Tea Primer Part 5 : A Guide to Buying Quality Tea

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.

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Part 1 : Black and Oolong Teas

Part 2 : Green, White and Herbal Teas

Part 3 : Tea Brewing Basics

Part 4 : How to Brew a Perfect Cup of Tea

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.

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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.

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Visual Cues

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.

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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.

Adagio (adagio.com)

Aiya (aiya-america.com)

Art of Tea (artoftea.com)

Betjeman & Barton (betjemanandbarton.com)

Kusmi (kusmitea.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.

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44 Comments

  • monkeytoe: I like many of your retailers and am also fond of http://www.teaspring.com/ for Chinese teas. I am in Miami, now, but back when I lived near Chicago I loved to go to http://www.teagschwendner.com/US/en/Locations.TG browse and the marvelous http://www.dreamabouttea.com/ to relax with a cup. If you find yourself in Paris Maison des trois thes is also outstanding. February 6, 2013 at 9:20am Reply

    • Andy: Thank you so much for your recommendations! I have never heard of Tea Spring before but I just looked at their website, and I like that they specialize in Chinese teas. I might be in Chicago briefly this summer, so I’ll have to check those others out while I’m there! February 6, 2013 at 6:50pm Reply

  • Barbara: Since you’ve started this primer, my tea collection grew from 2 tins to 11! I ordered based on your recs and was very pleased with Upton’s customer service. My package arrived missing one of the teas I ordered and not only they replaced it asap, they added a whole bunch of tea samples. February 6, 2013 at 9:29am Reply

    • Andy: It’s so great to hear that you’ve been expanding your tea collection with the help of this series! I hope you’ve been enjoying your teas—it certainly sounds like you have. I agree, Upton is a great company, with excellent service. I like that level of service when I shop for tea in person, and it’s certainly nice to see it in an online business as well. February 6, 2013 at 6:56pm Reply

  • Lauren: I like David’s Tea, based in Canada, which I discovered while living in NYC. The genmaicha from Shizuoka prefecture in Japan is really delicious. February 6, 2013 at 10:33am Reply

    • Andy: I’m not familiar with David’s Tea, but that Genmaicha sounds delicious. Thanks for the recommendation! February 6, 2013 at 6:58pm Reply

  • Jenna: I’m in London, don’t know if they ship outside of the UK, but Yumchaa Teas in Soho is my favourite. They have a nice cafe + tea shop.

    http://www.yumchaa.com/ February 6, 2013 at 10:39am Reply

    • Andy: I just looked at Yumchaa, and I absolutely love the fanciful descriptions on their website, regarding when their teas should be drunk. My favorite description was the one for their Notting Hill Black tea: “Drink When : Dancing with parrots.” Pure fun! 🙂 February 6, 2013 at 7:09pm Reply

  • columbine: Dammann frères make excellent tea as well. they used to be served only at cafés but they have their own shop now February 6, 2013 at 11:13am Reply

    • Austenfan: I second this. I had some Damman tea about a year ago in a salon de thé in Ypres. It was lovely. February 6, 2013 at 11:50am Reply

      • Claire: Must chime in for Dammann Freres! A local tea shop here used to carry them, sadly the tea shop is no longer open. There are a few places online that carry them. I like their flavored black teas a lot. February 6, 2013 at 10:58pm Reply

    • Andy: Thank you for the recommendation for Dammann Frères tea! I’ve never heard of this one but it sounds interesting! February 6, 2013 at 7:14pm Reply

  • Anne Sheffield: I love love love Mariage Freres teas. And when I was living in the States, I used to really live Mighty Leaf teas. They have a great selection, and most of them are organic, which i generally prefer for teas ( no pesticide), and which is not the case of Mariage teas.
    Mightyleaf.com
    Lors of love, and happy tea.
    Anne February 6, 2013 at 11:22am Reply

    • Andy: Thank’s for your reccomendations, Anne. I’m going to have to try Mariage Frères teas sometime soon. I’ve heard nothing but the best about them from you and others, so I think it will be my next splurge, to try their teas out. Mighty Leaf is very good, I agree! I’ve had a couple of their teas and liked them a lot. February 6, 2013 at 7:22pm Reply

  • iodine: I have the happy chance of living in a neighbourhood full of quality tea shops, in Milan. Just a few meters from my house there’s one selling mostly Mariage Fréres and reading your article I just recalled that there’s a new one, selling Betjeman and Barton a few blocks away that I still have to visit…. I’ll finish my excellent Opium Tahilandese Oolong and go peeking! February 6, 2013 at 11:43am Reply

    • Austenfan: I like Betjeman and Barton. They have a much smaller selection than MF, but some really good teas in it.
      My favourite of theirs is Yunnan Jin Meo.
      Another really nice flavoured one is called Paris s’éveille. February 6, 2013 at 11:54am Reply

    • Andy: Your neighborhood sounds like the kind of place I’d love to live in! Lots of tea shops and all nearby! It truly is very nice when you can buy in store as opposed to online. At least for me, the shopping is a part of the fun, and I just don’t get that same rush when I buy online. February 6, 2013 at 7:26pm Reply

