When we consider another person, we might base our assessment either on the person’s outer qualities or inner qualities, or perhaps both – which is what one does to identify the quality of tea: consider both appearance and character.
Let’s start with appearance first.
The most basic requirement is that the tea leaf must be a whole leaf. The appearance of a given kind of tea should have a standard pattern. No matter what its particular shape, size and color happen to be, they should all be consistent. The maturity of tea leaves should be even. The color should be vivid. If the general appearance is bright, the size, thickness and length are even, it means it is a superior fresh green tea; if the tea leaf is dry, dull and dark, its appearance is not uniform, uneven and perhaps even has been mixed together with tea stems or tea seeds, this is a poor quality tea.
Typically, a tiny, tight, wiry shape with many baby buds indicates that a tea is young and tender. Coarse, loose, broken and/or old leaves (no tea buds or baby tea leaves) show that the tea is too mature (太平猴魁 Taiping Houkui and 六安瓜片 Liuan Guapian are notable exceptions).
To appreciate a tea's inner qualities, you have to brew the tea, smell the aroma, observe the liquor color, inspect the infused leaves, and of course to taste the tea.
Aroma: A floral, delicate aroma is best, with a young, fresh, clean fragrance; nutty and/or fruity notes also indicate excellence; an aroma that is weak, stale, dull, flat, heavy or harsh indicates poor quality; a burnt, musty or otherwise unpleasant odor clearly indicates that a tea has either been improperly processed, stored, or both.
Liquor (or, if you prefer, infusion): The color should be light green or light yellow green, clear and bright; color that is too yellow, deep, dull or turbid indicates a poor quality tea.
Taste: A green tea should have a fresh, mellow, sweet taste, and a superior tea will also have a similar aftertaste; a thin, bitter, rough, astringent taste or aftertaste indicates either an inferior tea, or perhaps improper preparation, in some cases.
Infused leaf: A green tea should have tender leaves with many buds, which should be thick, soft, even and neat; leaves that are rough to the touch, visibly uneven, old, hard and/or thin show that both the raw material and processing are mediocre.
Some people have asked me whether the fresher green tea is means the better it is. The answer is that it depends on time of the year. The best green tea is plucked in early spring and the worst is harvested in summer (I use the word "harvested" instead of "plucked" because summer teas are typically harvested with machines rather than by hand, as the locals won't drink them; they're used for cheap tea sold overseas). There is an old Chinese saying: "Tea around Qingming (清明, on 04 April) is treasure, tea after Guyu (谷雨, on 20 April) is grass." This is absolutely right. Basically, if green tea is picked and processed after Guyu, close to Lixia (立夏, 05 May) or the beginning of summer is the poorest quality tea.
Of course, even if you have a superior green tea, you won't appreciate its inner beauty if you don't know how to prepare it properly. I'll write something simple about that in my next post.
Hope this was interesting. If there's anything in particular you'd like to know about, please let me know!