Appreciating your Chinese tea

Drinking a great Chinese tea involves almost all of your senses (well, we've not seen anyone 'hear' a good tea yet!), and is as much an art as a science. In this section we help you understand how to appreciate and distinguish the different qualities of Chinese teas.

Smell your tea

The first way to appreciate your tea is to smell the dry leaves. You'll probably do it instinctively anyway when you open the bag, but what are you looking for?

Remember to smell for good and for bad flavours. The dry-leaf aroma may not always be strong, but it should be clean, clear and not musty. Especially for teas that have been in your cupboard for a long time, make sure there's no musty or 'old sweat' smell which would indicate some moisture has got in and spoiled your tea.

Many teas will offer different flavours when smelled compared to when brewed, so make a note. For example, Iron Buddha (tie guan yin) often smells very floral and flowery, whereas the brew is buttery, rich and smooth. The smell of our Jasmine Pearls (mo li hua cha) is delightfully strong and perfume-like, whereas the brew should be a bit more subtle and understated, with fruitier tones.

Look at the dry leaves

The dry leaves can be misleading, and perhaps tell experts the least about each tea. However, you can still gather some important information from the dry leaves.

Firstly, the size and shape are important. For red teas like Lapsang Souchong or Jin Jun Mei, you're looking for extremely small and fine dry leaves. Other rolled teas like Iron Buddha should have buds about the size of a baby's fingernail, or slightly larger for Buddha's Hand.

Generally speaking, you always want to see a consistent size and colour, and there should be nothing but tea leaves - ie. no flower buds, no stems or twigs, and as little tea dust or broken leaves as possible.

Smell the wet leaves

The first real hint you'll get of the taste will come from the first brew. The leaves should always be at their most vibrant after an initial wash or first-brew. The flavour should be intense, sparkling and very loud - remember that your nose is much more sensitive than your taste buds on your tongue, so your first smell is incredibly important. If you're brewing the tea traditionally, you can smell the lid of the teapot or gaiwan, but if not, just smell the leaves immediately after you've poured out the first brew.

Look at the wet leaves

While it might not be the most polite table manners, picking out the wet tea leaves gives a treasure trove of information about the quality of your tea.

For most teas, you're looking to find unbroken leaves, consistent in colour and exactly the right size for that particular tea. Teas advertised as 'young shoots', like our Silver Needle or Long Jing for example, should contain only small, soft and very rounded leaves. They should still be slightly curled up, and if you touch them, they are downy and soft.

Other teas have particular characteristics - Buddha's Hand is reknowned for the size of the leaves, whereas The Big Red should have about 70% brown and 30% green in the wet leaves. For Iron Buddha, the leaves will exhibit a textured bruising pattern, which shows they've been through the specific stage of being bruised (yep, literally smashed against the floor) unique to that tea.

Taste the brew (finally!)

Finally you can taste the tea! This is where you can finally let your tastebuds (and imagination) rule. Sip your tea, don't gulp, and try to let it sit on different parts of your mouth to appreciate the various tastes. If you want, slurp the tea - it's extremely common in China, and it helps enhance the flavours on your tongue.

While the other stages are more about assessing the quality of your tea, when you're tasting the final brew, it can be highly subjective. While tea masters are searching for faults, problems and consistency across the years, you can relax a bit more. Try to identify the components of the taste, if the brew reminds you of other drinks or foods, and whether intensifies or weakens the more you brew the tea.

While each tea is different, generally a good tea is considered to be nai pao, or 'patient' - it will get better the longer you drink it, adding layers of taste after each brew. For example, many teas are bitter and dry up front, but after a few cups, they turn sweet and refreshing on the tongue.

Lastly, don't be afraid to describe the tea as you see it - tastes are very subjective, and finding ways to describe tastes can stump even the experts. If you think that tea tastes like a salty pear, then it tastes like a salty pear!