  • Austenfan: What a lovely post on my favourite beverage! I usually prefer buying tea to buying perfume as the shop assistants seem much better informed.
    Your list includes my 3 favourites: Betjeman&Barton, Mariage Frères and Le Palais des Thés.
    I get most of my teas from them but will also buy from Theemaas, a nice shop in Rotterdam. I don’t know if they will ship abroad though.
    Unami and La 7me Tasse, both in Brussels are also highly recommended! February 6, 2013 at 12:14pm Reply

    • Andy: I couldn’t agree more about the shop assistants—part of the reason I like shopping in stores for tea so much is because the employees tend to be so knowledgeable. It is refreshing to see a business where the staff is so well informed about the products being sold.

      And if I’m ever in Brussels, I’ll definitely have to take your recommendations! February 6, 2013 at 7:34pm Reply

  • TheSnailsPajamas: My favourites are from Kusmi, Mariage Freres and Fortnum and Mason. My preference tends to be towards earl grey or russian caravan blends – right now the ones I keep reaching for are MF earl grey provence and earl grey french blue, and F&M russian caravan. February 6, 2013 at 12:47pm Reply

    • Andy: I’ve been gravitating towards Earl Grey a lot too, lately. It’s perfect for those mornings that need a little kick to get off to the right start. I’ve been enjoying Le Palais des Thés Blue of London lately. A nice, well-balanced Earl Grey. The Earl Grey French Blue you mention also sounds very good, from the descriptions I’ve read. I’ll have to check out Fortnum and Mason February 6, 2013 at 7:39pm Reply

      • Austenfan: Earl Grey of London is gorgeous. A very mellow Earl Grey. Have you tried their Thé des Lords yet? Crisper and more “bergamoty”. February 7, 2013 at 7:50am Reply

        • Andy: Yes, I have tried Thé des Lords. I didn’t like it as much as Blue of London, but I found it to be a good Earl Grey nonetheless. I was really smitten by Blue of London’s mellow lightness. The bergamot tastes so fresh, and I think it is really an exquisite tea. I know you had also mentioned that you like Thé des Moines, and I agree that it is excellent, with that beautiful floral undercurrent that complements the tea so well. February 7, 2013 at 4:29pm Reply

          • Austenfan: Try the Thé des Moines this summer as iced tea it tastes even better. I drank it like that quite a lot last summer. I used cold water to make my iced tea.
            I see your point about the Blue versus des Lords. February 8, 2013 at 1:16pm Reply

            • Andy: Thanks for the tip! I’ll make sure to try Thé des Moines as an iced tea! February 8, 2013 at 4:07pm Reply

            • Victoria: I agree with Austenfan! I liked Thé des Moines just fine when I brewed it hot, but it made the most fantastic iced tea. I once mixed a strong brew into some cold peach juice for a light, non-alcoholic cocktail. February 9, 2013 at 6:01am Reply

              • Andy: You know, with two recommendations for the iced tea, I think I’ll have to make myself a glass now, and not wait until summer! February 9, 2013 at 8:40am Reply

  • Joanna: Rishi is one of my favorites. Their silver needle jasmine is divine (just had it this morning). February 6, 2013 at 2:40pm Reply

    • Andy: I like Rishi a lot too. I find their selection to be a well-edited one, and of course a high quality one too. I would really like to try that jasmine silver you’ve described. In general, I think jasmine white teas are outstanding! February 6, 2013 at 7:42pm Reply

  • paola: Try also http://www.laviadelte.com
    I find they have very good quality teas. February 6, 2013 at 3:42pm Reply

    • Andy: Thanks for the recommendation! February 7, 2013 at 5:39am Reply

  • Claire: I’m so happy to see yet another installment about tea — wonderful article, Andy! Great list of tea resources, too. Speaking of tea qualities, I think there’s a place for something that is considered a lower quality tea that may be not as desirable to drink: baking! For e.g. earl grey tea with lots of small fragments (which is otherwise too bitter to drink) makes the best sable/shortbread steeped in cream. Some asian stew recipe also involves tea leaves. In any case, I think it is wonderful that so many pleasures can be derived from such a simple plant. That is the magic of tea! February 6, 2013 at 11:06pm Reply

    • Andy: That is a great point! Lower quality tea is perfect for cooking and baking. I have made a shortbread that sounds like the one you have described, with the earl grey leaves baked into it, and I liked it a lot. it was the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea. And I agree, it is amazing how many uses can be found for tea—it is truly magical February 7, 2013 at 4:46pm Reply

