There is no comparison between cheap, teabag tea and real tea. If you are fortunate enough to be happy with teabag tea, then you will save yourself much money in this lifetime. However, do know that teabag tea is taken from the sweepings off of the factory floors. That is to say, while processing tea for more expensive markets, shake and spillage falls to the floor. This is then swept up and processed into tea for teabags. Along with the swept up tea comes dust, dirt, rat droppings and everything else that was on the floor. While this is more the case for mainland teas vs. Taiwan teas, it is something to consider (along with the staple) when it is soaking in your teacup. I have never been to India, but I can't imagine the situation being much different.
Of more interest is understanding the difference between low grade tea and mid to high grade teas. Low grade teas are grown at lower altitudes where the plants are pruned to create the maximum yield via larger leaves and more prolific bushes. The lower the altitude, the lower the grade of tea is. Most of this tea comes from the Summer and Autumn harvests, the least desirable harvests for tea. Due to the hot weather and longer days, Summer and Autumn harvest leaves grow much faster and much larger, but have much less moisture content. Larger leaves make a more bitter tea, and the lesser moisture content means the leaves will also ‘burn’ in the drying process. Essentially, these teas still fall under the category of mass market tea, purchased for its low cost.
Mid grade teas reflect a slightly better altitude for growing and/or more concern for harvest season, but there is still more focus on quantity over quality. The tea itself is of a lower quality because of elevation and growing method, and then the processing of larger quantities of leaves means less care is given to temperature control, time in the drying machine, and processing rhythm. To an untrained palate, mid grade teas are so much better than what was previously considered to be tea (teabags and what is served in Chinese restaurants), that it is often considered ‘really good tea’. However, even the highest mid grade teas are not suited for the Chinese Tea Ritual, let alone a discerning palate.
High end teas reflect great care and love. They are grown at altitude to ensure the correct balance of warm days and cool nights. Cloud moisture, rain and the right amount of shade also play a vital role in the quality of tea. Even at a high altitude, a tea can only really be considered high grade if it is grown on the slopes of the mountain with just the right amount of sun and shade. A mountainside with either too much or too little sun will not produce leaves considered high grade. The correct balance of these factors mean the leaves will grow just right. Not too quickly, not too slowly; not too dried out from the hot sun, not too soft from an overly moist or shaded environment. For green teas, which have much smaller leaves, only the Spring harvest is suited for picking; and for wulong teas, the much higher elevation means it can be harvested twice: Spring and Winter. High end tea plantations (known as tea gardens in Chinese) will let the other season harvests to lie fallow, relying only on the Spring or Spring/Winter for their sales.
It is not enough to have the perfect growing conditions to make high end teas. The tea gardeners must also have the great skill necessary to tend, harvest and process the tea. A skilled gardener/processor can make mid range tea seem quite drinkable, and an unskilled gardener/processor can make the highest grade of tea leaves only fit for teabags. Aside from the skill, the entire process of picking, drying and processing the leaves should be done before sunrise of the next day after picking. This means that only small quantities can be picked and processed at any given time. As the Spring and Winter harvest seasons only last for three weeks, only a finite amount can be processed. For a full description of the art of harvesting tea, please see the journal article on the Association for Traditional Studies' website www.traditionalstudies.org and follow the links.
One can also find Superior and Imperial grades of tea on the market. As to these teas, I will only say the following: A true Superior grade tea in Taiwan is incredibly expensive, running from under $1,000 to ten times or more that much, should it win awards. There is only a very small amount able to be made and processed simply due to the lack of appropriate mountains and elevations to grow it. True Superior grade teas are only affordable by the very rich, and those with the connections to find and purchase it at that. A true Imperial grade tea in Taiwan is priceless. The quantities are so limited, and the gardeners so respected, that tea of this nature is never available on the open market. It is really only available for those few who fall under the category of contemporary royalty, the political and power figures who make up today’s ‘Imperial’ court. The Superior and Imperial grades of teas one finds in the open markets simply reflect the wide spectrum of quality within high grade teas.
High quality Wulong tea
Wulong tea is arguably the most developed family of tea at this time in history. While in the past green tea held greatest sway, Wulong tea cultivation, processing techniques and drinking rituals are at their highest peak. Lead by the excellent High Mountain Wulongs from Taiwan and the Tie Guan Yin Wulongs from Fujian, Wulong teas have the richest complexities of all the teas sold on the market. My showpiece tea is a Spring harvest Wulong worthy of the Chinese Tea Ritual. It is what I pour when I am soaking tea for my friends or teaching the Art of Chinese Tea. The Wulongs I carry are ‘small-pot’ tea with an excellent fragrance and complex taste.
High quality Osmanthus flower Wulong tea
Among the flower teas, which are teas with flower petals or essence mixed in, Osmanthus flower is my favorite. Known as Gui Hua Wulong in Chinese, Osmanthus Wulong has a light, refreshing flavor and wonderful scent that is on the opposite spectrum of a Jasmine flower tea. It is important to note that the very fact a tea has been mixed with a flower means it is a mid level tea leaf. It makes as much sense financially to mix flowers into a high end Wulong raised for its complexities as it does to market expensive cognac premixed with cola. The Wulong used for this tea are at the top of their class, but they are not high end teas. This is reflected in the price difference and choice of pot–this is definite ‘large-pot’ or lidded cup tea. The wonderful and dominant taste of the flower means less care has to be taken with controlling the soaking and water temperature.
High quality Jasmine tea
Again, this is a tea with Jasmine flower petals or essence mixed in. Around the world, no Chinese blend is as famous as Jasmine tea. Jasmine tea is made with a green or black tea leaf and has a stronger, heavier taste than the Osmanthus Wulong. It is the official tea of northern China, meaning it is the tea most served in restaurants or people’s houses. Unfortunately, this also means it has the largest range of low end teas, meaning finding a palatable Jasmine tea isn’t easy. Jasmine perfume is often sprayed onto low quality leaves to increase its fragrance and sold at a much higher price than it is worth. I personally don’t drink Jasmine tea too often, but invariably have guests who request it. I always love the look of surprise they have when tasting a high quality Jasmine tea for the first time. This is big-pot or lidded cup tea.
High quality Green tea
While Jasmine tea may be the most famous tea around the world, it is Green tea that has the highest position in people’s minds. The most delicate and volatile of teas, Green tea is prized for its health and taste in Japan and throughout Asia. In the past, I was a pure Wulong fan and didn’t drink any other tea. As my trips to Taiwan became more infrequent, I decided to expand my horizons into Mainland green teas. This has culminated in my moving to Plum Family Village in Hangzhou, China, one of the most respected places for growing Longjing Green tea. The Green teas have a complexity of lightness that never ceases to amaze me when soaked gently, and great power when brewed for strength. While not suited to the Chinese Tea Ritual from Taiwan, it is the tea of choice for the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It is to be savored and appreciated in quiet times alone or with a few friends. This is not tea to be wasted in a large pot, with a big crowd, or in a distracting environment.
Non caffeinated teas
These should technically not be called tea, as they do not contain any tea in them. They are flowers or leaves from other plants that do not have any caffeine. I like having these around when I would like a special flavor without the stimulation. Of the most common are Chrysanthemum and Rose.