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According to wikipedia, the smaller the leaf (especially the buds) the more valuable it is.

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Tea leaves of different sizes just after plucking. Small leaves are more valuable than big ones.

From what I gather, the biggest quality pickings are the buds. Also, tea quality grading takes into account how many leaves were plucked alongside the young leaves.

Pekoe tea grades are classified into various qualities, each determined by how many of the adjacent young leaves (two, one, or none) were picked along with the leaf buds. Top-quality pekoe grades consist of only the leaf buds, which are picked using the balls of the fingertips.

Why does the number of leaves that were picked alongside the bud matter?

Also, it seems like the lower the leaves, the lower the quality. Maybe it's about sun exposure, or is it simply age?

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Before I answer this question, the focus on small leaves and young buds is mainly relevant for green and white teas.

This category of teas are very lightly processed and are therefore very 'raw'. Using very large leaves would result in a more bitter brew. Therefore small tips and buds are the best and result in more delicate brews.

The smaller leaves are also picked in early Spring. As the temperatures are low, they grow slower and are thus richer in flavor.

These Spring buds have less supply, while there's less demand. As you can imagine, that results in higher prices.

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    White tea actually consists of the young tea leaves and buds only. :-) – Fabby Jun 9 '18 at 20:40
  • If you say the focus on small leaves and buds is mainly for green and white teas, how are other teas (black) are graded? – Bar Akiva Jun 10 '18 at 5:27
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    @fabby that's not necessarily true. White tea generally has four grades which are gongmei, shoumei, baimudan and silver needle. The latter two consists of buds and often times young leaves, but the first two often consists of large leaves and sometimes broken leaves. – Lisa at Teasenz.com Jun 11 '18 at 5:46
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    @BarAkiva the leaf size is just one factor. Black teas from Fujian the size matters more, besides the region they're picked. E.g. if they're picked inside or close to the Wuyishan scenic region, then it's gonna be more expensive. As for black tea from Yunnan, we've seen leaf teas with no buds which go for really expensive prices, because they're from certain mountains that are really popular. Sometimes Yunnan Black teas are picked from wild tea trees, which often times produce much larger buds and a leaves. – Lisa at Teasenz.com Jun 11 '18 at 5:47
  • @BarAkiva And then you've oolong tea for which mostly 1 bud 3-4 leaves are picked. Young buds only wouldn't survive the intense oxidation, rolling, roasting proces to come out nice. – Lisa at Teasenz.com Jun 11 '18 at 5:52
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Do some empirical research and go into your garden and taste some of the flowers, buds, small leaves and old leaves.

Warning: Do this only if you know something about horticulture and botany as you want to avoid poisoning yourself! ;-)

  1. The smallest leaves are the least bitter ones of most plants and this is true for tea as well.
  2. A small leaf eventually grows into a bigger leaf, which has more weight thus can be sold for more money than a small leaf if quality would be equal.
  3. If the more bitter, older tea leaves would be sold at the same price as the smaller, younger ones, no one would be buying the older ones.

Therefore: the buds are "most valuable", the small, young ones are "more valuable" again until the larger, "older" leaves: it's a combination of taste, age and economics...

As a marketing tool, they're even named differently: "White tea" consists of only the young leaves and buds and "green tea" consist of the less young leaves. Black tea consists of the even older leaves that are subsequently processed.

Green tea has existed forever, black tea is a recent invention from the 1800s whereas white tea is just an extremely recent marketing fad as this Ngram chart clearly shows: White, Green, Black tea Ngram chart

  • Now im more curious - why the size of a leaf affects it's bitterness? Do leaves develop tannins with age? – Bar Akiva Jun 10 '18 at 5:29
  • Answer updated and this now fully answers your original question. If you would have a new question on bitterness of leaves related to age, just ask a new question. :-) It's not like we charge you more money if you ask more questions. ;-) – Fabby Jun 10 '18 at 11:45
  • a vast number of the hits for 'white tea' are actually references to white tea-roses, white tea-lice and other false positives. That doesn't necessarily prove that what we call in English 'white tea' is is a recent marketing fad, only that the term is relatively new. – Spagirl Jun 11 '18 at 13:14
  • The OED examples us usage for the terms green and black tea respectively date from 1704 and 1706. Its first example for white tea is from 1899. Ngrams are really useful for telling you some things about language usage, but they can be a blunt tool. They don't strip out meanings you didn't expect, like white and black tea in the UK also meaning 'tea with milk' and 'tea and without milk'. Also, you are just searching it in english so it only tells you about uses of those words in that language, nothing about the product or references to it in other languages. – Spagirl Jun 11 '18 at 13:51
  • The difference between teas isn't necessarily the size of the leaf. any black tea of grade OP and above most likely consists of buds. Silver needles is a white tea that consists of rather larger leaves. The main difference is the amount of oxidation the leaves have gone through. – aquileo Jun 25 '18 at 7:49
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Other answers have spoken to why the buds and tender leaves are considered of higher quality, so I thought I'd weigh in on why the number of leaves picked alongside the bud matters...

I would guess it would be because this kind of grading works when the leaves and buds are not separated, so buds picked by themselves make a tea blend that is 100% bud, buds picked with one leaf end up with a proportion of 50% bud and 50% leaf per serving/container, and buds picked with three leaves are 25% bud and 75% leaf - while the actual proportions are likely more handwavy than my 1-to-1 assumption, the basic idea that the more leaves are picked (per bud) the fewer buds you'll get in any given serving of tea, holds true.

Additionally, since the youngest leaves are higher quality, there is very likely a quality difference between the youngest (1st) leaf and the older (2nd, 3rd) leaves - so again the grading is about the % which is of the highest quality, and the % that is the slightly-less-than-highest category, and the slightly-less-than-slightly-less-than-highest-quality.

It is also relevant, though not quite as strongly so, that it takes more work to be more precise (picking only the bud vs the whole branch-tip), and more smaller leaves to gain the same weight of tea as larger leaves, so the effort expended is quite different which also weighs in for what the tea is worth... though without a discernible quality difference, the effort alone might not be worth nearly as much of a price difference outside some rather specialized markets. Costing more because it's harder to do is as valid as costing more because the quality is greater, just look at artisan vs mass produced prices.

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