How do you step into the world of artisanal teas? Some of you have experienced whole leaf teas, thinking that as long as it is not fanning in a teabag, you must be drinking artisanal teas. Others feel that there must be a richer experience out there than just scented or blended teas. In reality, the quality level a tea must reach to be considered artisanal is comparable to a restaurant qualifying for the Michelin star. The depth of flavor and breadth of aroma that artisanal teas offer is more than the world of connoisseur wine or cuisine. Learning how to enjoy this realm is actually quite accessible — just follow these tips and step right in:
- Choose single origin tea: The great terroirs of the world not only produce the most suitable tea plants, but have been doing so for thousands of years, and the tea bushes have adapted properly to those environments. Therefore, you want to buy teas from these original terroirs. Tea originated from Southern China in the Yunnan region is considered single-origin. It is indigenous to Asia, in the countries of China, Taiwan and Japan. Teas grown in countries such as Kenya, Argentina, etc. are commercially grown and not from origin, therefore not considered artisanal. So check where your teas are grown!
- Buy tea grown at high elevations: Specific terroir and elevations make a huge difference as well: For example, high mountain status is conferred on elevations of 800 meters (2,600 feet) or more. If in doubt, buy teas from higher elevations. There are exceptions to this rule.For instanceTaiwan Beauty, which must be grown at low elevations, and yet is one of the top artisanal teas in the world.
- Pick unscented and unflavored teas: The best teas are made by artisans striving to elicit the complex aromas and oil compounds from the enormously rich tea leaves — and not to hide behind scents or flavors. Those teas are generally stale or low-end and require other flavors to enhance them. Artisanal teas, in general, do not include any scented nor flavored teas.
- Select tea producers who come from a tea culture: Machine-made, mass-produced teas are not considered artisanal and have no personality to them. Make sure your teas are made by producers from a region that has at least several hundred years of tea making history. This way the artisans have an understanding outside of machine made teas and have inherited hand making capabilities, even if they use some machines to supplement their work. They will be able to adjust and manage the quality of teas made specific to seasonal and weather conditions.
- Find experienced tea artisans: In the case of handmade artisan teas like true Dragonwell (Longjing) or Biluochun, the general requirement for a high end ‘Shifu’ or artisan, is 25 years of experience. Not all tea buyers have the luxury to know the artisans behind the teas, or ascertain how long they have been making tea, but knowing that there is a specific master who produced your tea is definitely a sign of artisanship, and not assembly line tea making.
- Remember, fresh teas are the best teas: The best tea harvests are in the Spring, and the highest end teas are benchmarked by the day they were picked. The closer to April 1, the better the crop. This is called Pre-Ming tea, previously known as Ching Ming tea,found in China and Taiwan and considered the best in the season. In India, the parlance is for ‘First Flush’ for the earliest harvest of the year. The best white and green teas occur at the very beginning of April, the best Oolongs are towards mid to late April and stretching into early May in some regions. Spring tea is definitely the most defining of the artisan worlds. Winter oolongs are also top notch. Summer teas are not drinkable by artisanal tea standards, unless, again, it is an anomaly like Taiwan Beauty, which can only take place in the summer.
There are so many curatorship criteria to learn. But having these six tips will set you in the right direction to step into the expansive and rewarding world of artisanal teas!