15 January 2012

What tells YOU that a tea is worth buying?

My recent tea inventory led to panic (not enough!), then to a frantic pursuit of more product.  Storing tea for my retirement…it’s not too early to think about the future, especially with green pu’ers that need to mature.

I’m continuously curious about what other tea lovers are buying, wanting to buy, and most importantly, what they’re currently enjoying.  Many tea lovers have particular tastes and search for favorite teas that roughly fit their list of requirements (myself included).  Tea enthusiasts read about what’s popular, try them, and either add to their collection or blast them in their reviews.  My non-scientific “research” shows that review blogs and posts consistently get the highest page views, leading me to assume that buying trends for certain types of tea follow the preferences of the more popular review blogs (not uncommon in any interest group/product) and that many enthusiasts are both trying to learn about new products to acquire as well as to validate their own thoughts about a certain tea.  I rarely review teas, so the fact that I have managed to maintain your attention thus far, dear reader, is something that I am quite grateful for!

I grew up drinking Ten Ren, restaurant tea and various gift teas from Asia.  We had old pu’er at home (until I drank it all) that stayed intact only because no one wanted to drink it for 20+ years; its popularity as something to savor is relatively recent.  I randomly share various samples of my tea – both the rare and the very common – with anyone I sit down to drink tea with wherever I happen to be and I will tell you that no one I’ve had tea with is always right about the particulars of what we’re drinking, nor do people usually agree on all of the flavor notes they taste, the aromas they detect, or their preference for the brew.  Differences in opinion shouldn’t offend most people (though the sometimes heated debates online might seem otherwise), unless, unfortunately, you made the tea.  It can happen with retailers that custom-press their own pu’er, for example.  The staff of just such a retailer told me that it makes them reconsider their profession every time they read or hear about a bad review, though they remind themselves not to take it so personally.  Several years ago, I finished the roast on a summer Dong Ding that I sent to a friend to distribute as “educational” samples from his shop.  My friend emailed me earlier this week and said that one of his customers randomly brought a sample of that tea in (with my label on the vacuum pack!) and said the tea tasted a bit like – no joke – goat’s milk.  Goat’s milk oolong is a rather unique taste identifier that I use, so it was no surprise to learn that my friend’s customer learned about it from this blog.  Sigh…and ouch.

In my most recent quest for tea to buy, I decided to add more “cheap tea;” I need the quantity for long-term storage.  I bought a lot of good value stuff (low price, lots of potential, needs patience), high price/good taste, and then just OK, everyday tea.  With few exceptions among even fewer blogs, I don’t agree with tea reviews online, especially when it comes to oolongs and green pu’er. 

So what makes a tea worth buying?  Good value can be tasty tea that is well-priced.  What is well-priced?  Harder to pin down.  I subordinate pricing to personal preference, so I’m not especially focused on getting good product at the lowest price (though of course, that doesn’t mean I enjoy buying expensive crap).  If the tea is very good and not easy to obtain, I accept that I may have to pay more for it.  There is also a limit to how much time I want to spend searching for and trying samples until I find the right one, though the process itself is fun.  I look for tea specialists that I like, trust, can learn useful info from and consistently have product that I enjoy.  It does require that at some point I explore parts of Asia with a giant bag (to fill with tea samples) and a giant lunch bag (full of snacks to soak up the tea in my stomach) until I find something that suits my needs.  Those initial encounters were the original inspiration for this blog, though there are many older stories that have yet to be told.  For everyday teas, good is good enough and I can drink an affordable oolong (the Four Seasons varietal is cheap in Taiwan and pleasant enough).  But as I find myself having less free time to enjoy a brew, I especially appreciate a session with a solidly good tea for which good-enough won’t do and for which value is not a priority. 

With most of my posts, I sign off by saying drink good tea and enrich your life.  Good is whatever you think is good at the time you enjoy it, and I hope it adds to your life by way of the friendship that comes from sharing a brew, the clarity of mind you may receive from contemplation, or the internal harmony you may experience. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.


  1. I think tea is one of the world's most affordable luxuries, so I invest in the loose leaf variety. Personal preference is important, and I find that what I buy changes over time. I like companies that offer sample sizes - so I can buy small quantities to determine if I like it before taking the plunge. Happy Chinese New Year!

