How to Choose Quality Tea
A guide on how to choose and buy good quality tea. We go into what good quality tea looks like, how to spot good supplier / stores, and lastly reputable online shops where you can find fine quality tea.
One of the first prerequisites to brewing great tea is to use quality tea for your tea making. Purchasing high quality tea may sound like an extravagance at first. However once you start looking at what separates good quality tea from low quality tea, it makes sense why tea connoisseurs use better and more expensive teas for making their tea.
Traditionally tea and tea quality has been revered in Eastern civilisation, where the true tea plant originates. Upon discovering tea, the British Empire adopted it as their favorite drink, and at the same time commercialized it, and popularizing the teabag (most abhorred form of tea by tea experts).
Nowadays with the globalisation of brands and online shopping, we now have access to a huge range of teas, and have access to high quality tea if we choose to look for it. Although one can now buy or order high quality tea with ease, identifying teas of a high quality, whether in a shop or online is not always so easy.
So, we are going to take a look at what differentiates good quality tea from low quality teas, and what to look for when trying to figure out if a tea is really worth its price tag or not. High quality tea will never be cheap, but bad quality teas do a lot of masquerading under hefty price tags. So it is very important to inform oneself of what constitutes a good tea, and what are the indicators that the company you are buying from is selling what they claim.
Firstly off, we need to talk about loose leaves versus bags in relation to tea quality.
Start off By Choosing Loose Leaf Tea
The very first place to start when setting out to get hold of high quality tea is to choose to brew with loose leaf tea. This is very important and will lift the flavor of your tea dramatically.
Why Brew With Loose Leaf Tea?
Bagged tea is the most common form you will find tea in. It is convenient to brew and cheap to buy. However, bagged tea is a very poor quality of tea. Bagged tea is made up of what they term in the tea industry the ‘dust and fannings’ of the tea manufacturing process. So literally the dregs of the industry. That in an of itself is not bad, but the tea that this dust and fannings yields up is far inferior to a cup make with loose and whole leaves.
Why Bagged Tea Makes Bad Tea
There are 3 reasons why tea made from bagged tea is inferior in taste:
- Because the structure of tea in tea bags is so degraded, this tea usually has lost most of its aroma compounds much of the essential oils have evaporated out of the tea. These two components of tea are what work to give it is flavor.
- The powdered state of the dust and fannings causes a larger amount of tannins to be released into your brewing tea. These tannins make tea bitter and astringent in flavor. Something tea makers try to avoid.
- Paper tea bags are apt to release a ‘paper taste’ into your tea. This is especially noticeable if you drink your tea without milk, sugar or honey.
- The dust and fannings used in bagged tea goes stale much faster than whole tea leaves due to its fine state.
As you can see, loose whole leaf tea is generally a far superior tea to bagged tea. However, if you buy any old brand of loose leaf tea, you are still at risk of getting low quality tea – at an inflated price into the bargain!
So let’s take a look at how to know what good quality loose leaf tea looks like.
Know What Good Quality Loose Leaf Tea Looks Like
Getting to know what a sample of high quality loose tea leaves look like is important when looking to buy good quality tea. After this section you should be armed against any and many a tea scam artist!
First off, how good the quality of a batch of tea is largely determined by how fresh and undamaged the whole tea leaves are. So you must be able to identify by eye what fresh, non stale, leaves look like.
What Fresh, Non-stale Tea Leaves Look Like
Tea which is not old and damaged will have a certain look, feel and smell to it. These are the things to look for:
- Leaves should not be broken. Leaves must be fully intact and not in pieces.
- The edges of the leaves may be slightly serrated. This indicates little to no damage.
- Leaves should be slightly thick. This indicates that they are not overly dried out.
- Leaves should be slightly rubbery. This also indicates freshness and that they are not overly dried out.
- When rubbed between forefinger and thumb, leaves should not crumble away to a powder or dust. If so, this indicates staleness.
If these indicators are present, then it is highly likely that you have a very fresh batch of tea on your hands.
Other Factors which Indicated a High Quality of Tea
Besides freshness, there are two other things to check in order to gauge what quality of tea you are looking at.
- Homogeneity of tea. This means the extent to which tea leaves are similar in size. This indicates that this is a tea which all came from one crop/batch. Not an amalgamation of mass purchased batches of tea all mixed together.
- Naturalness of tea. This means that the tea is 100% tea, and does not contain artificial colorants of flavorants.
- Organically grown. This means tea does not contain poison or toxin residue and is safe to drink over the long term. Tea has become one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world. Besides being bad for the land, for the tea workers and for the tea plants, these chemical end up in one’s cup of tea and have been linked to numerous chronic health diseases. So buy organic if at all possible.
See, it’s not so complicated! Once one knows what to look for, it is not so difficult to spot a good batch of tea when you see one.
However, this brings us to the slightly more complicated part… It’s not often that one gets to ‘see’ a batch of tea before one buys any of it! Which is why you also need to know what to look for in a tea brand, supplier or shop that sells tea.
What to Look for in a Supplier, Brand or Shop
When on the hunt for good quality tea, you need to know what are the indicators that a brand, supplier or shop (whether physical or online) is selling good quality fresh tea.
Many shops, whether brick and mortar on online, stock and sell tea without knowing much about tea or tea quality. However if they do know a bit about tea and what separates the stale from the fresh, chances are that they will be selling better quality tea, and at the correct pricing.
So, before just placing an order or making a purchase, the thing to do is investigate a little.
When buying online, things are doubly difficult because the product pictures of the tea which is on offer are usually stylied, edited, and may not be of the tea which is currently for sale. So basically, the product images can not really be used as indicators of the tea quality.
