As 2020 drew to a close, I looked back on the exceptional teas that came my way throughout the year – even as gardens experienced temporary lockdowns and shipments from Asia encountered delays.
While I was unable to visit gardens in person, I continue to search for teas that represent the classic taste profile from their region. Those that rise to the top make their way into the 15 Tasting Kits that I design for World Tea Academy. Those tasting kits are shipped to hundreds of aspiring tea professionals across the globe.
I have chosen six single-garden selections for my BEST TEAS of 2020 LIST so that you too might taste teas like a tea sommelier.
The B E S T of Sri Lanka
CEYLON GOLD. This Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Extra Special grade is one of the Lumbini Organic Garden’s finest examples of exceptional tea making. The finished leaf is exceptionally well crafted and very stylish, overflowing with golden and silver tips. I would be tempted to purchase this tea based upon sight alone!
The family-owned Lumbini Tea Garden is located in the rain forests of Southern Ruhuna District of Sri Lanka. I visited the garden as part of the trade delegation from the Specialty Tea Institute of America when we presented the family with a Merit Award for Best Sri Lanka Tea Factory in 2003.
The BEST of India
ASSAM EXTRA TIPPY. This 2020 Second Flush Dinjoye Garden tea is one of our staff favorites. While most Assam teas are manufactured for blending or teabags, this grade represents the height of Indian tea craftsmanship. This curly and twisted-leaf tea abounds with beautiful golden tips, an indication of a full-bodied, yet mellow, cup of tea.
Very little of this tea is made each year and we always seem to deplete our stock weeks before the new summer harvest arrives. We have had this tea in our portfolio for many years because it is what my wife and I drink for breakfast every day for many years.
How’s that for an endorsement?
The BEST of Japan
SAKAMOTO GYOKURO. This revered tea is at the top of the Japanese green tea list. Bushes are shade-grown for three weeks before the spring harvest, enhancing L-theanine and producing a very soft liquor. I visited Tea Master Sakamoto at his organic garden in Kagoshima in 2019. We cold-steep this delicious green tea at our office and the staff enjoys it throughout the day.
Severe shading helps create more umami flavor—a taste unique to Japan—as the plant stores additional L-theanine in the leaf. L-theanine is an amino acid that mostly develops in the roots of the tea plant. As it moves into the tea leaves, it reduces back to the previous components, which, when exposed to sunlight, help form catechins. Shading, therefore, prevents the creation of catechins that can give tea an astringent or bitter taste.
Discovered in 1949 in Japan, L-theanine is rarely seen in nature except in tea. It enhances mood by stimulating alpha brainwaves, which can induce a calmer, yet more alert, state of mind. L-theanine also helps lower the pulse rate and blood pressure while it balances and moderates the effects of caffeine, making shade-grown green tea all the more unique in the world of healthy beverages.
The best of China – Green
BI LUO CHUN. Also know as Green Snail Spring, this is one of China’s Top Ten Most Famous Teas. Our AAA Grade tea is plucked in early March and processed in several steps to achieve a curly spiral. The leaves yield a fruity flavor and mellow aftertaste. Grown in East Dong Ding Tea Garden near Lake Tai outside Suzhou, known for its canals, bridges, and classical gardens.
One new bud and one leaf are plucked and processed by hand into neat little spirals that look like tiny snails. It takes 60,000 to 80,000 leaf-bud sets to produce one pound of finished Bi Luo Chun tea. The curled leaves are covered in fine white hairs and untwist to give a clear green to pale golden-yellow liquor that has a delicate and fragrant aroma and a clean aromatic flavor, with slight hints of flowers, fruits, and nuts.
The BEST of China – Yellow
HUO SHAN HUANG YA. The buds of this rare and elegant yellow tea make a soft, rounded cup of tea that is complex, refreshing, and sweet with suggestions of toasted nuts and sweetcorn. Grown in the high mountain Da Hua Ping Tea Garden in Anhui Province.
Noted as one of the fourteen most-famous teas during the Tang Dynasty, Huo Shan Huang Ya is known to have been one of the teas made tribute to the Chinese court from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–906) to the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).
This tea from the high mountain Da Hua Ping Tea Garden is plucked in early April and then manufactured in the style of a green tea except that the leaves are covered prior to complete drying in order to produce a slightly yellow tone leaf set.
This piling process is the most critical step in making Yellow tea. The piling can reduce the astringency of tea and improve its flowery flavor. The steeped tea has a lingering flowery fragrance and pure smooth mellow aftertaste.
The BEST of China – Black
DIAN HONG JIN HAO. From the Yunnan region of China, this beautifully crafted and voluminous organic black tea produces a liquor that wraps like velvet around the tongue. Notice the caramel color in the cup that indicates medium tannins. This golden tea leaves a bit of sweetness with a long finish – similar to a Cabernet Franc wine.
Filled with golden buds that give this tea its unique name, this full full-bodied liquor makes a great breakfast tea, or pair it with savory foods. Like the Lumbini Gold mentioned above, this is a tea that you might be tempted to buy on appearance alone.
Discover more teas from around the world in The New Tea Companion: A Guide to Teas Throughout the World by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson.