Drink Magazine

Learning to Judge Tea

By Dchew78 @peonyts

In Chinese mythology, one tool that any self-respecting Taoist priest or exorcist should carry is a “Demon Identifying Mirror” (照妖镜).

In legends, demons can learn to take on human forms, even take on the appearance of our love ones and sneak in amongst us. Many a fox demon have broken families by assuming the form of some gorgeous beauty- foxy

- and seduce a smitten man to take her on as a concubine.

To convince the man that the Megan Fox lookalike (pun intended) he brought home is demonic not divine, the priest would use the mirror to expose her actual form, before proceeding to subdue her.

For those of us (yes, us) who have bought fake teas- “Lao Banzhang” anyone- we wish we had the tea equivalent of the ‘Demon Identifying Mirror’.

Learning to Judge Tea
One shine of the mirror on the ‘Tieguanyin’ and we can tell the merchant, “Remove your Benshan from my gaiwan right away” or a shine of the mirror on the “Junshan Yinzhen” and we can throw it back in their face.

Unfortunately such a thing does not exist.

That is not to say we can’t develop discernment, it just takes time and effort, as well as certain practices.

Comparative Tasting

There is a Chinese saying- 不怕不识货,只怕货比货 which essentially means comparison of goods will reveal the difference in quality.

Often I would approach a tea mentor asking for his opinion on certain teas that I bought. Rather than comment outright, he would pick out a similar tea and brew both of them up.

Then we would drink both and he will point me to certain things- texture, mouth feel, huigan and other telltale signs of quality.

That is as important a part of my tea journey as reading- and I do love my tea related readings- and China trips.

What is “Good Tea”?

If you ask me “Is this tea good?” I have to ask “relative to what?”

Unless you are related to Xi Jinping (or equivalent), odds are that whatever Chinese tea you have in your hands, there is a better version of it in China.

On the other end of the spectrum, I think even the lowest grade loose leaf Assam- and I do hate the harshness and astringency of 99% of Assams I have tasted- tastes better than a CTC tea bag.

There is no better way than to compare it against another tea, preferably one that is similar to it.

No point comparing a black tea with an oolong tea, you are only comparing to see which one is literally more palatable to you.

What are you comparing against?

If you wish to hone your discernment skills- and I realize this is a pretty geeky thing to do- one thing you can do is to compare a known quality against an unknown.

For example, my mentor would tell me this is a well-made Tieguanyin, worth $X when I bring a Tieguanyin to him. Thereafter I would compare the aftertaste, the texture, aroma, mouth feel and so forth then form my own judgment of how much that Tieguanyin I brought is worth and if the producer is trustworthy.

Of course I realize this may not be applicable to everyone since not everyone has a mentor of that level of experience (hard) and integrity (much harder).

There are other ways though.

Different Grades

Here I am not referring to the British style of grading which relates to leaf wholeness and size.

While China has a comprehensive system, enforcement is a problem. Hence Merchant A may tell you his Grade 1 Taiping Houkui is Premium Grade.

Learning to Judge Tea
However if the merchant sells several grades of the same tea, you can buy from him and do some comparisons on your own.

For example I once bought 5 different grades of Dahongpao from the same factory ranging from $X to $4X in price difference.

Expensive tuition- next time I will repeat the exercise with a cheaper tea- but side by side, you should be able to tell why certain teas are priced as such over others.

Buying from the same vendor increases the likelihood that price differences are due to other factors though admittedly it is not foolproof.

Sometimes it may not be readily discernible or it could be due to certain factors such as snob appeal- Liu Xiang Jian Dahongpao for example but it does provide a good gauge.

Similar varieties within the same sub-categories

This may not necessarily correspond to production quality per se but it is useful to learn to discern the characteristic of similar teas.

Take the example of Minnan Oolongs. Tieguanyin commands the highest value. Whether you think it is the best is a matter of personal preference but that is the market value.

One useful comparative tasting experiment is to try a Tieguanyin along with another Minnan Oolong (aka Sezhong) such as Huang Jin Gui, Benshan or Maoxie and identify the differences.


There are many other variations of comparative tasting you can experiment with, such as comparison the same Puer cake across different ages or the a Taiwan Gaoshancha from the same cultivar (usually Qingxin) that is grown in different mountains such as Alishan, Shanlinxi, Lishan and so forth.

There are practical challenges though, the greatest of which is getting something that is exactly what it claimed to be.

Hands up all of you who have bought ‘aged Puer’ that tastes awfully young.

Or ‘Alishan oolong’ that was grown in Vietnam.

How about ‘Benshan- Tieguanyin’? Or ‘Dahongpao’ grown outside of Wuyishan area.

Of course unless one has an experienced friend/mentor or that mythical “Demon Revealing Mirror”, odds are one wouldn’t know even if one were a victim.

Darn all those dirty tea merchants, eh? J

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