What’s the difference between those green teas in a teabag, vs whole leaf teas from reputable tea importers? How do you distinguish quality and grades of teas to know you are getting a good value?
Many tea drinkers may not know that green and white teas, by nature of their production, require hand harvesting and hand processing.
When you steep a tea like Dragonwell, or Fujian Green, you will notice that the shapes of the tender leaves re-constitute as though you had just picked it off the bush yourself, completely intact. The tiny unopened leaf bud in the center of the photo, and one or two tender baby leaves ajoining the bud, reminds one of how carefully these leaves must be picked, one by one by hand.
In fact, some 30,000 or more such tender leaves go into a lb. of dried leaves, and even more need to be dried to satisfy a lb. of a white tea such as White Down or Silver Needle.
Skilled harvesters, mostly women in the age category of 45 or older, harvest the leaves. If you haven’t had 25 or more years of harvesting experience, you would not qualify to harvest the topnotch teas. Even how carefully they allow the leaves to gently float into their baskets requires skill, because you don’t want the leaves to oxidize by hitting each other.
The next step toward quality is the precise production process. A dry wok of about 80 degrees C or more (176 F to 212 F) is heated to dry and fire the leaves into shape, by bare hand. The tea master must roll, press, and shape the leaves in one fell swoop, without overheating and burning such tender leaves. It is all based on experience, how dry the leaves are getting and when to shape them into snail spirals (like Lu Shan Clouds and Mist), or spear shapes (Dragonwell), or mountain peak Mao Feng shape (Fujian Green). This takes considerable expertise and skill, and artisans are chosen and allocated a comparable level of raw material. The tea masters’ hands end up completely covered in blisters during these peak weeks of firing the new spring teas!
So we enjoy the weather in each batch of green or white teas, but even more, we benefit from the unimaginable hard work and expertise it takes to preserve and present such high levels of tea making.