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How are Flavored Teas Graded?
If you’re new to flavored teas, there’s a real treat in store for you. There’s a tea for every taste and with so many blends to choose, from you’ll likely have difficulty deciding on just one or two.
The best flavored teas are created from blending fine loose tea with natural flavors from fruits, spices, herbs and florals. Artificial flavors should never be used, or they will leave the tea with a fake taste that’s easy to recognize.
In order to get the best flavored tea, you must also choose blends made with the best tea. To do this you need to understand how the tea is graded. This is a bit difficult, as there are no international grading standards for tea. Each country grades tea differently, and each variety of tea is graded differently, as well. So, to choose the best flavored tea, it’s important to know how each variety of tea that is used to make flavored tea is graded. Here are the basics on tea grading.
Black tea is graded primarily based on how it’s processed. So, while this will tell you the approximate percentage of whole leaves in your tea, and may tell you if it comes from an early or late plucking, it’s not the total picture when it comes to judging the quality of the tea. Knowing where the tea was grown and how tea is harvested in this part of the world is important, too. In the US, the best black teas are considered whole leaf teas and are designated by the term Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. You should avoid teas marked “dust” as these are typically the lowest grades of black tea. Dust grades are usually only used in tea bags.
Green tea is typically graded by the shape of the leaf in China. In other parts of the world, green tea is also usually graded by leaf shape, but different names are used to describe the leaf shapes. Within the leaf shapes, in both China and other countries, you’ll find grades that further break down the quality of the tea. For example, Chinese green teas labeled for export are labeled by the following leaf styles: Gunpowder, Imperial, Young Hyson, Hyson, Twankay, Hyson Skin or Dust style. Within these categories there are several actual grades.
For instance, Gunpowder tea is graded from Pinhead to Pea Leaf and further subdivided into special, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and Common Gunpowder. While the leaf shapes don’t mean much to us in the US, we do know that the best gunpowder green tea would be graded special and the worst would be graded common.
In addition, tea plucked earliest in the season will have better flavor than tea plucked later in the season. This same fact is true of black and oolong teas. So, if you find a tea labeled “first plucked” or “first flush” that is also of a high grade, you know you have a very good tea. However, this designation will not be reflected in the actual grade of the tea. When it comes to choosing green tea, it’s recommended that you buy from a tea merchant that you know and choose the green tea that he recommends as quality.
Oolong tea from China is graded in a much simpler manner than Chinese green teas. They don’t designate the tea by the leaf shape. All oolong tea is made from larger leaves, because oolong teas are made from leaves that are grown further down the tea plant. Oolong teas are graded based on how much whole leaf the tea batch contains. The method is easy to follow and understand. The best oolong tea is referred to as “Fanciest” or “Extra Fancy”, while the lowest grade of oolong tea is referred to as “Common”. Since most oolong tea is produced in China, it’s fairly simple to sort out a good oolong flavored teas produced there.
Oolong tea produced in Taiwan, also known as Formosa oolong, is graded differently, but the grades are still quite easy to understand. Formosa oolong teas are graded according to a standard developed by the Taiwanese government. The best Formosa oolong teas are graded Finest to Choice and Finest. The lowest grades of Formosa oolong are graded Standard. Since most oolong teas are produced in China or Taiwan, knowing the grades from these two countries will cover most of the oolong teas you’ll run across.
White tea’s grading is simpler, because the time when the tea leaves were plucked is not part of determining the quality. All white tea is from a first plucking, because there is only one plucking of white tea during each growing season. Therefore, choosing a quality white flavored from China simply means choosing one of the two highest grades of white tea, Silver Needles or White Peony. However, these grading standards apply just to Chinese teas; if you choose a Ceylon white flavored tea or a Darjeeling white tea the grades may not be the same. White flavored teas are fairly rare; most of them come from China. As more white flavored teas become available, how they are graded in different countries should become more apparent.
So, to choose a good flavored tea, start by choosing a flavor that appeals to you and then see which varieties of tea are made with this flavor. Then, you can look at the grade of the tea you’re selecting and whether or not it’s flavored with natural flavorings. Now, you have all the information you need to determine if the tea is high quality. Of course, when it comes right down to it, most of us simply buy from a tea shop that we can trust to carry just the very best teas.
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