So, instead of going by the pictures, you will need to go by the the site’s quality of info about the tea. Generally, if a website has solid info regarding its teas and tea in general, then they are probably a reliable supplier.
Speak to Someone and Ask them Some Questions About the Tea
A great way to test out the reliability of an online supplier is to contact them by telephone, and ask them some good tea related questions. If they seem confused or unsure about the answers, then it will indicate that they do not really know much about tea, and therefore the company probably does not sell quality tea.
Some good questions to ask are:
- Where is the tea grown and at what time of year is it harvested (tea is harvested in spring).
- What does some of their tea look like (you want them to describe a nice fresh leaf, unable to crumble, rubbery etc)
- When will a new crop of fresh tea will be available.
- You can also ask about any terms or info you do not understand on the website.
If you get clear and helpful answer, then this is a good indication that the company and its employees know their business, and tea, well.
Buying Tea at a Store
When buying tea at a physical shop, you will have the advantage that you can ask to see inside one of boxes. If the tea is in a clear packet you can gain an idea of its freshness by looking at it. However if it is in sealed packets or tins, then another good indication is the condition of the tea stand, and its boxes and containers. If they are dusty and battered looking, then the tea is probably old and stale. However if the stand looks well tended and the boxes look new and clean, then the tea may by fairly fresh.
If a shop has a limited range of teas, but the sales person is knowledgeable about them, then this is also a good indication that the tea is of reasonable quality. If however there is no one that can tell you about the teas, and the display seems dusty, then there is a high chance that the stock is not moving and that the tea may be old.
Choosing a Make or Brand of Tea
According to tea experts, it is very rare that a large corporate brand will consistently supply good quality tea. This is because tea often differs by batch, and large scale companies usually work too much in mass to inspect all of the tea which they buy and package. Additionally, top quality tea is usually produced by small scale producers, who do not make enough to sell to big brands.
For this reason it is better to go with teas which are bought in bulk by independent tea merchants and packaged under their name.
Better yet, if you can purchase teas from small scale initiatives which supply directly from source, then this will probably be the best quality of tea.
Some Surefire Top Quality Types of Tea
Although the tea space is flooded with poor quality tea – often marketed and sold as high quality tea – there are some tea types which if bought from reputables places, will definitely be of superior quality.
Gyokuro is a very high quality Japanese green tea. It is grown in the shade, which increases its caffeine content and flavor. It is expensive, but one of the best teas you can buy.
White Hair Silver Needle Tea
White hair silver needle tea is a super high quality white tea. Although it is of very high quality, it is surprisingly affordable.
Big Red Robe Tea
Big red robe tea is the best quality oolong tea available.
Golden Monkey Tea
Golden monkey tea is highest quality of black tea you can buy. It is made using only the young buds of the sinensis plant. It is rare, but has not become too popular in western areas yet, so is still relatively affordable.
Good Places to Buy Quality Tea Online
For most of us these days it is easiest to buy things which are not at the local grocer, online. When it comes to tea however, shopping online is not quite as easy. Amazon for example has a huge selections of teas, but if you are looking for fine quality tea,this can actually complicate matters as most of the brands are not of good quality.
Here is a list of a couple of alternative online shops where you can get good quality tea.
Art of Tea
Art of Tea sells good quality tea, of many varieties, and at good prices. There are some sites which stock even higher qualities of certain teas. However Art of Tea offers the best prices for good teas, and you can rely on them for quality, no matter which tea type you are buying.
Art of Tea also sells samples of their tea. So you can purchase a small amount for just a few dollars. You can then try it out, and if you are happy, then order a larger amount.
Teavivre is another reputable online store. They stock and sell a high quality of tea. Their prices are fairly high, however the tea is of excellent quality and not a rip off by any means. Teavivre also offers sample sizes of teas so that you can test out the tea before making a large purchase.
Once drawback to Teavivre is that they only stock Chinese teas.
Mighty Leaf Tea
Mighty Leaf Tea is a similar site to Art of Tea. They offer top quality teas from all over, and do not restrict their merchadise to Chinese teas. They do not however offer tea in samples sizes.
Generation Tea is slightly less ‘pretty’ website than the ones mentioned above. However they sell the highest quality of Chinese teas available outside of China.
Silver Leaf Tea
Silver Leaf Tea is another online tea shop with a old fashioned looking website. They sell medium to good quality tea, and have some of the best prices for tea outside of Asia. This makes their tea, although not of ultra top top quality, some of the best in terms of value for money.
If you want large amounts of fairly good tea, at very reasonable prices then this site is a good option.
Amazon stocks a large range of teas, and is a convenient place for most people to buy tea. They do not however stock much top quality tea. So if you are looking for fine quality tea you may be better off using one of the above websites. If however you are not so interested in top quality, and just wish to try out different teas, then Amazon is a good place to start. Their teas are mostly quite affordable, and they are of course easy and convenient to use.
And there you have it! If you were wondering where and how to begin finding top quality teas, then after this guide you will have an idea of what to look for, what to avoid, and some places to start!
There is a lot of bad tea out there, selling for high prices. So beware of over marketed low quality merchandise. However once you know what good tea looks like, you will not be easily fooled by expensive low quality tea. Especially if you do a little research into the supplier and their website.
Much of the tea sold today is of such low quality that traditionally it would not even be considered tea! This situation is made possible by lack of information on the customer’s part as to what is good tea, and what is actually dregs of the manufacturing process.
So, if you are a friend and fan of good tea, share this article with your friends. So that they too can know what good tea is.
Goodluck with the tea purchasing, and – once you get it – happy brewing. : )