestly.
“This is good!” She said “You don’t understand Gua Pian. This is high quality.”
I was looking at the leaves of a Gua Pian that didn’t need much knowledge about Gua Pian to know was not good.
Gua Pian is a green tea from northern Anhui. Its home, Liu An, is located right outside the capital of Anhui, Hefei. Being in the most southern part of Anhui, Huang Shan, the Gua Pian region is near, but not near enough for me to regularly go there. I had planned to seek out Gua Pian in the future since it is a tea I believe many people will like, so I was very excited when I saw it on the Fu Xi Mao Feng seller’s wechat. But as I stood in her shop that feeling of excitement deflated like an old balloon.
“I have another one” she said and brought out a second bag. In this bag was Gua Pian that fit my understanding of Gua Pian. In the first bag the leaves were very straight….to straight. The ywere folded over in a very uniform way. In the second bag the leaves were shorter and more ugly. Each leaf and a different shape seemed more crunched up. This is the type of shape that would be achieved by hand making. The first bag’s shape, long and clean, seems something more like a machine would make.
“This tea (in the second bag) is more bitter. The higher quality tea is sweeter. Good tea is sweeter. It was picked earlier. The bitter tea was picked later” The shop lady said as she showed me the contents of both bags. If there was any doubt that the first bag was of lesser quality, it was gone now.
The way she described the reasons for high quality left no doubt in my mind that this tea was not from quality Gua Pian and that it was more likely mass produced tea to fit a market that didn’t understand tea. How did I know this? Because there are three common selling points that sellers will use to talk up basic tea and she had said two of them.
1. Pick Time
As we have discussed before, the earlier the picking does not mean the better the quality. Things that are grown, from tea to carrots, have an optimal size and pick time. Picking before this pick time produced an underdeveloped material that in the case of tea lacks many of the flavor characteristics signature to that tea. To put it simply, a tea can be picked too early. Unfortunately in the tea market, the idea that the earlier the tea is picked the better is widespread. Teas that are picked the earliest are labeled the highest quality and sold for the highest price. The first red flag was this woman claiming that the first bag was better tea because it was picked earlier. This cast suspicion that she was selling this tea on taglines alone and not on flavor. She did mention the flavor though, but not in a way that made me feel assured.
The difference between high quality tea and low quality tea is never sweetness alone. The difference between high quality and low quality is distinguished in a multitude of aspects from mouth feel, body, flavor clearity, aroma and sweetness. Sweetness is one of them, Gua Pian for example has the potential for sugary sweetness, but high quality Gua Pian is also recognized by its bold vegetable flavor and body. The fact that the only flavor note she talked about was sweetness was a red flag. Basically all teas have sweetness. Talking about sweetness is common among tea sellers who can think of nothing else to say about it. Be Careful of any seller who simply calls their tea sweet.
3: Orchid Aroma
While the Gua Pian seller didn’t say this one, it is a common overused description I hear. Good green teas have an orchid aroma, it is a real aroma that can mark a truly great tea. Unfortunately, this signature aroma is another way tea sellers will hype up less than stellar tea. I can’t count the number of times I have been told a tea has the orchid aroma, when in reality its aroma is basic and unexciting. Because this adjectively is so commonly used, it can be a nice adjective to use to compliment someones teas when you have nothing much to say about it.
Why is this important? Why is it important to understand the common taglines sellers will give to normal tea. It’s important for two reasons. The first is that you don’t get impressed by teas that are described like this. If you read a tea description and all it says is that it’s an early picked tea that is sweet with the floral aroma, There should be some red flags. Individual teas should have individual characteristics. Huang Shan Mao Fengs and Bi Luo Chuns shouldn’t be described the same. There should be traits about those teas that make them stand out on their own. So be wary of a tea whose description uses only general words like floral and sweet. The second importance is that when you taste the teas, you should taste some distinguishing characteristic that makes them unique.
When you taste a tea and you are looking for quality or the seller is asking a high price, you should be able to clearly taste the difference. A Gua Pian should have a very signature flavor that distinguishes it from any other type of green tea you should have before. It’s hard to understand the flavor of each tea and sometimes you may come across a tea whose flavor profile you are new to and unfamiliar with. At this point asking yourself what unique notes about this tea set it apart from the rest. If you find, as you drink your tea, that the only notes you are getting are light, sweet, and floral, it might be time to ask the seller if they have anything better.