Stems - How Much is Too Much?

Hi, gang – I’m a newcomer to better teas and have a question about the quality if teas. Noticed in a cup today that there was a lot of stem material:

Is this unusual? Is there a rule of thumb? I know in a perfect world there would be none but I was hoping to hear others’ thoughts on this.

Thanks, Rick.

18 Replies
darby select said

Hi Rick!

That is weird! I thought you post was odd but proof is in the pic. What kind of tea is this? Looks like they’re cherry stems or something?
I’ve never had this.

moretogo said

Found your post to be very helpful. I just purchased a tea from a Connecticut tea shop recommended by my pretty knowledgeable doc, only to find that the 180gms I paid $40 for is a VERY twiggy/stemmy pu-er tea. I have pu-er given to me by friends as gifts over the years, and never seen this! In the 1960’s you would have called it a “__it brick of pot”! Almost looks like a mechanical harvester was used in the manner of hedgeclippers to harvest the bush. Truly more twigs than leaves. Sounds like it is drinkable, but I can confirm that it doesn’t brew up as readily as non-twiggy tea. Must steep a very long time to get even a pale amber color. Will post photos of the different teas side/by/side in next couple of days – if they can be posted. Have never used this site before!

Yeah, you can’t post photos here, but you can post them on other sites and give links (as above)

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Typically lower quality teas will have a lot of stems while higher quality teas have little to no stems. But I’ve had teas that contain a lot of stems and still taste very good. So, if you enjoy the tea I wouldn’t worry too much about the stems…unless you’re paying a premium price.

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What type of tea is this?

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Those stems are huge.

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Uniquity said

I’ve had greens with that much stem before from a couple suppliers. As I understand it, more stems suggest a lower quality tea (because you’re brewing stems not full leaves) but my philosophy is drink what you enjoy. I wouldn’t worry about it, unless you feel you’re being ripped off in terms of price.

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Aiko said

Well, there is Kukicha, a Japanese green (one I often enjoy at that) that is made up of entirely stems and twigs, so they’re not bad by any means. I also had a young pu’er the other day that was rather stemmy. It’s not unusual; as others have said, it’s probably indicative of lower quality, but unless you paid a ton for it expecting some premium grade tea, it’s nothing to be concerned about.

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Grace said

Sometimes a good mix of stems are nice, especially in raw puer. I don’t mind stems in Oolongs either!!

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Sorry to leave you all hanging – family crisis that dominated my time. The tea is a blend called Exotic Fruits Green and I actually found it listed on Steepster as well: Thanks for your thoughts on the stems. I had settled on the same answer before posting and just wanted to make sure I was in the right frame of mind. Peace!

Ooh, that actually looks delicious.
I hope your family is alright!

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Stems and twigs of tea are generally low in caffeine but high in L-theanine, especially if harvested from tea plants cultivated for gyuokuro or high-grade sencha. I wouldn’t consider all kukicha (twig tea) to be of inferior quality.

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mbanu said

Good tea should not have stems in it. As has been said, stemmy tea can taste ok, but one should recognize that stems are a by-product that is normally used as fertilizer, and not something that one should pay the same price for as ordinary tea. A very stemmy tea also suggests that a good plucking standard is not being followed.

Sometimes tea is stemmy because an importer is buying “crude” tea without processing it. One way of dividing up the labor of making tea that is popular in some countries is to have the farmers process the tea without sorting or grading it, using small factories or doing the work by hand. This crude tea is then (in theory) sold to wholesalers who remove the stems, separate it out into even grades, and re-fire it to prepare it for export, but there is no law that mandates this step.

High-quality pu’er is sometimes quite stemmy, but that is not because the tea is high-quality; it is because the aging conditions and the tea fungus used have turned a low-quality product into a high-quality one, much the same way that a raw whiskey might be turned into a fine one after several years of aging.

Kukicha, the Japanese “tea” made up entirely of roasted tea stems, isn’t bad, but it should not be expensive. It is a by-product of tea, not tea. In Japan tea-production is staggeringly expensive, so even tea waste can’t be left to waste. :)

I just want to point out that kukicha isn’t generally roasted. There is a roasted kukicha called kaga boucha or houji kukicha but it’s kind of rare.
And yes, kukicha is “tea” because it is made from the Camellia Sinensis plant.
The term by-product can be a bit subjective. In Japan the buds are considered to be a by-product and as such mecha (bud tea) is cheaper than gyokuro even if made from it. In China, however, the buds are more highly regarded.
For the Japanese worse quality results from later flushes and coarse leaves, as with bancha, than by by-products. I just looked at online Japanese tea stores and indeed bancha is usually cheaper than kukicha.

mbanu said

You are of course right about the roasted vs. unroasted varieties of kukicha. For some reason I had thought that the roasted version came first. :)

I have read that kukicha was developed after the high cost of labor forced most tea farms in Japan to start moving away from hand-picking. (I will see if I can find the reference.) With hand-picked tea, one can leave most of the stem on the bush, after all. :) In this way kukicha would be considered a by-product of mechanically-assisted tea plucking, as the stems were not intentionally cut… Is it different today? Are there farms which focus intentionally on kukicha production?

I didn’t know that tea buds were unpopular in Japan… Do you know why this is? Is it due to the flavor, or for some other reason?

Thanks for the reply mbanu.
I’m not sure how to explain this correctly, but it’s not only the stem (the central part of the tea plant) but small twigs that are attached to the leaves. If you pick a leaf sometimes this small part also comes with it, but you’re right, harvesting by machine does bring out more stems and twigs.
There are no farms that I know of focusing on intentionally producing kukicha. The twigs and stems are separated after harvesting via a machine (as well as buds!).
I wouldn’t say that tea buds are unpopular in Japan, but mecha is actually cheaper than sencha or gyokuro even though the buds underwent the same cultivation process. The flavor of buds is different than that of leaves, maybe that is the reason why.
To learn more about mecha (bud tea), please visit my blog:

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