Whenever we decide to savor something, we prepare ourselves for enjoyment. We relax, slow down, and cast aside our worldly cares in favor of finding pleasure in what we are about to experience. As a result, no matter what we decide to savor, it is a most disappointing feeling when quality lets us down—the moment when the tea tastes flat, the perfume smells lifeless, and we are left unsatisfied.
Of course, quality is not only an important consideration when discussing perfume, but also tea, which can vary greatly from company to company. In the case of perfume, a skillfully created fragrance that is composed of a few simple, inexpensive ingredients may not necessarily smell worse than a complex formula filled with costly flower absolutes and other precious raw materials. However, in the case of tea, one major difference is that the tea we buy is the raw material, and as long as the tea is brewed properly, the quality of the tea leaf can often be directly related to the quality of our tea drinking experience.
Smell, Touch, Taste
When shopping for tea for the first time, the abundant variety can seem confusing and intimidating. That is why one great advantage to shopping at tea shops, as opposed to online, is that staff are generally very helpful and knowledgeable, and are very willing to answer any questions you may have. A description of a tea on a website can only go so far when you are trying to decide if you will like a tea or not. In a shop, you can take your time smelling, touching, and using your sensory intuition to assess a tea’s quality firsthand, which not only will help you to become familiar with the variety of teas available, but is also more likely to help you make a surprise discovery that you otherwise might have missed shopping online.
Follow Your Nose
When shopping in a tea store, it is best to approach the counter with the confidence to be able to tell a high quality tea from a low quality one, because you may not always be familiar with the type of tea you are being shown. To assess a tea’s quality, your nose is, hands down, the best guide. Before you even take a good look at the tea or ask a salesperson any questions, I recommend inhaling deeply and getting a first impression. Just like when shopping at the fragrance counter, it is important to not rush into a purchase.
The first tea you sniff might smell amazing, but it is often a good idea to ask to smell a few similar teas, as a point of comparison, before deciding to purchase. A rich natural aroma indicates that a tea contains a lot of the delicate volatile compounds that are responsible for flavor as well as scent, so a highly fragrant tea is most likely to also be a highly flavorful one. In addition, a strong aroma is an indicator of freshness, as the volatile compounds present in tea leaves are most concentrated when the tea is fresh. At tea shops, it is common practice to allow customers to smell tea before buying, so don’t be afraid to take your time and enjoy the scents that come your way.
After you have smelled each tea, you can then visually assess the quality by looking at the tea leaves. At the plantation, tea leaves are graded and separated by size, with larger, more intact leaves considered to be of a higher quality than smaller, broken pieces. This is often reflected in the price of the tea, as, in most cases, a tea plantation will sell fannings and dust, the very smallest, lowest grade of tea leaves, to teabag manufacturers, while they reserve the highest grades for sale to companies that sell luxury loose leaf teas.
A tea of any size grade can be perfectly delicious, but teas that are of a higher grade will retain their freshness far longer than those of lower grades, which translates into a major difference in flavor. Look for pieces that are of a uniform size. If the tea is rolled into small pearls or pellet-like shapes, as is the case with some green and oolong teas, look for leaves that seem to be tightly rolled. A slightly glossy sheen, though not always present, indicates that the leaves are fresh and have been handled minimally during their processing. Some teas, most often oolongs, may be twisted into long, thin strands. Look to see that the strands appear intact, as this also is a sign of careful processing and gentle handling.
Enjoying the Experience
Armed with all this knowledge, you will be able to approach the tea counter with the confidence and discernment to make the very best purchase possible. The most important consideration when buying tea, as far as I’m concerned, is that the experience is enjoyable. When I buy tea, I value the ability to slow down and enjoy the entire experience of choosing, smelling and assessing the tea I am about to buy, and value knowledgeable staff and a personalized experience. Ultimately, the most important thing about shopping for tea, or anything you value for that matter, is that you have a chance to enjoy the experience, so that you can find quality products that you will be able to savor fully.
Listed below are some of my favorite international tea companies. Many of you have also rated these suppliers highly in your comments to the Tea Primer, noting the high quality of their teas and good service. This is not an exhaustive list, so please let me know your other favorites.
Art of Tea (artoftea.com)
Betjeman & Barton (betjemanandbarton.com)
Le Palais des Thés (us.palaisdesthes.com)
Mariage Frères (mariagefreres.com)
Rishi Tea (rishi-tea.com)
Ten Ren (tenren.com)
Upton Tea Imports (uptontea.com)
Photography by Andy Gerber.