My friend asked me to post about buying to so here you go!
As tea becomes more popular in the west, there are tons of companies and gadgets popping up to capitalize on the growing market. As a consumer, you might be overwhelmed by all the choices you have from even just one shop.
Recently, Marshal N of A Tea Addict’s Journal posted a thoughtful discourse on Yixing pots. This is a great example of how we can got caught up in certain details like clay type or artist when it doesn’t change the quality of the tea.
The same can be said for tea in a lot of ways. Sometimes a person will come into the shop asking for a brand of tea rather than a type - “I was looking for such and such tranquil energy tea, do you have that?” this can be frustrating because they have a certain set of expectations and it’s hard to break it to them that they have been misguided in some way as to what Tea is and where you can find what you’re looking for. In this particular case, the customer doesn’t buy anything because we didn’t have exactly what they were looking for but occasionally you can have a dialog where you find out what the person liked about that tea or herbal and you can lead them to whatever you have in stock that meets those descriptions.
My goal with this post is to provide you with enough information to make smarter purchases.
Buying tea in a grocery store
Just about every store that sells anything consumable will have some sort of tea or herbal, but for this post, we will stick to vendors like Teahouses, Looseleaf shops, Health Food stores and coffee shops.
Let’s start with the easiest one - Health Food stores (wholefoods, your local coop etc.) These places are all about selling things that have certain health benefits like vitamin c. without really understanding the product as a whole. They are also some of the worst purveyors of useless gadgets (selling tiny teaballs with large leaf teas to force people to crumble them into bits) They also display the teas in jars that allow light to get in and dull the tea.
What is good about these places is how they expose people to the culture. If you don’t have a local teashop to buy from and don’t have a favorite online source yet, this might be the only place you can find real loose tea. In order to make smart purchases you need to know how to identify tea if they don’t have their traditional names.
Long Jing will likely be sold as Dragonwell
Bai Mu Dan will be sold as White Peony
Dian Hong might be sold as Golden monkey, Yunnan Gold, Yunnan Black.
Something else to note is that many of these places buy from online Wholesalers like Adagio, Harney and Sons, Upton Tea etc. This can come in handy if you want to try one of their teas before making an order online without trying it.
Buying Tea Online
There are a plethora of places online to buy any kind of tea you can imagine. There are places devoted solely to Matcha or Puer or oolong or Darjeeling. I’m not going to list certain shops because part of the fun is finding the shop you like best according to the tea you like best.
Once you find a shop online, search for your favorite tea, say Tie Guan Yin for instance, if they don’t have it, I would not shop there. TGY is among the most common tea of any type you will find anywhere if they don’t have it, they likely are not a good source for tea.
If they do have it, there are things you should look for. If they have more than one, make note of the descriptions of the tea. if the title of the tea says something like Iron Goddess Oolong Grade AA and the next one says Iron Goddess Oolong Premium Grade what does that really mean? This can be a little complicated as they have likely just copied the information their supplier gave them. They both may be equally delicious or equally terrible. The Grade AA might be on a scale of 5 A’s so you need to look beyond what it says in the title line. look at the description, if every different Tie Guan Yin has the same description, either a history lesson or just vague information about the tea never going into more detail about the harvest or the roast than “Famous Fujian Oolong” This place is in it for the money and don’t have much knowledge about the tea itself and are selling some tea at a ridiculous markup. That does not mean you can’t find good tea from these vendors, it just means it’s harder to distinguish amongst the jargon and that it’s more expensive than it’s worth.
The type of shop you like of course depends on what style of tea you are into, it is much easier to find good Japanese tea online than it is a good Chinese tea. The Japanese shops can certainly more expensive but you are less likely to find the type of markups you will on a site that sells mostly Chinese teas.
If you are unfamiliar with growing regions, mountains or factories that tea come from, a good shop will have this information for you.
Uji is the most common place Matcha is made, Dong Ding is not a High Mountain tea as it is grown below 1000m. So let that help you weed out misleading claims on a site that say “Tokyo best grade Matcha” or “Frozen Summit High Mountain Oolong”
The best shops will give you specific details like, “Harvested on April 7th in Wuyishan protected area” or stored in Guangzhou for 5 years before moving to Kunming in 2006. This information tells you that the vendor has more contact with their suppliers and/or cares more about tea and their customers.
Buying Tea In a Teahouse/Teashop
If you are traveling or have traveled in China or Japan with tea on the brain, you have no doubt found countless teashops. Finding good, fresh tea is not difficult and you can usually taste the tea before you buy it.
When you walk into a shop in one of the Kunming tea markets, you can find a tea you want to taste with no obligation to buy! if you don’t like it, no problem just move on. If you do like it, you can walk out of the shop knowing you have a tasty tea (and if it’s Puer, you don’t need to break up a bing to see if it’s good!)
