Gourmet Tea, also known as fine tea or luxury tea, is a form of high end tea harvested and produced under specific conditions including location, elevation, forest environment, soil, and tree type. Similar to how there are lesser grade coffees and wines, the world of tea also has higher grade levels that are distinguished by price, taste, and flavor.
Types of Gourmet Tea
Gourmet tea is usually divided into the following categories:
- Premium Tea
- Competition grade
- Ultra-high grade tea
Premium Grade Tea
Tea makers use the term Premium Grade to describe any tea that is organic and available for direct purchase. Tea producers prefer to distinguish harvests made for large brand mass consumption that use things like herbicides and other chemicals to ensure growth, and teas grown under organic, closely supervised conditions meant to build reputation for the individual tea farm.
However, organic and non-mass produced attributes aren’t simple enough to call a tea high end. Tea farmers also need to adhere to strict harvesting conditions that take into consideration rainfall, sunshine and hand plucking techniques instead of using machines. Often, such circumstances are not all meant and a tea should not fall into a premium category.
Premium and Competition Grade teas are usually considered roughly the same quality. The main difference is whether a premium tea actually wins a competition and can place a winning badge to its name. Most tea producers only submit their finest teas to competitions, so it usually goes without saying that competition teas are all premium quality. If a tea does win a competition that is registered with a city, county or even country level, it can promote itself as competition grade.
However, it is worth noting that some tea makers will promote their teas as competition grade even if their selections don’t actually win. This distinction needs to be made. An analogy to this would be a film that was selected to enter a competition but didn’t win. Tea consumers need to be certain the tea actually won a competition vs. being submitted to a competition.
Ultra-high-grade tea is usually very rare or small batch quantities produced with specific growing conditions, oversight, and tea trees. An example of this would be a small batch Puerh made from an old tea tree within a specific growing region known for having highly mineral rich soil. Such a tree may be very rare to the area and produce distinctly different or rare flavors or Cha Qi (tea Qi) feelings that otherwise are unavailable to the area.
Other ultra-high-grade teas are often subject to the luck moth nature bestows. One example is a snow covered Oolong. It is not typical for most Oolong growing regions to get snow. When this occurs, tea farmers have the rare opportunity to let snow sink into the tea leaves and then quickly surround those batches with monitored wind circulation and even sometimes heat as to avoid frost or the leaves dying. The farmers will then quickly react to harvest the leaves before the temperatures become too high. The end result is a very crisp and cool Oolong that unique, highly limited and otherwise not available on a seasonal or even yearly basis.
Regardless of which high level is classified, Premium, Competition Grade and Ultra High-End selections are all under the umbrella of Gourmet Tea. At Qiful Life, we only promote Gourmet Tea based on each categories highest standards. Below is a more in depth look at what each Gourmet Tea standard represents.
Gourmet Tea Growing & Production Standards
The growing regions for cultivating gourmet tea are very important. Considerations include:
- Proximity to other tea fields, farms or factories
- Local policies
Most low quality teas are grown at lower elevations. Similarly, higher end teas that fit into the gourmet category are grown at higher elevations. This is because rainfall, moisture and less pollution are found at higher areas. At lower elevations, tea fields are subject to rain drainage coming down from other nearby hills or potentially even non tea growing areas. Land prices for high mountain tea field areas as a result are much more expensive.
It is vital that tea farms are not in proximity to factory areas or other nearby farms. This helps avoid any unnecessary spillage or runoff unnatural to the tea environment. Most mass producing tea areas are often close to cities or developed areas and face issues related to pollution. In general, the further away and more difficult the journey is to a tea field the higher the quality will be produced.
A lesser known fact about tea production is government policy. At township levels such as Muzha in Taiwan, local governments base development standards around the tea fields and not the other way around. As cities continue to develop and there is more and more push toward modernity in places like Yunnan, the harder it becomes to control the effects on tea consumption.
