Super fine grade, #1, #3, Royal Grade,  Supreme ….so many terms!

In most instances, these terms affect the price. There is no global standard for tea grades. Each region will use a different designation for grading the various loose leaf teas they produce. So the question is – can you taste the differences of the various grades and are they worth the extra cost?

When blending teas with other ingredients such as fruit, the underlying quality of the tea is not as important and in many cases would be a waste since the flavors would overwhelm the subtle notes of the base tea. Going down the quality scale of tea to the lowest grades often brings unwanted taste, and thus they will require more potent flavors to make up for it. This is where some tea vendors start introducing artificial ingredients to mask the harshness of the tea. Sticking with the higher end vendors will generally avoid this problem. Some of the higher-quality flavored teas will use better grades or some fancier teas, and usually, the flavors are intentionally mild so as to allow the drinker to experience the quality of the tea with subtle flavoring notes. However, with rare exception, most flavored varieties don’t specify grades of the underlying tea.

When it comes to pure teas there are many differences, and as a tea purveyor, we have the option to taste a lot of different teas from different sources and evaluate them side by side. This study can be exhaustive, so we chose a few types for this initial comparison.

We did a tasting of several different teas – Dragonwell, Jade Oolong, and Gyokuro.

dragonwellteaDragonwell – Lung Ching

For the Dragonwell we pitted three different versions against each other. The most expensive was a Ching Ming variety, produced in the early spring. Another vendor just uses the term Dragonwell, but it is grown in the West Lake District and produced in the early spring (therefore indicating high grade). We also took a #1 Superfine Grade. Each of these various teas is not cheap and is considered in the higher grade category. We didn’t go down to the lower grades (i.e. Grade #3) for this experiment but will do so in the future with Cheap versus Expensive comparison.

We cupped each and did a blind taste test. The highest-end tea (price wise) was our top choice. The 2nd place was not far behind but was a little lighter bodied. The next in line had some lingering aftertaste (some astringency) which we took points off for. None of these teas were bad, but there were clear differences.

The two top teas were somewhat close, but the price gap was somewhat high. Retail $5 an ounce versus $9 and ounce. It is also worth noting that the top pick was NOT organic versus the 2nd place. We’ve found both inferior and superior teas in the past irrespective of being organic or not.

So here, the best tea is a lot more expensive, but the taste difference was small. We did think the difference between third place and 2nd was enough to warrant a few extra dollars ($5 an ounce versus $4).

oolonginacupJade Oolong

We pitted a Super Fine #1 Grade versus a #2 grade. Again a blind taste test.  Retail #1 in the $5 an ounce price range, while the #2 is about $3.50. Once again we did a blind test, and most of us chose the #1 grade versus the #2. The difference being the higher grade of tea had more prominent flavor and more floral character.

#2 wasn’t bad, and if that is all you drank you would consider it a good tea. However, side by side we felt #1 was worth the difference.

gyokuroimperialteaGyokuro

This test was interesting. Gyokuro is generally already a very high-end tea. We took an already expensive “standard” Gyokuro and compared it with a “supreme” edition. This price difference was massive…$5.50 an ounce versus $10 an ounce. For this test, we didn’t drink blind. We were expecting to be blown away by the more expensive one, but in actuality, we preferred the standard version. We felt there was slightly more flavor and there were more grassy notes versus the much more expensive counterpart. Our vote was that the standard version was the better value.

Summary

Overall, when there are a lot of grades available for a particular tea type the higher grades seem to taste better. We found that the differences start becoming more narrow once the teas move into the very high end of the spectrum. In other words, the increase in quality isn’t always representative of the associated price increase.

In some instances, it’s also not a given that paying for a tea that costs double will result in twice the better tea. With Gyokuro, we actually preferred the lower priced version.

Like wine, tea is priced based on supply and demand. Crops vary from year to year, and sometimes there are nuances from one vintage to another. And like wine, certain high demand teas may create a  large price gap irrespective of quality.

What do you think? Do you think paying for the highest quality tea is always worth it? Would you switch if you found a tea you liked better, but was significantly more?

Photo “dragonwell tea” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer “snickclunk” and is being posted unaltered (source)
Photo “get somewhat emotional when tea leaves unfold like this” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Joe Hall and is being posted unaltered (source)
Photo “Gyokuro Imperial” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer “A Girl With Tea” and is being posted unaltered (source)