Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Yunnan Gold: More Expensive. Better?

This weekend I attended World Tea East, and it was wonderful. I hope to write more about this event soon, but for now, I've been catching up on more routine tasks, including reading blog posts that I was behind on well before attending the expo.

One recent blog post that struck me as notable was Lahikmajoe's post you pay more for appearance. If you haven't yet read this, I recommend at least glancing at it, as it will make this post make more sense. This post talks about the appearance of tippy Assam teas. A comment on the post then brings up Yunnan Gold or Golden Yunnan teas, a tippy type of Dian Hong or Yunnan Red, the style of black tea produced in China's Yunnan Province. In the spirit of this subject, and in case you don't know where Yunnan province is, here is a map of China with the province colored in a rich golden color:

When I first started sampling and researching Yunnan teas, I was under the impression that all tips were golden in black teas, and that the golden color corresponded in a fairly straightforward way to the portion of buds. According to the post above and the conversation it references, this correspondence is not so simple. I had seen tippy Assam with golden tips as well, and I had read that the Yunnan Pure Gold teas were made exclusively of tips. But if you are a Yunnan enthusiast, as I am becoming (the more of these teas I try, the more this becomes one of my favorite styles), or if you are experienced with trying a wide range of tippy black teas, you will likely know from experience that the golden color does not always correspond perfectly to the portion of tips, nor to the character or quality of the tea.

But it does seem to correspond fairly well to price, which begs the question:

Does Golden = Better?

I was curious to see if I had been roped into the idea of golden = better, so I looked back to my recent ratings and reviews on RateTea to find some Yunnan Gold teas that I had tried recently. The three teas I most recently sampled, starting with the most recent, were Adagio's Yunnan Gold, Life in Teacup's Yunnan Golden Bud, and Rishi Tea's Golden Yunnan. These links will take you to my reviews.

Keep in mind, these companies also sell other Yunnan teas (Rishi has a less golden and more golden one), so I'm not necessarily comparing teas of similar grades. But that's the point. These three teas are pictured from left to right, Adagio's, then Life in Teacup's, then Rishi's:

These photos were not taken side-by-side. Although the lighting and composition of these photographs is obviously different, and it's hard to get an exact comparison of the way the leaf looked, I will say that having seen all of these teas up-close, Rishi's looks the least golden of them, as the picture suggests, and the other two teas are similar in color and appearance.

Interestingly, Rishi's got the highest rating from me. The other two I gave identical ratings. In my review, I noted when trying Adagio's that I think I prefer the darker teas somewhat.

How do they compare by price?

Rishi's is $4.00 an ounce, or $14.75 a quarter pound. Adagio's is 1.5 ounces for $12. Life in Teacup's is $7.99 an ounce. It looks pretty clear...golden is more expensive. And at least from my limited sample size, I do not necessarily prefer the golden color, and at this point, I do not think it is worth paying for. This impression may change as I sample more teas and/or as my palate develops, but for now, I'm thinking it's at least possible that this golden color is more for show than anything else, and does not adequately reflect higher quality as manifested in the flavor and aroma of the brewed tea.

What do you think? I'd be curious to hear your opinions and experiences on this matter.


  1. Very interesting topic. I read Lahikmajoe's post a few times (the Tea Trade version) and I'm confused, but I will post my confusion over there.

    Here, I have a couple of questions too. You mentioned "the golden color does not always correspond to the portion of tips [...]" but I'm not sure what you think the golden color does correspond to? Why is it golden if not for the tips? My understanding is, it's due to the processing, but I don't know what method is required to produce "gold."

    The tea comparison between the three companies was interesting, although in all fairness I don't think that you can conclude that the differences in price are due to the different shades of color. Prices here would be much driven by small company - versus large company, and all sorts of other factors. I think it would work better if you compared price differences between teas within one company.

    Incidentally I haven't tried Rishi's but I've cupped the other two and like them both. I do have a preference for @lifeinteacup's though. For me color didn't play in at all here, I just really love the taste. Like you I thoroughly enjoy Yunnans.

    Thanks Alex,

  2. The color / price difference is evident within the catalogues of nearly all companies I've looked at. For example, Rishi sells a Yunnan Red with no visible golden tips, sold as "China Breakfast", which is the least expensive of the three, and a "Golden Needle" which is pure golden tips, which is the most expensive.