And how to avoid a cupboard filled with packets of forgotten, dusty teas you tried once…
To prevent that from happening, here’s our definitive guide for what to look for on a tea label if you want distinctive taste. Use this guide to identify quality and choose teas you’ll enjoy – teas that will give you satisfaction and delight: teas to finish too quickly. Now’s the time to clear space in that cupboard...
Detail you definitely want to see on your label:
This is the big one. If the label doesn’t state the origin it’s very likely the tea will be a blend from multiple places. Most supermarket teas in the UK will be blended from between 40 to 100 different places. This means generic, indistinct flavour – imagine if you were an artist and tried blending 40 to 100 different paints together, the vibrancy and individuality of each colour lost in a murky mess.
Knowing where your tea is from is the best indicator of distinction and quality of flavour.
Does the label state the country, the region and even the garden? The more detail and the more specific the detail, the more distinct the taste.
Season and Production Dates:
Does the tea say the season and year it was produced? Most tea deteriorates with age and so the closer to when it was produced that it reaches you the better. Given the complexity of the supply chains for most supermarket blends, if it doesn’t say the age, estimate it’s at least 18 - 24 months old.
Tea is a seasonal product – high quality production seasons happen just once or twice a year, with each season delivering specific tastes. Look for tea that states the season and year and try to ensure you’re drinking it within 12 months.
A note on expiry dates: tea doesn’t tend to “go off” (unless it’s flavoured or contains other ingredients that go off), and so most tea is packed with very long shelf lives. It will certainly deteriorate over time though – after production even though they are very dry, the leaves will still contain a very small amount of moisture. This means that the flavours will dull and the tea will taste stale and lose the prized aromatics over time. Unless you’re deliberately ageing a tea, don’t save it – drink it when it’s at its freshest for the best flavours.
What to look for on a tea label.
Don’t be fooled by original names but look for ones which are known in their countries of origin. These names will define the style of production, the tea type and their place. Names like Dragon Well or Long Jing; Silver Needle or White Peony or sometimes it’ll just be the name of the origin – like Ali Shan, Darjeeling or Assam. Of course there are lots of excellent and distinctive teas with original names, including our Red Dragon and even our Jade Sword – teas which either don’t have an understandable translation from the local name, or that are produced by just one place in a unique style that they don’t yet have an identifying name. With original name teas, be sure to get the origin, ingredients and type detail.
Type or Category:
The label’s likely to say what category of tea it is (white, green, yellow, oolong, black or puerh), and this makes it easy to roughly identify what flavours you might expect and enjoy. If it’s black, it’s likely to be strong and robust, if it’s green expect fresh, grassy flavours and so on. You can find more about the tastes of the different categories here. Watch out here for words like “flavoured” or “scented” – unless you’re buying a tea that you know is meant to be scented, like an Earl Grey or a Jasmine, question this and turn to look at the ingredients.
Is it 100% Camellia sinensis (the tea plant), or is it a blend of ingredients or even flavourings? Too many ingredients in a blend or the use of synthetic chemicals and additives will take you further away from the pure character of the tea leaf and the taste of its place. Often flavourings even when they say they’re natural will go rancid over time.
What else to look for:
Taking the origin detail one step further and knowing the name of the producer gives you an even stronger indication of the distinctiveness of taste, but it’s also probably safe to think that level of traceability means that producer will be getting the best value from the sale of the tea. The shorter the link between producer and consumer, the more beneficial to the producer.
Deeper than the type of tea and ingredients you might find detail on the cultivar of the tea plant used to make the tea. It’ll look something like: “Camellia sinensis var. Sinensis (tieguanyin)” – you can read more about cultivars and their effect on taste here. This level of detail on a label can be a great indicator of authenticity and care to understand the production of the tea. If you love the oolong tea category, and especially teas from places like Wuyishan or Anxi in Fujian, the various mountains of Taiwan or the Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong, you’ll want to get to know your cultivars – it’s the way to find the specific flavours and styles of production you really love.
How to Make:
Another helpful thing you might find on your tea label is a guide on how to make the tea. More detailed guides that include water and leaf amounts as well as temperature and infusion time can help you to get the best from your tea.
Tea Glossary – other words you might see and what they mean:
Cut Tear Curl – this refers to tea that has been processed by being chopped and rolled into very fine balls using machinery. It was developed in the 1930s to meet new demand for teabags as the small uniform balls pack easily into small bags. It is used only for black tea.
This means tea produced using traditional methods. Each type follows its own production methods determining level of oxidation, how quickly the leaf will be dried and the subsequent concentration and specifics of flavours. Teas produced in this way will then be graded. As below there are a few different systems used – look out for “Whole Leaf” grades as these tend to be the highest quality.
You will see this on lots of tea labels and it’s a good thing, as whole leaf tea is generally better in quality and flavour than CTC as it’s crafted using traditional ‘Orthodox’ techniques, often by hand – taking you one step closer to a more enjoyable cup of tea.
Some labels may refer to grades of tea using acronyms like FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) BOP or OP1. These are all acronyms from the ‘Orange Pekoe’ grading system, which was devised to classify grades of tea in India and Sri Lanka – giving a different grade to buds, whole leaves, broken leaves all the way down to the dust. It’s a confusing system because different countries use it differently. Although it can be an indication of what parts of the tea plants are used to make the tea, it’s not especially useful unless you also know and are satisfied with the other detail (origin, garden, season type). Other grading terms like Imperial or Grand-Crus can also be used, but mostly for marketing and they are not as discerning as you might expect.
As above this is a reference to the grading system – don’t expect a tea with this on the label to be remotely orangey.
This is used in India to differentiate the different picking times of year. Teas from Darjeeling will be first, second, summer or even monsoon flush. First flush happens in early spring; second in early summer and the summer and monsoon flushes throughout August until the monsoon. The first and the second flushes are the most prized in terms of quality and usually teas not from either of these two flushes won’t bother to state their flush. Read more about the differences between the flushes in Darjeeling here.