Grades of Honey Fragrance Black Tea
This month’s blind tea tasting is another look into the grading of tea. Unlike March’s tasting (an in-depth look at Korean green tea grades), this comparison will explore aspects of Taiwanese honey fragrance black teas.
So what is this “honey fragrance”? If the name sounds a little strange, it’s because it’s a direct translation of 蜜香 (mì xiāng in Mandarin). It describes a distinct honey-like note present in some teas. This fragrance is a defining characteristic of teas bitten by a type of leafhopper. These insects are part of the order Hemiptera, which includes cicadas, shield bugs, and assassin bugs, among others. The distinguishing trait of these common insects is a long, piercing mouthpart for sucking fluids. Leafhoppers use this mouthpart to piece the surface of plant leaves and suck out the fluids inside. In the case of tea plants, the leaves secrete a variety of chemicals as a defense and healing measure against this particular type of attack. Some of these chemicals belong to a class of molecules called terpenes, which are – you guessed it – responsible for the honey-like fragrance in these teas. (Note that not all teas labelled “honey fragrance” have been bug-bitten: given the desirability of the aroma, the name is often more of a marketing term than true indication of bug-bitten leaf.)
All that said, the focus of this post is on determining what differentiates a low, mid, and high grade honey fragrance black tea. Will the honey fragrance be equally strong across all teas? What clues about the quality show up in the dry and wet leaf? Will the level of bitterness decrease as quality increases?
The best way to find out the answer to these questions and more is by drinking some tea – commence the blind taste testing! Come follow along – I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along step-by-step with my tasting notes (represented graphically) and make your own conclusions about which tea is which. Certainly nothing beats trying and tasting for yourself, but I’d like to think this is the next best thing!
Meet the Teas
All three of these teas were part of the April Mountain Stream Teas tea club box. This tea club was started in 2019 with a focus on tea education through comparative tasting, a perfect fit for these kinds of exploratory blind tasting sessions! Each box comes with a small packet of information about the teas, some of which I will share below.
All three teas come from the same garden located at 400m elevation in Wuhe, Hualien. All were handpicked but vary in picking dates and cultivars as noted below:
Daily drinker honey fragrance black tea: picked July 2018; mix of Big Leaf Oolong and Jixuan cultivars
Standard grade honey fragrance black tea: picked June 2018; Big Leaf Oolong cultivar
Competition style honey fragrance black tea: picked November 2017; Big Leaf Oolong cultivar
Now, let’s read some tea leaves.
From the picture of the dry leaves above, it’s quite clear that the overall texture of the competition style tea is much finer that of the other two teas. Besides a couple pieces of older, light reddish leaves, this tea is almost uniform in golden buds and fine, thin dark leaves. Both the daily drinker and standard grade contain more of these older leaves and fewer fine buds.
In appearance, the daily drinker and standard tea are relatively similar, but when it comes to the scents given off of the dry leaves there’s no mistaking that these are quite different teas. The fragrance of the daily drinker tea is barely there until I agitate the leaves. Then a faint scent of stewed raspberries and wood, like that found in roasted teas, wafts up. The standard tea emits a rich black tea malt scent with muscatel notes at a much higher pitch and volume than the weak, earthy scent of the daily drinker. Lastly, the competition grade tea is redolent with complex high notes, almost like those found in some first flush Darjeelings.
After this initial inspection, I’m feeling quite confident that I can tell these teas apart by scent alone. Time to see if my confidence bears out through a blind tasting.
I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along with the tasting using pictures and graphics to represent aspects of each tea. Some graphics have extra information in a drop down box underneath. You’ll have to trust my judgement when it comes to relaying this information correctly. But even with that caveat, I hope there’s enough information that you can form your own opinion.
The parameters for this tasting were:
– 2.5g of each tea in an identical 100ml porcelain tasting set. The tasting sets were marked on the bottom with the grade of the tea, and the tea was placed into the corresponding set. These sets were blindly mixed and filled with water, and then marked with a letter on top. The tea liquor was poured out into a cup marked with the same letter.
– each tea steeped for two mins with 98C reverse osmosis water with pink rock salt added (TDS of 69 ppm)
Can you guess which tea is which grade via the tasting note hints below? My guesses and the actual answers are in a couple of drop down boxes near the bottom of this page.
Honey with underlying hints of honeysuckle floral. Most similar in scent to A, but all notes are a step lower in pitch. The honey is more raw clover honey than refined honey as in A, and lacks the lingering high pitched florals.
Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.
A – Competition style. This tea is harmony in a cup. There’s clarity in each element of this tea. Each part remains distinct but adds to the whole; nothing outweighs the other. That fine floral note that dances across soft waves of honey and cocoa sweetness is just the cherry on top.
B – Daily drinker. That deep roasty taste with a hint of stewed fruit quickly distinguishes this tea from the other two. In contrast to A and C, which both push upwards towards elegant floral notes, this tea goes in the earthy direction. It also gains the strongest sour flavor as it cools.
C – Standard grade. Very well-balanced with the richness of clover honey and a hint of a honeysuckle-like floral scent. Nonetheless, when drank in comparison with A, it becomes clear that this tea is simply not as nuanced.
Sometimes, you get what you pay for. This is nowhere more evident than in a tasting of tea grades from the same garden. While the standard grade and the competition grade teas shared obvious similarities, to me the daily drinker tasted like a completely different tea. Had I not known that it was also a honey fragrance black tea, I would have mistaken it for a roasted dark oolong. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the dark oolong profile (deeper, earthier notes with an underlying fruit fragrance) is popular for a reason!
But for me, the floral aromas in the standard and competition grade teas are rightly where the money’s at. As is obvious from the tasting notes above, these teas are remarkably similar. It’s only through drinking them simultaneously that the extra brightness and fullness of the competition grade becomes evident.
So, is it worth it to pay extra for the competition grade? Currently on the Mountain Stream Teas website, the standard Honey Fragrance Black tea sits at $28/100g, and the competition grade at $38/100g. That’s a steep price increase for a relatively small quality increase. Nonetheless, from the appearance of the tea (more on this in the addendum), it’s clear that much more time and effort were required to create that small bump in quality between the standard and competition grade than were required to create the large quality gap between the daily drinker and standard grade!
This is a trend not limited just to tea, but rather one that extends to anything with degrees of quality or mastery involved (and in some other instances as well). It’s called the Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule. This rule states that 80% of the results are derived from only 20% of the efforts. As a concrete example, think about learning a second language. Generally the most common 2,000 words of a language account for 80% of the content of conversations/texts. Conversely, this also means that the amount of words one must learn to understand 90% or 95% of a conversation increases exponentially. This could mean another 5,000 or 10,000 words must be learned for only a 10-15% gain in comprehension!
Following the Pareto Principle, 80% of the output (here, quality) is achieved with only 20% of the input (resources). Likewise, this suggests that any gains in quality past 80% (b) will be very little, but will require an out-sized increase in the amount of resources expended (a). (Numbers are all supposition; graph is for illustration purposes only!)
The more tea I drink, the more I understand tea quality (and price) follow this principle. When it comes to teas that are already high quality (say, 80th percentile), the amount of resources a tea producer must expend to improve the quality (for example, to the 90th percentile) increases immensely compared to the fractional increase in quality.
This isn’t something that is all that obvious from the consumer side, especially when quality is conflated with brand/locale names and flashy marketing. For this reason, the opportunity to fairly compare teas at known grades is extraordinarily valuable.
Addendum - So just what makes a tea higher quality?
As in the dry leaves, the wet leaves of the competition style are visibly finer than the other two grades.
I mentioned above in the conclusion that the amount of resources expended during the tea production process in some way equates to tea quality. These resources are namely two things – time and money. In the case of these teas, given that the raw materials (the plants) are almost the same (differing seasons and cultivars (only for the daily drinker)), it’s worthwhile to focus on the resources expended in processing the tea.
Regarding processing, as a rule of thumb the more times human hands have touched the tea, the higher the quality and thus, price. The notes included in the tea box with these teas phrase it as the question, “How much care was taken in the processing?”
Hand-picking teas is inherently more time-consuming (and expensive) than machine-picking. All three of these teas were hand-picked; however, only the competition grade tea consists mostly of buds and small leaves. Hand-picking small buds and leaves requires many more plucks to reach the same yield as larger leaf picks, again increasing resources (time/money for picker wages) required. Given that this raw material is already more expensive, it is likely to be treated more carefully during the other stages of processing. This results in fewer broken leaves and more even leaf coloration.
And hopefully this translates to a bright liquor, well-defined aromas, and long-lasting complex taste. Or more generally, a high quality tea!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this romp through some of the aspects of tea grading. Do you agree/disagree with some of the points I’ve made? Feel free to let me know in the comments!