What Is Good Tea?

What is Good Tea? 

Many people will argue that this is a very subjective question, and therefore there is no "right" answer. If we use cars as an analogy, we can show that what makes a good car is far more objective than subjective. Objectively, a good car transports us to where we want to go. Some people like different colors, different models, various amounts of power, etc. These are mainly just preferences; but if the car doesn't take you from point A to point B then I think everybody would agree that, at least in its current state, this is not a good car. Tea is similar in that for a tea to be considered good, it must meet certain criteria, while there is simultaneously great room for personal preference regarding taste, smell, region and style of production, etc. This post is not about what makes a tea great, which type of tea is best, which region has favorable environmental conditions for growing tea, nor which flavors we prefer; the gross over-simplification of our question is intentional and serves to make an extremely complex topic more manageable. 

The following are the most important factors for determining a tea's quality:

1. Good tea quenches your thirst. This is the most important thing that is universal to all good tea. Good tea nourishes our body; it does not dry us out. It is easy to forget that tea is a food/drink; it is supposed to be beneficial for our bodies. Actually, tea was likely used as a medicine first, as can be showcased by the massive statue of Shennong in Lincang, Yunnan. This topic has more complexity to it, but the bottom line is that generally good tea should quench your thirst.
 
2. Good tea is sweet. Human beings are attracted to sweet things for many reasons; one reason is that sweet things tend to be safe to consume in nature, whereas bitter things often have a more poisonous quality. Sweet has indicated that a consumable is healthy, nourishing, and safe since we came into existence. In Chinese Medicine Theory, sweet is a moistening, nourishing flavor and this concept of course connects to #1 of our list. However, if a tea is only sweet with no other qualities, it typically isn't a great tea.

3. Good tea has some bitterness and astringency. The key word here is some; and the bitterness and astringency we taste should quickly transform into sweetness and saliva. The bitter and drying qualities should not linger in our mouth. How much is too much? It depends on the kind of tea and the area. Again, there is a great deal of complexity to this topic and there is a wide range of appropriate bitterness and astringency. Sheng (Raw) Puerh typically has a good amount of bitterness and astringency, especially when it is young. Conversely, the best high mountain Taiwanese oolong teas will have virtually no bitterness or astringency when brewed for long periods with boiling water. In summary, everybody universally knows... If a tea is really bitter and drying, they don't want to drink it. People often add sugar, milk, and other substances to mask the bitterness of tea. Good tea needs no additions.

4. When we drink good tea, we feel comfortable. Good tea typically makes us feel both awake and relaxed. It gives us energy, yet our body and mind feel clear and smooth. This is why tea is such an incredible beverage! When I say good tea gives us energy, this does not mean that we feel really hyper, have a rapid heart rate, and are unable to sleep. These effects are typically damaging to our body, and are caused by poor quality teas. Some people associate this overexcited feeling with "Cha Qi", or tea Qi. Although this is technically Qi, it is bad Qi and undesirable in tea. Not all tea is good, and not all Qi is good. As an aside, we don't translate Qi as energy; this is a poor translation and oversimplifies the meaning of Qi. 

5. Good tea has a pleasant smell. Often the smells are like flowers, fruits, honey, etc. However, good tea does not have overly powerful, chemical-like smells. Often, good tea has somewhat subtle and sweet smells. Smells of flowers, woods, fruits, etc. are very common in tea. If a tea's smell is very powerful but then fades away quickly after 1 or 2 steeps, this situation can point to poor quality tea that has been processed in such a way that artificially amplifies the smell. Judging tea by smell alone is tricky, and inexperienced tea drinkers are most often fooled into thinking bad tea is good by the upfront, powerful smell. Conversely, very skilled tea connoisseurs can discern a tea's quality through the smell. Particularly bad tea will give me a headache just from the smell, and my body will feel uncomfortable. A good tea's smell will make me feel happy and relaxed. 

6. Good tea has Qi. Qi can be described as physiological affect. What kind of reaction does this tea create when it interacts with my body? What change has occurred? This is why it is important for us to have a calm, clear mind when we drink tea if we want to properly assess the tea. If our mind is very calm and clear, we drink a tea, and we feel absolutely nothing, this tea has no Qi. Tea without an affect is basically flavored water, it can never be a good tea, let alone great. Even worse is tea that negatively impacts your body; this is just poison. Again, good tea will often make us feel relaxed, it may make our stomach feel warm, make us happy, etc. There are of course many possibilities, but if a tea makes you feel bad than trust yourself; it is likely just bad tea.

What you should feel from good tea is discussed briefly in this post, and the main points are relatively easy to understand. However, the affect of tea is a very deep and complicated topic that no article can truly encompass. Experience is the best teacher, and fortunately there are many tools and people who can help us on the journey. 

The Realm of Subjectivity

The qualities of smell and taste certainly fall into the subjective realm. Some people like very sweet tea that smells like honey, some prefer Puerh that tastes like tobacco and is far more bitter. This is personal preference, and calling a tea bad because it isn't your taste is not right. On the other hand, teas from certain areas should have certain qualities and if the tea lacks these specific qualities it is not good. For example, Lao Ban Zhang Puerh should have bitterness that quickly transforms into sweetness. Bing Dao should have astringency that transforms into rich saliva. If these teas do not have these qualities, they are very likely fake or just very poor quality.

Chinese Medicine, Cha (Tea) Qi, and Further Complexity

From a Chinese Medicine perspective, each person is unique; sometimes a very cold natured, bitter tea (i.e. wild white tea) will damage one person's body while actually helping another's. Cold natured tea in and of itself is not necessarily bad, however generally human beings will be most benefited by warm natured foods and beverages. This is why we typically favor warm, sweet teas: they are very balanced and benefit the general human constitution. However, if somebody frequently eats hot and greasy foods, drinks copious amounts of alcohol, and smokes cigarettes, they will typically feel better after drinking tea that is more cold and bitter. Their imbalanced lifestyle is effectively counterbalanced by the cold, bitter tea. The imbalanced tea helps them, while it may seriously hurt someone with a more balanced body constitution. We have seen hospitalizations from very cold, wild tea; it is not a joke. In this case, one person's medicine is another's poison.

Chinese Medicine theory is very deep; seeking balance means that each person requires a different treatment approach based on their individual constitution. This complexity cannot be removed, and we should not try: it is arguably the most powerful aspect of Chinese Medicine. The key point is that cold natured food and drink will easily damage the digestive system, which will in turn negatively impact other areas of our body. For a clear experience of comparing cool and warm teas, drink one of our high mountain wulongs and then drink our Jiao Dian, a red tea. The wulong is cool and the red tea is quite warm. As you drink the teas, observe the reactions within yourself. I know these teas and their natures and actions well. In fact, many red teas on the market are cool and bitter and will lead to incorrect understanding.

So, here we have covered the basics of what is good tea, and have added a great deal of complexity to make clear that this is not an easy subject to understand. In truth, most tea on the market will not meet this "good tea" standard. I will discuss why in a later articles on tea economics and production. To briefly summarize, mono-cropped machine made plantation tea makes up the majority of the tea market and the tea quality suffers greatly from poor production standards.

-Forest Amsden, LAc
  

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