  2. Thanks Steph, Happy New Year to you as well!

  3. I've thought a lot about this. It's interesting from the point of view of someone buying tea to supply to others. There's not only one's own perceived value and preferences, there's also those of your customers, and making the wrong decision has larger consequences, both in value and quantity of tea but also with effect to your business and reputation. The online communities tend to be less forgiving than people who can sit down and drink the tea with you before they buy it.

    I've found caution to be one of the best approaches. Buying a little then drinking it over time, to stock up with more later. This has allowed me to avoid some expensive mistakes & sitting at home, with a quiet mind and known parameters is definitely the best way to get to know a tea.

    Sometimes this ideal approach isn't possible and decisions have to be made on the spot. Often these decisions turn out well and the tea is good, sometimes not so good. I have stock of several teas at home that I've bought and didn't feel comfortable about selling. Not that the tea is bad, but just not up to the standard I'd like to sell. It gets relegated to the "store it and see" section on my shelves. Perhaps it will turn out ok, perhaps not.

    With Puerh and Oolong, it's easier to adopt this approach. With green teas - it's difficult. There's almost a race to sell it while it's fresh. I've dabbled a little for our teahouse, but I think in general, I'll stay well out of that game.

    I'm back in Asia at the moment. Have just woken up and am off to fill up my snack bag for the day of tea drinking ahead!

    Thanks for your writings, yours is one of the few blogs I read regularly & am always happy to see a new post.

  4. Nada, thanks for stopping by, I truly appreciate your thoughtful comment and continued support...it means a lot to me coming from such a knowledgeable and sincere tea lover! Coincidentally, a tea friend was sharing your 70s Da Ye loose leaf with me just a few days ago...very tasty. I still consider some of your contemporary artisan Wuyi to be the best around...though its limited nature doesn't afford me the ability to have it nearly as often as I'd like.

    The difficult nature of tea buying/sourcing is something that consumers rarely get a glimpse of. Hoffman's "All in this tea" offers interesting and unique insight into his tea buying, but I know first-hand that - as you allude to - tea buying is not so simple or straight-forward as counting on serendipity to guide one to the best farmer/tea/experience (though we've no doubt had some wonderful experiences that way). Subordinating our own preferences to that of the consumer, predicting how the tea will change over the course of a season and anticipating quantity...the business of selling tea has many challenges. Leftover product = money lost, we can just hope they will age nicely and sell for a profit in the years to come?!?

    The online community can be quick to either write-off or follow tea trends. I've been reading that this past winter was a bad season for tea; several retailers have said that this perception has affected their oolong sales. I tried an Alishan last month, for example, that is excellent. Actually sitting down and having tea with the retailer that has spent so much time sourcing it can be crucial to maximizing one's enjoyment of the brew. I've been hoping that some retailers can maybe do live web -based video chats/conferencing to talk to their customers about their newest products and demonstrate ideal brewing conditions for the more finicky brews...I'm sure someone will do something like that soon. It's no substitute for face-to-face time, but could be the next best thing.

    All the best with your tea travels, looking forward to seeing what you bring back. If you come across a solid, aged Charcoal Dong Ding, please think of us DD lovers!


  5. Good morning Rich,
    I wanted to thank you for that really nice Liu Baa Cha sample you gave me!!
    Maybe see ya this Wed or Thu?


  6. Hi Rich,
    When I was living in Taipei (just returned to the USA) I bought a great 10-year roasted DD that I've since been drinking, and a 27 year old San Lin Xi at another place I've yet to open. That shop was full of interested aged oolongs.

  7. Hi Rich,

    I've recently started reading tea blogs, and am very glad that I came across yours. First, you are a passionate tea lover, and really know a lot about tea. Secondly, you live in Seattle ^_^ I am a tea lover as well, I enjoy oolong and puer the most. Hope we can get together and talk tea some time.


  8. Hey Nick, good to hear from ya. 27 year old San Lin Xi? Sounds like it might be a real treat!

    Zolu, thanks for dropping by. Would love to have tea with you sometime. Do you live in the Seattle area?