  • mucuna: I am learning more and more about tea as I am now drinking more everyday. Mariage Freres has a coffee table book about french art of tea with detailed stories about the founding and development of the brand and the search of world’s most exceptional tea. It is beautifully written with full colour pictures of tea leaves. So it is a good reference of learning how to visually check tea. Their service and tea are both excellent when I shopped in Tokyo.
    TWG tea is also another brand I rely on. Their white teas are really exceptional. The brand doesn’t have a long history. But the aged look and the year 1837 on their logo gave a false impression that the company was founded long ago. I watched their promo on Singapore TV, the host has a guessing game of 10 teas that should be matched to the dollar signs per 100g! What an idea! Of course the 2 young people got them all wrong. I don’t think anyone will match right when everything should equal money! But that is what the brand is selling: luxury, it just happened to be tea, could be something else the next day.
    David’s tea and teavana are 2 other ones that I go in to have a tea to go. Nothing really screams quality but they are hip and upbeat. The fruit blends are popular and seems to be in everything they carry. I tried a lot of them and finally now just settle with the one an only Darjeeling.
    This Summer, I will go to Mariage Freres in Tokyo to try the lunch dishes infused with tea and hopefully learn how to cook with tea leaves. February 6, 2013 at 11:46pm Reply

    • Andy: Thank you for the recommendations! I really must try Mariage Frères sometime soon. It is a dream of mine to someday dine at one of the Mariage Frères restaurants, as their entire concept of offering dishes all containing tea in some form or another fascinates me. So I hope your experience this summer is as wonderful as I imagine it must be! The coffee table book also sounds very nice, like the sort of thing that it would be great to flip through while drinking a cup of tea. February 7, 2013 at 10:31pm Reply

  • JulienFromDijon: “The most important consideration when buying tea, as far as I’m concerned, is that the experience is enjoyable.”
    You coined it, I don’t buy often tea, but I always get a very uplifting sensation throughout the day from it.

    More funnily, when you’re used to buy perfumes, tea is such a bargain! You get many “tea perfumes” for a quarter price of a 100ml bottle!

    One perfume-related topic, that could inspire your next post :
    What about aromachemicals in nowadays tea?

    For example, I suspect “palais des thés” to include some. I detect it the same way as for perfume, more constant monotonous flavor/odor, that gives bones to a blend, but can turn tiresome.
    Apart from “palais des thés”, that are really good, I almost always end up buying bio tea in tea shop. Even at the good ones I loved in Germany.

    My favorite tea are jasmine tea, earl gray, chaï tea (added with milk and sugar), maroccan mink tea on daily basis.
    It’s hard for me to warm up to yunnan green tea (cow poop?), or smoked lapsang souchong (bitting wood furniture?).
    My favorite weird tea is “lotus tea”, a vietnamese tea flavored with the stamen of the plant. It smells like… oh… rose, and myrrh, and smooth comforting bitterness.
    It reminds me a lot of “la myrrhe” from Lutens. February 9, 2013 at 8:36am Reply

    • mucuna: I recently bought a herbal tea which is from Vietnam too. Mangosteen tea sweetened with stevia. The taste is even stranger than the lotus tea. February 9, 2013 at 10:59am Reply

    • Andy: You are absolutely right, tea really is a bargain next to almost any perfume! The aromachemicals used to flavor tea are definately of interest to me, but unfortunately, just as the fragrance industry is concerned with the proprietary nature of their formulas, the flavor industry (which is run by many of the same firms that compose fragrances) is similarly secretive. So I haven’t been able to find much out about it. I agree, though, that I detect many of the same aromachemicals in flavored teas, as many seem to posess a similar floral-friuty flavor undercurrent that’s I find a little hard to put my finger on. I once had some lotus scented green tea, and I too found it exotic and intoxicating. I’ve never smelled La Myrrhe, but knowing myrrh, I can imagine how the spicy scent of myrrh might compare to that of lotus. February 9, 2013 at 7:06pm Reply

  • AndreaR: People are requesting fragrances in anticipation of spring, but I need a tea recommendation. Spring is peeking through here in the Pacific NW with crocuses, daffodils and robins, so I think it’s time to put away my heartier breakfast teas and move into something that reflects the longer days and the warmer weather, although it does need to stand up to the grey skies that will continue to linger.

    What do you suggest? March 15, 2013 at 12:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: Andy is away at the moment, but when he returns, I will ask him the same question. I already crave something spring like in my tea cup. March 22, 2013 at 11:32am Reply

    • mucuna: TWG carries the Green tea or White tea with sakura blossoms. But I always go back to Mariage Freres Tea Violette. March 22, 2013 at 12:52pm Reply

  • JLee: I noticed from some of your pictures that the Japanese teas you were using are from Ippodo. How do you like their teas?

    I had a chance to visit their shop in Kyoto last May for the Shincha (new leaf) tea. The aroma from those fresh, first flush tea leaves of spring are amazing! February 3, 2014 at 11:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like their teas very much, and I’ve tried several. The quality is invariably impressive. I’m so envious that you had a chance to visit the boutique in Kyoto. February 9, 2014 at 11:34am Reply

  • laura: I recently bought some ten ren tea in San Francisco’s chinatown. How can I find out if this tea contains pesticides? August 25, 2015 at 2:26pm Reply

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