I live on the east coast, and there are not many nearby shops that sell loose leaf tea. There is one shop that has a variety of loose leaf tea offerings. I work at this shop, and am already familiar with its menu. Another shop specializes in herbal tisanes. I only visit this store occasionally, because I drink camellia sinensis much more than I drink herbal tisanes. One final business also has some loose leaf teas. However, they focus mostly on foot soaks and massages, and their entire storefront smells like soap. For this reason, I usually pass it on the street with a scowl.
This past week I went to visit two friends in San Francisco. While I was there, I had the chance to sample and shop for tea at a few different locations throughout the city. Due to the sparsity of brick and mortar tea stores around my home, I was excited to visit a city with a more established culture of drinking tea. I was also interested in seeing the different ways that people in these shops chose to present and enjoy loose leaf tea. With all of this in mind I continued to reflect on a question that I’ve considered for a long time: “How to Buy Tea?” I was focusing more specifically on the issue of how to approach the large world of loose leaf tea, become familiar with what is available, and come home at the end of the day with something that seems delicious, clean, and affordable.
At first it seems like a silly question to ask. It’s relatively easy to come across teabags, and even some loose leaf tea in supermarkets, boutique shops, and even restaurants or cafes. If you make a few searches for loose leaf tea online, ads will be shown to you when you browse social media. Assuming you have a job and a little extra money, buying tea is easy. When broken down to the cost per serving, it’s even cheaper than most soda, alcohol, and coffee.
However, buying good loose leaf tea is not as easy as buying produce at the market. There are hundreds of different kinds, harvests, and vintages being sold by a myriad of vendors. A lack of regulation in China leads to uncertainty about what tea is authentic, and this allows many vendors to spread inflated information and prices. Therefore what I’m getting at when I ask this question is relevant to people who want to enjoy and understand their tea on a deeper level. My assumption throughout this whole discussion is that the person asking the question “How to Buy Tea?” may be seeking flavor and feeling more than just a source of caffeine. The act of drinking tea offers them some deeper kind of satisfaction, and they would not view spending a few hours around a tea table as a waste of time. For these reasons this kind of tea lover is not worried to enter the rabbit hole, even with the confusing and expansive nature of the market.
Buying Tea in Person and Online
My method for buying tea is fairly similar regardless of whether I am going to a brick and mortar store, or shopping online. First, it is useful to know the basic categories of loose leaf tea, as well as common types of tea within these categories. If you do not know the difference between an oolong and Pu’er tea, let alone the difference between a Dragon Well green tea and a Bi Luo Chun green tea, it will be a lot more difficult to come to a decision on what is a good vs. a bad quality tea.
Luckily, a good vendor should be able to help us become oriented with what is available. A good brick and mortar tea store should have employees who are welcoming, appear knowledgeable about tea, and are able to offer us information and recommendations that help us arrive at teas we will enjoy. Good online tea shops should have informative product pages, videos that offer information about tea, and reviews from customers who have tried the teas in question. At this stage, the tea drinker will try many different teas in order to get an idea of what’s what.
After one has a general understanding of the different styles of loose leaf tea, one must try to evaluate the teas offered by different suppliers in order to come to an understanding of quality. Although tea vendors can help educate us about loose leaf tea at the start of our journey, I believe it’s a bad idea to trust their knowledge indefinitely. This is because even though palates can be trained, tasting tea is a subjective experience at the end of the day. If we always choose to trust a “tea master”, what happens when our tea master dies, or when we find out they are marking up the price of our tea by 2000%?
Because tasting tea is a subjective experience, I believe it can be compared to a debate in which the value in terms of price and image placed on the tea by the seller is contested by the value grounded in the buyers’ direct experience. I propose that our ability to buy tasty, clean, and tea of an overall good quality will increase proportionally with our ability to understand our own tasting experience and clarify our own ideas about value.
Although I’ve only been trying tea for a few years, there are a few ideas that have helped me along the way:
- It can be useful tasting in themes – If you’re interested in learning about Rock Wulongs from the Wuyi Mountains, try tasting a few different varieties, grades, or similar kinds from different vendors if possible. Tasting how Da Hong Pao is in comparison to Shui Xian, Shui Jin Gui, Rou Gui, etc., can help you understand if/what Rock Wulongs you prefer. Tasting Rou Gui samples from vendors X, Y, & Z, can help you understand what you think is a good price to value ratio, and which vendor you believe offers that reliably.
- A good vendor will offer relevant information, not push a sales pitch
- Understand that brand has a cost – Tea companies that strongly market a brand will change the price of their tea accordingly to align with the image of that brand.
- A good vendor will have a way for you to sample their products – Whether in person, or through smaller sample sizes online, you should be able to sample what you are interested in buying. It seems unfair for a vendor to expect a person to spend a large amount of money on a lot of tea without having a chance to try it in some way first.
- Utilize the tea blogging community to your advantage – There are a lot of people discussing and drinking tea who share many useful perspectives that can help further your own thoughts about tea. Some great tea bloggers and vloggers that I visit include Tea DB, The Half-Dipper, Yunnan Sourcing’s Video Channel, Cwyn’s Death by Tea, Oolong Owl, and Marshln to name a few.
Final Thoughts and Reflections
After writing a bit about the question of “How to Buy Tea?” I wanted to wrap up by sharing a few experiences from the tea shops I visited during my trip, and the lessons I learned from them related to buying tea.
Tea in China Town – One day we were going through China Town and found a shop that had a large amount of loose leaf tea for sale. In this shop I was only able to choose teas based off of their smell and appearance, but the prices were very cheap and affordable. For this reason I took a bit of a gamble, and went home with roughly 5 or 6 ounces of tea to sample for around $20. The teas wound up being of decent quality. I learned that if you try to use your better judgement and not go overboard, occasionally small bets can pay off.
Pu’er Tea in a Ceramics Shop – On the first day of our trip we wound up browsing in a ceramics shop that had many different vases, pots, tea wares, and other odds and ends. The shop was not in China Town, but was owned by a man who spoke Chinese. We wound up chatting for a little bit, and I noticed that he had a few cakes of Pu’er tea for sale. I looked at one cake which had a decent appearance and a smell that was not off-putting. Out of curiosity I bargained with the owner, and got a cake for $15. After taking the tea home and sampling it, the quality was mediocre. Reflecting on the experience as a whole, I realized that this Pu’er tea in the ceramics shop was probably more of a decoration or novelty item. The lesson I learned was to not buy tea from a place where it is viewed in this way. If the owner views it as a novelty, they will most likely not be concerned with quality.
Pu’er Tea Dropped on the Floor – Another tea shop that we visited during our trip had a large table which you could sit at and sample many teas for free, after which you would decide if you wanted to purchase anything in bulk. I made it to this shop twice during our trip, because I enjoyed sampling different teas and chatting in Chinese with the workers. On our second day visiting the store, I expressed to the employee I was interested in sampling some Pu’er teas. At least 15 – 20 cakes were proudly mounted on the wall, all of which seemed to be very expensive (roughly $75 – $200). I wasn’t allowed to inspect or smell any of the wrapped cakes, but the worker had a tray of three unwrapped and unlabeled cakes that she said I could sample from. The tea was sitting out in the sun of the shop, and didn’t have a very good flavor or feeling when we sampled it. At one point the employee dropped all three cakes on the floor, and picked them up indifferently. There was a disconnect between the high price of the tea and the fact that it wasn’t treated with much care or respect. After this experience I came to the conclusion that tea that isn’t treated with a certain amount of care or respect should be avoided. If the employees are indifferent, why should one expect a quality product?