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What Brewed Tea Leaves Tell You About The Quality of Tea

Brewed wet tea leaves (Yedi, 叶底) contains a lot of information about the tea that you’re drinking. Too often they’re simply ignored and discarded. Take a careful look at those wet leaves, and it can tell you more about its quality and how it was picked and processed. With a few tips that we share in this article, you can judge tea quality without even tasting it.

Brewed tea leaves
Brewed tea leaves

Learning to judge tea can make you a better buyer of tea. It can be especially useful when you’ve the luxury to first taste teas before you buy. Imagine, you’re in China and visiting tea shops to stock up some decent tea. The first thing you find out is that there’s way too much choice. It’s easy to simply ask the owner recommend you something. But why hurry? In China it’s perfectly normal to ask the owner to prepare the tea for you. And while you taste the tea, you’ve the opportunity to check out the brewed leaves! Moreover, the owner will get the impression that you’re a connoisseur and start bringing you the good stuff without quoting outrageous prices.

To start this experiment yourself, infuse some tea in hot water until it’s fully unfurled. Then spread out the leaves on a plate.

Blister-like bubbles on the brewed tea leaves

Sometimes you can see small bubbles on the brewed tea leaves. It’s usually caused by high temperature during roasting and indicates problems during the process for most teas. If you’re in the position to first taste before you buy, you should avoid these teas. But for teas such as rock tea and some yellow tea, it is a good sign. These bubbles on rock tea (yan cha) is known in China as ‘The Frog’s Back’. See how it looks in the below picture:

frogs back rock tea yan cha brewed leaves
‘Frog’s Back’ on rock tea

Frog’s back is a term to describe dry and brewed oolong tea leaves, especially for Wuyi rock tea. It means the white dots that look like grains of sand on the dry leaves, and the blister-like bubbles on the brewed tea leaves of rock tea that resemble a frog’s bumpy back with raised spots.

Fish roe bubbles on dry yellow tea leaves
Fish roe bubbles on dry yellow tea leaves

The appearance of the frog’s back on rock tea is from its traditional long roasting process. It is generally hard to find on the greenish brown dry leaves if you don’t look carefully.

Yellow tea is another type of tea on which you can see the bubbles.

This term is to describe the fish roe sized burnt spots on the dry leaves and tiny bubbles on the brewed leaves of yellow tea.

Yellow tea requires high-fired roasting, which leads to the fish roe sized burnt spots due to the high temperature during the process.

In conclusion, bubbles on tea is generally a sign of poor tea processing. The quality of processing is sacrificed often for more efficiency in production. However, for yellow tea and yan cha these round spots can be considered a normal result of tea production.

Fish roe bubbles on brewed yellow tea leaves
Fish roe bubbles on brewed yellow tea leaves

Black burnt spots

Black burnt spots on brewed tea leaves
Black burnt spots on brewed tea leaves

See bubbles isn’t as bad as seeing black burnt spots. For green tea, if you can sometimes see obvious black burnt spots or small black dots on the brewed leaves. This means there was either excessive heat or low skilled processing during the roasting process. A small amount of black burned spots isn’t a problem, but you shouldn’t see too many of them.

Loofah

Loofah-like brewed tea leaves
Loofah-like brewed tea leaves

On some dry or brewed leaves of black tea leaves, you can see the veins are partly separated from the leaves that it looks like a loofah. This is usually caused by excessive piling during production, which isn’t the best condition for the tea. Avoid such teas.

Degree of the unfolding

Nicely unfolded brewed leaves
Nicely unfolded brewed leaves

As the number of times of brewing increases, quality tea leaves will gradually unfold and expand fully in the end. Such tea shows good manufacturing technology and a stable aging. It’s also a sign that it can be steeped multiple times and still tastes good.

If the tea leaves unfold fully soon after steeping, they are most likely made from coarse or old leaves, and would taste bland after a few steeps.

If the leaves do not unfold or unfold to a small degree even after multiple times of brewing, we can be sure that they are the result of problematic manufacture process such as over-heating roasting and wrong environment of the aging period. This kind of tea usually makes the throat dry and uncomfortable.

Wholeness

Brewed ripe pu erh leaves with proper loosening
Brewed ripe pu erh leaves without proper loosening

The less broken pieces of the brewed leaves are, the better the tea is. Good tea will show a nice and neat appearance after being brewed.

Elasticity and flexibility

Tender and flexible brewed tea leaves
Tender and flexible brewed tea leaves

Pinch the brewed tea leaves with fingers and feel the elasticity and the flexibility. If the elasticity and the flexibility level are high, it means the tea leaves were young and tender, the manufacturing process was appropriate. In addition, if this trait is found in brewed pu erh leaves, it also indicates a good natural aging processs.

If the brewed tea leaves feel blunt and inelastic, it means the leaves were old or the tea went through a bad manufacturing process.

Colour

Brewed leaves of vintage raw pu erh with standard storage environment
Brewed leaves of vintage raw pu erh with standard storage environment

The colour of brewed tea leaves is mainly relevant for pu erh tea.

For recent raw pu erh, the brewed tea leaves are relatively fresh and green. Good raw pu erh that ages with the appropriate temperature and humidity will be fermented nicely, and the brewed teas leaves will be bright orange.

If the pu erh was stored in an environment with too much humidity and bad ventilation, its brewed leaves would not turn orange/red even after decades of storage. The brewed tea leaves would be dark and rough if the tea didn’t get well fermented.

Overly strong aroma

Brewed tea leaves should always have a light fragrance of the tea. Any odd smell could imply a problem of the tea. Very pronounced smells could indicate artificial flavouring and added aroma’s. This aspect of judging the quality of brewed tea does require some experience though.

Brewed tea leaves with burnt marks
Brewed tea leaves with burnt marks

If the tea got burnt during the manufacturing process, it would be often accompanied by heavy mixed odours such as smoke and fire odours. When it comes to pu erh it would lose the ability of good natural aging.

Impurities

Burnt brewed tea leaves with impurities

Impurities in the tea are also the cause of odd smells and bad tastes. It is also harmful for the health. This could happen if the farmer is dishonest and add other things to make there tea batch heavier. In this case, we urge you to discard the tea for the sake of your health.

Notes on pu erh

Brewed leaves of well-stored vintage raw pu erh
Brewed leaves of well-stored vintage raw pu erh

After years of fermentation, the brewed leaves of raw pu erh could be dark too – brown or dark brown like those of a dark oolong. The brewed leaves should however be full and tender with a sense of freshness.

Some raw pu erh on the market weren’t get dried right after the rolling process. These the brewed tea leaves would be brown and steep a thick and dark soup, and much alike those of the lightly fermented ripe pu erh.

Brewed leaves of ripe pu erh with dry and hard texture
Brewed leaves of ripe pu erh with dry and hard texture

Brewed leaves are mostly dark brown or black with a dry and hard texture.

The heavily fermented leaves would even look like they were scorched by fire. Some old leaves will break into loofah-like shape.

If the ripe pu erh didn’t go through a long piling period, it could be just lightly fermented, its brewed leaves would be very similar to those of raw pu erh.



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