Growing interest in and demand for good quality specialty teas over the past decade or so has led to an increased availability of a wider range of products. Consumers have a choice of four main sources—specialist retailers, selected major stores (some supermarkets and quality department stores), mail-order companies, and the Internet. The only way to judge the quality of the products on offer is to try them. If you like the quality of what you buy, go back for more; if not, be sure to change your supplier.
Good retailers store loose leaf teas in large airtight caddies and sell them by weight to their customers’ requirements. They may also prepack set quantities into caddies and packages for speed of purchase and to offer a choice of gift packs. A quality store will know what it is selling and should be able to answer your questions. You should be able to buy as much or as little as you want and, if using a store for the first time, buy only a small quantity—as little as 2 ounces if you want. Only when you are sure that the tea is to your taste should you buy in larger quantities. Even then, because tea dries out more quickly when stored in small tins, buy little and often rather than risk having larger quantities spoil at home.
Ask to see the tea before you buy. The dry leaves should have an even, pleasant appearance with particles of roughly the same size. The leaf should be glossy rather than dull and there should be no pieces of twig or stalk mixed in with the leaves. When the leaves are brewed, the infusion should be clear. Black teas should give a bright, reddish infusion; oolongs generally give an orangy-brown to dark brown brew, and the liquor from green teas should be pale yellowish-green. Good quality teas never give dull muddy liquors.
The taste should be smooth and fresh and for green teas, very light. Any tainting, mustiness, lifelessness, or strong flavors that you would not normally associate with tea usually indicate careless handling or storage, or contamination at some stage along the journey from bush to cup.
Quality Supermarkets and Department Stores
These are less likely to offer a good range of specialty teas probably only sell teas in set quantities in prepacked boxes, caddies, and packages. However, reputable companies should be a reliable source of good quality teas, so if you are not satisfied with your purchase, take it back, and explain the problem. If you find you have bought a tea that you simply do not like, do not just leave it sitting on the shelf in the store cupboard to go stale. Give it away--someone you know is bound to enjoy it.
The number of these is increasing rapidly especially since the commercial launch of the Internet in I995, which has provided the comsumer with easy online access to a wide variety of teas. It is worth trying different teas from different companies until you find a supplier and a selection of teas you really like. The problem with small companies selling single-source specialty teas is that they almost certainly have to buy in bulk from the brokers or gardens, and only self very small quantities of each to their customers, so there is always a risk of the tea going off before it has all been sold. Be careful, order the smallest available quantity until you are sure of quality and reliability, and again, if are not satisfied, change your supplier.
Once you have bought your tea it is important to look after it carefully. Store it in an airtight caddy (not made of glass) in a cool, dry place, away from any strong-smelling foods, since tea absorbs other flavors.
Choosing What to Buy
Because there are so many different types of tea available, individual choice must depend totally on personal taste and preference. Those people who like a very light tea that is low in caffeine and has a mild taste should choose white or oolong teas; those who enjoy the aromatic herb-like refreshing qualities of green tea should buy Japanese and China green teas; drinkers of black teas will be aware of the differences between the lighter subtlely of whole leaf teas from China, the stronger darker infusions brewed from broken leaf teas and dust grades, and the robust, quick-brewing teas infused from CTC teas.
When buying tea, the purchaser needs to be aware of grading terminology in order to choose the best tea from a particular garden or area. For example, when choosing a Second Flush Darjeeling, Margaret's Hope FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) whole leaf grade will be better quality than Margaret's Hope broken grade TGBOP (Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe).
A good retailer or mail-order company should be able to explain the differences between the teas they offer and advise customers according to personal preference. The customer may not always have a particularly wide choice but must assume that each company's tea buyer will have selected the best of the teas produced by a particular garden or region.
When buying tea and tea sets from China, again the customer should rest assured that the tea buyer has selected the best from what is made available by the different producing provinces. If tea connoisseurs are ever fortunate enough to travel to the tea producing areas of the world, they may have the opportunity to taste teas that others have never had the chance to try.