In the west, tasting before you buy is more difficult/uncommon. In a teahouse, your ability to taste the tea first is usually limited to whatever they have on their sit-down menu. In a teashop, you are usually limited to just smelling the tea.
Having the advantage of aroma makes shopping in person desirable over online, and in a shop, you have the added advantage of communication with an employee who can hopefully answers some of your questions.
While I think finding your own online source is important, Knowing how some of the most common teahouse/retail places in the US/Canada work is important as you are likely to find them near you if you have not already shopped there.
Teavana - I highly recommend not shopping here as their products are overpriced for their quality, their staff is trained to just regurgitate health claims and not real tangible tea information. They also have an overactive sales technique where they try to sell you something you don’t need/didn’t ask for or just sell you far more tea than you can ever use while it’s still fresh. That being said, if you know these things before you go, you can avoid all the fanfare and just walk in with something specific in mind and walk out with little hassle. Teavana is one of the leading reasons that Tea interest has grown in the West of the last ten years and for that I cannot fault them, I just wish they would do a better job to educate their customers.
If you don’t know what kind of tea you like, Here are a few to try before you go into a more knowledgeable shop to test their fare: Long Jing, Four Seasons oolong, Golden Monkey Black if you like any of these you should be able to find much higher quality versions of them at other shops for the same if not better price!
David’s Tea - I have never been in a David’s tea, I’ve only seen a few posts from instagram friends/followers that has clued me in on their offerings. While I don’t know their sales tactics, I can see by their website that they sell similar styled tea as Teavana (take away the logos and I’m not sure anyone would be able to tell the difference between their websites) There is slightly more useful information on the David’s tea site. They have a korean tea, they have a tab for puer but they still have an overwhelming amount of flavored tea and vague descriptions. (Notice Tie Guan Yin has the legend story I warned about earlier and TGY is primarily produced in Anxi on the opposite side of the province, Wuyishan is where Da Hong Pao and Shui Xian are produced)
Teas to try: White Peony, Second Flush Darjeeling, Tie Guan Yin
Ok, now for some local(ish) places
Camellia Sinensis - The Team at Camellia are awesome, they know their stuff, have great suppliers and do great work educating the world of tea drinkers, their book on tea is the new standard, as it should be. In the teahouse, you can drink a great variety of seasonal teas served in traditional fashion then you can pop over to the retail side and browse their HUGE selection of tea and wares. as I’ve mentioned in another post, my favorite part of their selection is the aged teas. Many shops online offer a few aged teas besides puer but usually has 20+ different oolongs of various ages even a 1958 Bai Hao! They also have a wide variety of puer and heicha including their own series! While they don’t let you taste the tea in the shop, they love letting you smell the tins and with the quality of teas they get and how they store them, the different aromas really POP when you get your nose close. I’m not going to recommend any specific teas because I think they are all fantastic, If you like Sencha, they usually have 4-5 in stock if you like 1st flush Darjeeling, they offer just about any garden you can imagine. Really you should just go in, smell a few teas or sit down next door to drink some first then buy whatever you like or ask talk to one of their employees to help them find a tea for you. I’m sure you’ll be thrilled with whatever tea you come away with.
Stoneleaf Tea - If you are in Vermont then this will be local to you, otherwise, they do have their teas online and ship directly to you teacup! John, the owner, has done some extensive travelling to source his teas. He didn’t have any Da Hong Pao in his selection yet so he went to Wuyishan this spring to get some and he found some excellent stuff! He has every kind of Taiwanese oolong you want as well as a few Tie Guan Yin and Wuyishan area teas. His puer selection has a few shou and a few sheng Including a 2010 Stoneleaf Nannuo Shan Bing! If you have to get one tea get the Taiwanese Bi Luo Chun, every year it seems to get better and better. What makes John and his tea great is how well connected he is to the tea he carries. This year, the Bi Luo Chun was harvested on March 4th (so early!) and we were drinking 10 days later! Fresh tea in the US before April?! His Yunnan Mao Feng is also delicious and usually gets it in the first week of April every year.
Each person has a unique set of tastes and something I may love might make you gag and your favorite green might be something I would use as mulch for my blueberries. My hope is that upon reading this, you have a better idea of where and how to shop for quality tea. Sometimes you can even take a gamble and find some decently priced, not terrible tea at a random asian market or in a coffee shop that wants to branch out/cater to a wider audience.
That’s all I have in store for this round, I’m going to write a post for more advanced tea drinkers about what to look for in the leaves themselves and how to distinguish roast from oxidation and more!
Enjoy your searching and drinking, let me know what teas you’ve found!