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In the district of origin, cup sampling is primarily a means a quality control over the processing; when the tea is purchased, it is a way of establishing the tea's character, quality, and relative value. Brokers and agents cup-sample on the spot at major markets, and samples are also flown airmail to buyers and brokers all over the world.
Governments in importing countries where legislation provides for control over the quality of tea that is imported-as in the United States-cup-samples all imports. In brief, at any point in the tea market where there is some need to describe the tea and put a value upon it, cup-sampling is the method of evaluation.
There are two basic methods of tasting in common use; the British and the American . Actually there is little difference between the two except in the equipment used, so we'll simply describe the American method. American tea buyers and tasters use equipment quite similar to that used for coffee cup-sampling, except that there is no need, of course, for sample roasters.
The necessary equipments consists of a long, waist-high countertop or a round wood or marble table four feet in diameter with a revolving top (the outside edge is slightly lower than the rest of the top, creating a sort of shelf): thin, white, handle-less cups ranged around this shelf; a shallow pan or tray to held the sample tea behind each cup; bright light from window (ideally north light): a scale to weigh out samples; a source of filtered water; two or three kettles and stove to boil the water and a spittoon ( or ‘gaboon' as it called in the trade), a stool, and a spoon. Most tea tasters find tap water piped through a charcoal filter satisfactory.
A tea taster examines the tea before the after preparation in order to determine, as much as possible, its character, quality, and value; in each state-dry leaf, infused leaf and liquor-the tea reveals a good deal to the expert eye, hand, and palate. As previously explained, and dry leaf is simply the processed tea in the state in which the consumer purchases it. The ‘infused leaf' is the wet mass of leaves left after preparation of the beverage. (Confusingly, tealeaves in this state are called the ‘infusion' by tasters, whereas tea drinkers commonly call the brew or beverage itself the infusion. In the interest of clarity, we will use the phrase ‘INFUSED LEAF' whenever possible, and save the term ‘INFUSION' for the entire process or method of brewing.) The ‘LIQUOR' is the liquid part of the brew that results from pouring boiling water over tealeaves and allowing the mixture to steep for a number of minutes.
A tasting season begins with selecting the tea to be sampled. It is possible to evaluate several hundred samples a day, but since the nose and palate tire quickly, only two or three dozen should be tasted at a given time. A portion of each tea selected is placed on a sample tray and appropriately labeled.
First the dry leaf is examined simply by appearance. Black tea's fully withered leaves look black, obviously, green-tea leaves look green, whereas oolong leaves look partially withered. The ‘VARNISH' of dried tea juices that cover the leaf in black teas is called the bloom or complexion; its evenness is a sign of good quality, shortcomings in the manufacture of the tea can be detected by the practiced eye: brown leaf in orthodox teas may indicate under withering; blistered leaves and grayness are caused by over rapid firing; well-twisted leaves indicate full withering, and so on.