For a tea to truly be gourmet quality, it needs to have the right harvesting conditions. This is referring to rainfall and sunshine amounts in particular. To illustrate this example, Taiwan throughout 2020-2023 underwent extreme periods of draught and then rainfall from typhoons, which led to poor and limited production periods for several years in a row. This led to increased prices since supply was down. Unfortunately, the reality for high end tea makers is that gourmet tea became a commodity throughout this period and highly limited various tea farmers’ production. Many Taiwanese farmers as a result have begun looking to Vietnam and Indonesia to expand operations and accommodate bigger brand demand.
Terrace Tea vs. Forest Tea
Teas grown within deep forest environments are considered the most luxurious and premium selections. In our opinion, gourmet tea mostly comes from forest tea. We have also tasted and tested select batch terrace tea and can confirm there are premium selections available, albeit limited. A great example of this is this Oolong Tea selection that is harvested between winter and spring. As mentioned before, timing is everything so between a high elevation, good climate conditions and the right season it is possible for terrace tea to be premium.
To our knowledge we are not aware of any major tea brand that sources mass quantities from forest areas. We are one of the few companies who specialize in forest tea in general and are the main promoter of gourmet tea sachets from these areas.
Tea Tree Age
This is one of the most overlooked aspects of determining tea quality. A long tea tree lifespan indicates it has withstood the tales of time within all sorts of environment changes and challenges. A healthy, long living tree is quintessential to gourmet tea.
Hand Plucked vs Machine Plucked
The most premium gourmet tea types are hand plucked using hand slicers that are usually worn on the thumb and middle finger. Tea pluckers go through each stem and carefully slice along the buds to cut the full tea leaf. Only leaves that are absent of holes or discoloration are placed into baskets and then handed off to be hand rolled.
Most low end teas go through a quick roasting process that is usually performed only once. However, roasting several times and over longer periods of time is a major contributor to bringing out all the subtle notes associated with gourmet tea quality. Since the process is time consuming many tea producers do not invest in this production phase.
Drying a tea leaf under proper sunlight and temperature is key. Gourmet tea is best when sun dried naturally and not under unnatural machine drying.
Dry Storage is considered the most premium storage technique. It refers to a process of moderating humidity within storage facilities. While it may seem contradictory that teas grown in wet and humid environments need to be dry stored, it is important because the chemistry of finished tea products changes due to roasting and fermentation.
Clay containers are considered the most premium option for storing within dry environments but are extremely costly.
Tea Master Lineage
Lineage is very important in the world of gourmet tea making. Similar to Qigong, Taichi or Yoga, the history and methodology are very important. Some tea lineages draw upon hundreds of years of passed down knowledge while others much shorter.
At Qiful Life, our tea masters go back to the Ming Dynasty – one of the oldest tea traditions known to the field.
Gourmet Tea Growing Regions
There are several regions on earth that are known for producing particularly high quality, gourmet teas time and time again.
Taiwan Growing Areas
- Wenshan District
China Premium Tea Areas
Gourmet Tea Types
There are 2 primary types of gourmet tea:
- Loose Leaf
- Tea Bags
Traditionally, most high-end tea has been reserved to loose leaf types used with traditional brewing methods such as tea pots and gai wans. However, over the years tea bag technology has evolved and high end products such as compostable tea bag pyramids with mesh interwoven has become more mainstream. At Qiful Life, we tested each tea with all the different types of sachets available and chose the most appropriate one that best captures a loose leaf brewing experience.
For many large leaf teas, sachets are not an option since this would require cutting the leaf. This results in loss of flavor and fragrance. The hardest tea to capture in pyramid sachets is green tea while Oolong and small leaf varieties are the easiest.
Where Can You Buy Gourmet Tea?
At Qiful Life, all our teas are gourmet quality selections hand plucked with love under the supervision of our resident tea master. We carry a wide selection of new and aged products for every taste and function.